All Tricks, No Treats

Minutes after May's congressional voter-fraud hearing in Santa Ana, perpetually red-faced Bob Dornan worked his way around public seating, shook hands and yapped. His was the only voice that rose above two dozen other conversations. Eventually, the bitter ex-congressman saw me and hobbled over. We are not pals. After enthusiastically accusing me of committing a few felonies, Dornan turned his slime gun on Loretta Sanchez. “You know she has been sleeping around,” he said with his usual subtlety.It wasn't the first time I'd heard unsubstantiated rumors about the congresswoman's personal life. Much of the gossip is fueled by Sanchez's claim that she lives in a Garden Grove condo while her husband, Stephen Brixey, lives 30 minutes away in Palos Verdes. That point wasn't lost on Dornan's son Mark. Earlier this year, he complained about how cruel my articles had been to his family, and then–without appreciating the irony–unloaded details he said proved Sanchez's sexual promiscuity. As the so-called details (Sanchez rushed into a Washington, D.C., cab with X; Sanchez left a building late at night with Y) buzzed through local Republican Party-activist circles, it was only a matter of time before the behind-the-scenes gossip became public criticism. That time came at a September Anaheim City Council meeting with a vitriolic attack on Sanchez's advisor, Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly. Dennis Fitzgerald–who identified himself as a member of a local Knights of Columbus outfit–stood up during public comments, praised the homophobic Republican Reverend Lou Sheldon, and put the rumors into the public record. “I understand that Tom Daly left his wife and two children to shack up with Loretta Sanchez in some Garden Grove condominium,” said Fitzgerald. “Worse yet, Sanchez recently gave a $25,000 government job to Mayor Daly, so essentially, taxpayers are paying the mayor to give sex to Congresswoman Sanchez–an outrageous arrangement.” Neither Daly–who is expected to run for the Board of Supervisors next year–nor Sanchez wanted to dignify the rumors by commenting. Nevertheless, the incident was one of three in recent weeks that illustrate the rookie congresswoman's precarious political status, all of which foreshadow potential disaster next November. Sanchez was wined and dined for knocking off Dornan last year, but the glory has produced little power. High-level Democrats in Sacramento have crushed Sanchez's hope of launching a family political dynasty in the upcoming election season. In August, Linda Sanchez–Loretta's younger sister–announced plans to run in Orange County's 69th Assembly District, a seat held by near-lifeless Republican Jim Morrissey. A potential one-two Sanchez ballot punch thrilled the congresswoman so much that she predicted the two sisters would grace the cover of Time magazine if both won. The Weekly dubbed the idea “Sister Act II.”

But Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante and top Democratic strategists decided the only Sister Act they were interested in was the film series that starred Whoopi Goldberg. During a series of telephone calls from Sacramento to Orange County, Linda was pressured to drop her plans. According to sources, Bustamante and company made it clear that they were not interested in entertaining the congresswoman's fantasy and are determined to see the party unite behind Lou Correa, the 1996 nominee who lost by only 94 votes. Linda didn't dispute the pressure, but she told the Weekly she still hasn't made a “formal decision.” Some Democrats believed that a Sanchez-Sanchez ticket in the overlapping 69th Assembly and 46th Congressional districts would have effectively given the congresswoman unprecedented control over her party's election resources. But who runs in the 69th may not matter after all if Sanchez alienates her constituency. Political observers–particularly Latinos–are scratching their heads over the congresswoman's recent decision to portray Hermandad Mexicana Nacional director Nativo Lopez as a criminal with dubious loyalties. John Shallman, Sanchez's 1996 campaign manager, told the House Oversight Committee investigating the Sanchez-Dornan race that Lopez called him before the election and threatened to urge Latinos to vote for Dornan if Hermandad wasn't given money. The media-savvy Shallman said he waited 11 months to level the charge because nobody had asked him about it. Lopez called the allegation preposterous. Latino leaders said Sanchez and advisors Shallman and Wylie Aitken calculated cheap political benefits by joining Republicans in efforts to muddy Lopez. They believe Sanchez's goal was to imply that any Lopez/Hermandad-related votes could have just as easily gone to Dornan. The Sanchez camp must be under the illusion that they can afford to denigrate the most widely respected leader in Orange County's Latino community. At a public meeting last week, Aitken–who chairs the local Democratic Foundation and Sanchez's campaign committee–reportedly argued that his tactics are designed for the greater good: keeping Sanchez in office and possibly returning the House to Democratic control. But many powerful Latinos present didn't buy it and promised such theatrics would backfire. “[Aitken] thinks that he can do whatever he wants because we have nowhere else to turn–especially if Dornan runs again,” said one community leader who attended the meeting. Latino activists said Mike Farber, Lopez's close friend and advisor, challenged Aitken, calling Shallman's story an “unforgivable lie.” They said Farber told Aitken, chairman of Sanchez's re-election campaign, that it was “either Sanchez or Shallman” who would “have to pay the price” for leveling the allegation. After the meeting, Farber confirmed the incident, saying that Shallman's continued association with Sanchez “jeopardizes critical support” for her re-election. “They are fooling themselves if they don't think their little stunt was a serious miscalculation,” he said. Aitken's response to the threats is not known. He did not return telephone calls by press time. But such heated rhetoric can be backed up. Lopez has a 25-year record of unquestionable community service; he is far more popular than Sanchez, a social climber more comfortable sipping wine with Republican developers than walking working-class precincts in her Anaheim-Santa Ana district. Those who believe in and follow Lopez number in the thousands. That is why Sanchez's move may earn her the Bonehead of the Year award. Without the enthusiastic 1998 election-day support from Lopez and his compatriots, Sanchez may as well retake her Anglo married name and move back to Palos Verdes.

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