Loretta Sanchez became a symbol of the growing political power of Hispanics in the United States in 1996. That year, she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by defeating a longtime incumbent, California representative Robert Dornan.
Born in Lynwood, California, Sanchez attended Chapman University. She then earned her master’s degree in business adminis¬ tration from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1984. She returned to California and went to work as a financial analyst. In 1994, she entered politics and ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Anaheim City Council.
The area where Sanchez lived and worked— Orange County—was known for many years as one of the most politically conservative counties in the country. It was home to Disneyland and numerous middle- and upper- class suburbs, and most of its residents were white and voted Republican.
Beginning in 1984, Bob Dornan had been elected to repre¬ sent California’s Forty-sixth District, and he had been reelected five times. He was a fiery, sometimes outrageous spokesperson for the conservative values that predominated in the district. Orange County, however, underwent numerous changes during the 1980s and 1990s.
As more immigrants entered southern California, Hispanics surpassed whites as the majority ethnic population in the county. It was no longer the white, Republican strong¬ hold it had once been. By the mid-1990s, Democrats had an 8-percent advantage over Republicans in the number of registered voters.
In 1996, Sanchez, a young businesswoman with minimal political experience, ran as a Democrat against Dornan in the general elec¬ tion. Despite the changes that had occurred in the district, most observers considered Dornan unbeatable because of the county’s history and
the huge advantage Dornan held as a five-time incumbent. On election day, it seemed the experts had been correct when Dornan appeared to have a 233-vote margin of victory. When absentee ballots were counted, however, Sanchez emerged the victor by 974 votes. A stubborn and gutsy fighter, Dornan refused to concede.
He charged the Sanchez campaign with voter fraud, accusing her of stealing the election with votes from nonciti¬ zens. The Orange County Registrar of Voters recounted the votes and confirmed Sanchez as the winner. The California Secretary of State’s Office and the House of Representatives con¬ ducted investigations, both of which discount¬ ed Dornan’s charges.
Dornan faced Sanchez again in 1998, when she ran for reelection. This time, she won by 17 percent of the votes. In Congress, she became a member of both the Armed Services Committee and the Education and the Workforce Committee. In 2000, Sanchez won a third term in the House, getting more than 62 percent of the vote. She won a fourth term in 2002.