January/February 2003 IBEW Journal
is One of a Few
Newly elected Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California) may be new to Washington but shes already racked up some firsts. She is the first woman IBEW member elected to Congress, and she and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-California) are the first sister duo to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And she leaves no question about what comes first for herthe advancement of working families like her own. The daughter of immigrants, she became a lawyer and joined the IBEW when she started working on compliance cases for Orange County Local 441, which since 1996 has played a pivotal role in the campaigns of both Sanchez sisters.
As a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Linda Sanchez says she will be learning the ropes and paying attention to the minutiae of bill-making and parliamentary procedure. But "she will be a standout," said Los Angeles Local 11 Business Manager Marvin Kropke. "She is refreshingly straightforward and articulate, she understands the issues and she will go to the wall for the people that we represent and those who are not as fortunate as we are."
At 34, Sanchez is among the youngest members of Congress. Though she is new to political office, she is well versed in the issues of her working class, largely Hispanic districtquality jobs, education and public safety. The newly carved district includes the communities of Lakewood, La Mirada, Paramount, Whittier, Long Beach, Lynwood, South Gate, Cerritos and parts of unincorporated Los Angeles County. Local 11 has jurisdiction over the construction work in this district. Diamond Bar Local 47, representing employees of Southern California Edison, also is prominent in the district. And members of other IBEW locals in other branches are also among Sanchezs constituents.
The state legislature created the 39th congressional district in the blue-collar suburbs to favor a Democrat and there was no shortage of hopefuls in the March 2002 primary. Sanchez, who then headed the Orange County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, was among six candidates to vie for the nomination. The state AFL-CIO executive council recommended three endorsementsone for Sanchez, one for a city councilman and one for a state assemblywoman.
When the 1,000 labor delegates gathered in the COPE convention at the Biltmore Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles on November 28, 2001, Sanchez was the only candidate to appear. She appealed for a single endorsement, despite the councils recommendation.
She lost that convention issue by 12 votes but "what was said by her and on her behalf really gained her a lot of respect from people who didnt know who she was, other than Lorettas sister," said Seventh District International Executive Council Member Patrick Lavin, the Local 47 Business Manager, who also spoke for Sanchez. "She made a very emphatic speech that day." With the unwavering support of the IBEW, Sanchez went on to win the primary three months later.
What made the winning difference, Sanchez said, was her campaigns commitment to old-fashioned, door-to-door precinct walking. District residents were receptive to the personal message delivered by Sanchez, who was sometimes accompanied by her sister Loretta.
A crucial part of the grassroots campaign was the fact that Local 11 volunteers were legion throughout the primary and general campaigns. In a tried and true method used with success for years, union members made phone calls to brother and sister union members and visited their homes, emphasizing the importance of electing one of their own. The T-shirts they wore featured the Sanchez logo on the front and Local 11s on the back.
"We took this campaign as our baby," Local 11s Kropke said. "A lot of our members volunteered."
On March 5, 2002, her toughest race was effectively over. The IBEW, along with the rest of Californias formidable labor movement, helped mobilize hundreds of volunteers to provide crucial ground support to the general campaign that followed. The auto workers, operating engineers, AFSCME, service employees, hotel and restaurant workers, plumbers and pipe fitters, among others, volunteered for Sanchez. Many made financial contributions too.
On November 5, an otherwise depressing day for many Democratic candidates, Sanchez scored a resounding victory, trouncing her opponent, investment executive Tim Escobar, 55 percent to 41 percent.
Even before taking on politics as a candidate, Sanchez was never one to shy away from a worthy fight. Some of the most contentious matters debated in Congressworkers rights, health care access and affordability and choiceare issues Sanchez has already confronted in years of grassroots activism.
Sanchez said public service is the culmination of years of community action.
"For me it was a natural part of everything I did," Sanchez said. "Becoming an elected official was the next level." As she worked her way through college as a bilingual aide, Sanchez helped to secure resources for her students. Later, attending law school at the University of California in Los Angeles, she did pro bono legal work for those in need and raised money for scholarships for the poor.
Working as the field director on her sisters 1998 campaign landed her at the IBEW. Sanchez quickly got to know members of Local 441, whose jurisdiction covers Lorettas district, for their active campaign participation. She applied for the locals opening in public works compliance, seeing it as the chance to practice her kind of employment lawupholding workers rights in the face of injustice.
The compliance job, funded by Local 441 and the National Electrical Contractors Association, gave her the fulfilling professional opportunity she had been looking for. Sanchez embraced membership in Local 441.
"She came to all the meetings and really came to understand our issues," said Local 441 Business Manager Doug Chappell. Then president of the Orange County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Chappell encouraged Sanchez to run for the councils top job, executive secretary-treasurer, when it opened. "We talked her into running and she won hands down; it was unanimous," he said.
As executive secretary-treasurer, she lobbied for pro-worker legislation, organized pickets and demonstrations and grew union membership. Chappell said under Sanchez, 10 new unions were organized and per capita increased. With Sanchez at the helm, the CLC was instrumental in breakthrough organizing victories among the countys janitors and home health care workers.
"We really turned it around here in Orange County," he said. "We have a very active labor council here since Linda became executive secretary."
During the general election campaign, Sanchezs opponent dismissed her as little more than the kid sister of a congresswoman, or in his words, "a cute novelty act." Sanchez still bristles at the characterization, observing that no one has similarly likened President George W. Bush and his brother Jeb Bush to anything other than two successful brother politicians.
"When I got into the labor movement, it was tough for some folks to accept that I was young, a woman and a woman of color too," Sanchez said. "You have to prove yourself before you get the respect that some people would give a man automatically."
She has learned to use humor and grace to stand up to insensitivities and gently but explicitly make her case. "Most people want to do their job without making anyone feel uncomfortable, and its easier to let things slip by," Sanchez said. "But you have a dutyif you want to see things change for the betterto point things out."
Two weeks after her election, Sanchez delivered the Spanish-language Democratic response to the Presidents weekly radio address. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the new House Democratic leader, selected Sanchez to give the three-minute speech on the subject of the economy and the importance of job creation.
"Shes a rising star in the caucus and were excited about her," said Pelosi spokeswoman Cindy Jimenez.
In the months between her election and her inauguration, Sanchez made several television and radio appearances in the Spanish-language media. Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country according to figures recently released by the U.S. Census.
With her public appearances, Sanchez is offering herself as someone with whom young Hispanic people can identify. "Im hoping to be the one to help awaken a political interest in young people, women and people of color."
Sanchez said she saw firsthand the result of pervasive electoral cynicism. Los Angeles experienced low voter turnout in November. In television coverage, Sanchez said one young Latino man said hes not voting because the candidates are not giving him enough information. "I just wanted to scream, thats your responsibility to know the issues!" Sanchez said. "The electorate cant or wont take the time to find out."
One of seven children, Sanchez often speaks of the importance of family. Her most memorable campaign commercialairing in Spanishemphasized the importance of education and starred Sanchezs mother, who attained a teaching certificate after her children were raised.
Her union family was no less instrumental during the long campaign. At the IBEWs March 2002 Construction and Maintenance Conference in Washington, D.C., Sanchez got a standing ovation when she said she would allow her membership in the California State Bar Association to lapse before she gave up her union card.
"When I asked for help walking precincts, my union brothers and sisters were there. We are going to win or lose together come November, my union brothers and sisters and me," Sanchez said. "My IBEW family has been there through the good times and bad."
Then, in a signature move she repeated throughout her campaign, Sanchez held up the yellow dues receipt proving her IBEW membership. "She pulls that dues receipt and holds it up, and she does it every chance she gets," said Local 11s Kropke. "Shes damn proud of it."
On January 7, in her first official trip to the U.S. Capitol, Sanchez raised her right hand and swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution as a member of Congress. It was the end of one long journey and the beginning of another. Ahead lay celebrations and more media interviews. But the next day, Sanchez got to work, casting her first vote for an extension of benefits to the unemployed.
"Sister Sanchez is the ultimate reason why every member of the IBEW should be completely involved in the political process," said International President Hill. "Without IBEW funding and volunteers, she would not have been successful. With the continued support from all of our members we will elect more IBEW members to political office who will focus on issues affecting workers and their families."