LONG BEACH, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–When Congresswoman-elect Linda Sanchez heads to Capitol Hill, she and her sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, will make history as the first sisters to serve in Congress. For both sisters, this success is not about breaking a sibling glass ceiling. It’s about the changing face of politics.
“I really hope it’s a turning point in politics,” Linda Sanchez says. “I would love tosee more women, more people of color, more working-class folks and more young people in Congress. I hope this gives people hope to run for office.”
Older sister Loretta says the sibling success story “points to a maturing of women in politics. Women are getting prepared faster . . . and running earlier
. . . and making it a career.”
Age matters because Congress puts a premium on seniority. Influential committee appointments and valuable alliances come with more years in office. This is especially important for women, says Loretta Sanchez, because traditionally they have worked their way up from local office and landed in the House later in their political careers.
Both Sanchez sisters started in Congress early. Loretta Sanchez became a congresswoman six years ago, at age 36, beating out nine-term Republican Rep. Bob Dornan in a tight race. This month, she earned a fourth term representing California’s 47th Congressional District, located in Orange County.
At 33, her sister Linda is new to elected office. She will represent California’s new 39th Congressional District, located in southeast Los Angeles County.
Politics Begins at Home
Both sisters credit Mom for their early start in politics.
“Her influence is incredibly significant,” says Loretta Sanchez, pointing to her mother’s activism on behalf of immigrant families.
Matriarch Maria Sanchez came to the United States from Mexico as a young woman. A mother of seven, she worked as a teacher’s aide while her children were in school and eventually decided to go back to school to study bilingual education. She graduated from college in her forties and has been teaching ever since.
“She’s an incredible woman,” says Linda Sanchez. “She was very involved in the local community and always taught us to stand up for what was right.”
During the primary election, Maria Sanchez appeared in a Spanish-language TV ad asking voters to elect both her daughters to Congress.
“My daughters know that education is the key to success,” she said in her appeal. “How do I know? Because I taught them.”
Though the sisters share Mom as an influence, they came to politics by different routes. Loretta Sanchez earned an MBA from American University and proceeded to a career in financial management and advising, eventually starting her own consulting business. Linda Sanchez studied law at UCLA and served as a civil rights attorney and a labor leader before deciding to run for office.
“My sister is more liberal than I. That’s definitely true,” Loretta Sanchez says. “We approach issues from a different perspective.”
She says that her experiences as a business owner and her sister’s work as a labor leader contributed to that difference. But both say it’s unlikely that political differences will affect their relationship.
“The beauty of growing up in a family of seven children is everybody had their own perspective,” Linda Sanchez says. “At the end of the day . . . it doesn’t diminish your love for your siblings.”
Family Power Fueled Early Campaign
Despite their differences, Loretta Sanchez strongly supported her younger sister during her campaign, and her backing proved important in Linda Sanchez’s primary bid. The Legislature had designed California’s new 39th District for a Latino Democrat, making for fierce competition in the primary election. Linda Sanchez faced five challengers for the Democratic nomination–three of them Latino. Loretta stepped in, lending her considerable influence and impressive donor lists to Linda’s campaign. She also traveled door to door in the new district, asking voters to support her sister.
“She happened to be my sister, but she also happened to be the better qualified candidate,” Loretta Sanchez says of her decision to back her sibling.
Critics said Linda Sanchez, a political newcomer, would not have been a viable candidate without her sister. But Karen O’Connor, director of the Washington-based Women and Politics Institute, says the accusation is unfounded–and all too typical. “This is a woman who has a great education and career,” says O’Connor. “Women are held to higher standards at every walk of life, including when reporters look at a candidate’s experience for office.”
Linda Sanchez points to her previous accomplishments as an attorney and labor leader as evidence of her qualifications for the job. Besides her upcoming role as the first sister to serve in Congress, she was also the first Latina in California history to head a county labor council in a state where unions hold considerable political clout. She says she ran for office in the 39th District because she thought she could do a better job than the other candidates.
“This isn’t something that’s been handed to me,” she says. “I’ve earned my place in Congress . . . and the tangible results of my hard work will put to bed the idea I got there because of my name.”
Getting Ready to Take on the Hill
As she prepares for her first term in Congress, Linda Sanchez says the best advice she’s received from her big sister so far is to not take criticism personally.
“You have to look beyond the critics and stay focused on what you want to achieve,” she says.
Linda Sanchez places economic opportunities, education, health care and retirement security at the top of her agenda as she heads to Congress.
“She’s got to make her own relationships, even with people who don’t like me,” Loretta Sanchez says of her younger sister’s first foray in the House. “It takes 218 votes to pass a bill, and that’s a tough thing to do.”
For her part, Loretta Sanchez has her own plans for the 108th Congress. She’s the ranking woman on the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. She plans to push a bill she introduced that will allow sole proprietors to write off insurance premiums. She’ll also be looking to pass a bill to retrain unemployed workers.
For this pair of sisters, making history is just the beginning.
Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.
For more information:
Congresswoman-elect Linda Sanchez:
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez:
Women and Politics Institute: