Loretta Sanchez

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange). (Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Phil Willon, Jazmine Ulloa
July 22, 2016

Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez said in an interview with a Spanish-language television station that she believes President Obama may have endorsed rival Kamala Harris in California’s U.S. Senate race because they are both black, injecting a dose of racial politics into a historic contest that in November will elect the state’s first African American or Latino senator.

Sanchez made the comment during a taped interview for public affairs show “Conexión” that aired Friday on Univision 19 in Sacramento. The remarks follow a blistering statement Sanchez issued after the endorsement earlier this week, accusing the president of being part of the nation’s “entrenched political establishment.”

In the interview, the congresswoman noted that Obama and Harris have been longtime friends, but said that race was also a factor in his endorsement:

“I think they have, what he said they have, is a friendship of many years. She is African American, as is he. They know each other through meetings,” Sanchez said in Spanish during the interview.

Harris is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. She is the highest-ranking black politician in California and could become the second black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. President Obama is the first African American president in U.S. history.

“At a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric flowing through our politics, it’s especially disappointing to see a Democratic member of Congress make those comments,” Juan Rodriguez, Harris’ campaign manager, said of Sanchez’s interview.

Through a spokesperson, Sanchez released a statement Friday night about her views on the endorsement.

“In no way did I imply or intend to imply that President Obama endorsed Kamala Harris for racial reasons,” Sanchez said. “I was stating the fact that the endorsement was based on their long-term political relationship.”

The remark by the congresswoman, who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, could prove problematic to her uphill campaign against Harris, especially following a string of earlier gaffes that angered Native Americans and Muslims.

Sanchez’s off-the-cuff style was once thought to be a potential advantage in an era dominated by scripted politicians. But this latest incident could cause unwanted political heartburn for Sanchez in a state as diverse and left-leaning as California — and at a time of heightened racial tensions nationwide.

Among the estimated 39 million Californians, African Americans account for 6.5% of the population, compared with 73% who are white and 15% who are Asian, according to the U.S. Census. Latinos, who may be of different races, account for 38.8% of Californians.

Amid the series of fatal confrontations between police and African American men over the last month, Harris has embraced her role as California’s most influential black politician. She repeatedly and very publicly said that as a black woman she is well aware of the discrimination, racial profiling and unjustified police traffic stops that her relatives, friends and colleagues face even today.

Sanchez’s comment may only help Harris build on her dominating lead. Harris won the June Senate primary, beating Sanchez by more than 20% of the vote. She currently has a 3-1 edge in fundraising.

The two Democrats will face off in the November election, setting the stage for the highest-profile contest between two members of the same party since California adopted a top-two primary election system.

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