Sister Act May be First in Congress

Brother acts come along fairly often in Congress, but never sisters — so far.

Aiming to be the first, Loretta and Linda Sanchez are campaigning in neighboring Southern California districts for the Nov. 5 elections. Loretta is already a three-term congresswoman and Linda is favored to join her.

Loretta Sanchez transformed herself from a failed city council candidate to a Democratic success story when she unseated nine-term Orange County Republican Robert Dornan in 1996 in California's 47th Congressional District.

Her sister is running in the newly drawn 39th District, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, Hispanic and blue collar. It includes slivers of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The Sanchez sisters' Republican foes, both male, are Hispanic too.

"In the rest of the nation, in more homogenous areas, it might be seen as a watershed. But in California, it's the future,'' said Nancy Snow, a professor of global media and political rhetoric at California State University, Fullerton. "It's not just sisters. It's really raising the profiles of Hispanic-American women,'' she said.

But it's the sister angle that has drawn wider attention.

Loretta Sanchez, who is nine years older, played a highly visible role in her sister's primary election but has since reduced her involvement to focus on her own campaign.

During the primary, the sisters drew some criticism by linking their campaigns, which featured a Spanish-language television commercial in which their mother urged voters to support both daughters.

"I think we have so many more important issues than a cute novelty issue to deal with in this district,'' says the younger Sanchez's Republican opponent, Tim Escobar, a 36-year-old businessman and an officer in the Army National Guard.

He has labeled her an outsider who moved into the district just to run. He says, "If it wasn't for her sister, she would have no political qualifications.''

Linda Sanchez, 33, a labor attorney, says she's determined to be her own person.

"There's sort of a coming-into-my-own that's occurred,'' she said. "It's very evident we're different.''

For one thing, the congresswoman is known for a shoot-from-the-hip political style. Her sister appears more reserved, her answers to questions measured.

Loretta Sanchez has an easy road to re-election. She is opposed by Jeff Chavez, who stopped actively campaigning shortly after his March primary victory — though he has since resumed.

Brothers in Congress are not nearly as unusual. For example, the current Congress features Michigan Democrats Carl Levin in the Senate and Sander Levin in the House.

Here in California, John Burton and the late Phillip Burton, San Francisco Democrats, served together in the House for nearly 10 years during the 1970s and 1980s. John Burton is now president of the state Senate.

The Sanchez sisters are campaigning on the same core issues — education, health and the economy, including jobs for their districts.

"We were brought up with the same values,'' the congresswoman said, in a household where "working-people issues were important."