Rep. Linda T. Sánchez is the leader of the largest Hispanic coalition in Congress, and she has ambitions to soon rise even higher in House Democratic leadership.
The California Democrat is running for vice-chair of the House Democratic Conference, a position being vacated by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) at the end of the year.
Sanchez is hoping that the thick skin she has developed as a leading Hispanic women in the lower chamber, coupled with her emphasis on building relationships with colleagues, will help her secure the job.
But she said it wasn’t always clear she would be a leader growing up in California as the daughter of Mexican immigrants.
“There are these cultural things that I know of within our community that make it harder for women to be the person who is out there and visible and taking on that role,” said Sánchez, currently serving her seventh term representing a wide swath of the Los Angeles suburbs. “There’s a quiet power within the household. Latina moms and grandmothers are respected and listened to, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into careers or leadership roles.”
Now, as head of the 26-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Sánchez has proven she has the ability and will to be a leader.Whether she moves higher will be up to her colleagues to decide early next year.
Sánchez recently sat down with The Washington Post to discuss why politics isn’t always appealing to women, how Hispanic voters may affect the upcoming election and what it’s like to be a leading voice for women in Congress.
Her answers have been slightly edited for length.
PowerPost: What is one of the major challenges you see facing women who are contemplating running for office?
Sanchez: There are a lot of challenges that women struggle with. That sense of, I hate to say this, there’s a tiny seed of doubt. Am I good enough? Oh my god, are they going to think I’m a fraud. There’s a sense of can I really do that.
Whereas men just have this natural confidence. Of course I can do that.
Again, going back to encouraging women to run for office. If I were to say to somebody: “Hey someone retired off the city council, I think you’d make an excellent city council woman. Why don’t you consider running for that seat?”
A woman is often like, “Well I’d have to give that some thought. I’m not sure.”
If you approach a man and say, “Hey I think you’d make an excellent city councilman.” They say, “Yeah I could do that.”
That’s a big obstacle.
What is missing from Washington and the Washington culture that could make politics more appealing to women and Hispanic women? How is it different?
It’s interesting because I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt like people were very dismissive of me and I’ve wondered, “Did that just happen because I’m a woman or did that just happen because I’m Hispanic?” And you can’t go up to someone and say, “Hey did you just blow me off because I’m a woman or because I’m brown?”
I hate speaking in generalities and can only speak to my personal experience. I come from a culture where women are seen as not as high-profile as men. You are someone who is not supposed to be the one out in front or the person who is heard right away.
I remember as a child very specific instances where my father was very old country and would say to me, “You don’t argue with adults.” Even when I knew I was right about something and an adult was factually incorrect, my father would give me this stern look and say, “You don’t argue with adults.”
There’s a respect-for-elders culture and a little bit of male dominant thing within the Latino community, too.
My father was in, his own way, revolutionary for his time, too. When I was growing up, from when I was 7, he wanted the girls as well as the boys to go to college. For his generation, that was not something that was normal or usual.
If I did go to school, though, he wanted me to go to the local school and not go away so I could live at home.
So there are these cultural things that I know of within our community that make it harder for women to be the person who is out there and visible and taking on that role.
There’s a quiet power within the household. Latina moms and grandmothers are respected and listened to, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into careers or leadership roles.
Your parents certainly figured out how to inspire two leaders. You and your sister [Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.)] are both members of Congress. Do you two talk about these kinds of dynamics?
She and I do all of the time.
We talk about it whenever we talk to groups of Latinas specifically. I tell them I know you have these doubts about doing this or that or whatever your dream or goal is. We sort of feel like we need permission or persuasion to do something. If you’re looking for permission, here’s my permission. Go do it. You have my blessing.
As the female head of the Hispanic Caucus, do you ever get pushback from the male members?
I think there has been tension between the men and women in the Hispanic caucus in the past. I think a lot of that was generational.
There are still from time to time subtle things that you pick up, but it has gotten so much better.
How do you feel about being asked to be a spokeswoman for big, diverse groups? Is it challenging to be asked to speak for women, Latinos and Latinas?
It’s kind of uncomfortable. Everyone’s experiences are different. They’re different if you’re Puerto Rican versus Mexican versus Cuban. There are cultural differences.
I always have to preface that I don’t speak for everyone in my community.
I did an interview on primary night with Megyn Kelly; they had a live audience. There was a big group of Trump supporters there. As I was leaving from my segment, some lady yells to me as I’m walking past “I’m a proud Latina for Trump!” So obviously we don’t all think the same way.
There is a lot of talk about how the country’s changing demographics will affect this election. Do you feel a special responsibility to be at the forefront of shaping how people in American politics respond to those changes?
I think there are huge misperceptions about the changing demographics of the electorate. I think on the other side of the aisle there is a fear that, “Oh, we’re not in the majority.” As a result, there’s this desperate attempt to cling to power by doing things like restrictive voting laws and other ways to dampen participation.
The Latino community is like any immigrant community in this country that has come before it, be it Italian, Irish. In the beginning there is a lot that people have in common, but over time, people change and they develop. …
Everyone thinks immigration is our big issue, but immigration is like number four if you look at polling. Economics are number one. Am I going to have a job? Am I going to be able to keep my job?
Immigration is a kind of litmus test, though, because if you’re against immigrants, you probably don’t like me. If you’re against immigration, then I might stop listening. I stop listening to your economic plan or your education plan because you don’t think I have a right to be here. That’s all I have to get to.
I’m not voting against you solely based on immigration. I hear you don’t want me to be here, and I don’t listen to the rest. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that I think most people don’t understand.
What do you tell younger female members and younger women on your staff about how to go about finding a role in leadership and moving toward a leadership role?
For me, I think of politics as the art of personal relationships. I think that the way you interact with your colleagues matters in the long term. If they see you’re as good as your word and deliver on promises you make … you earn their respect. You have the opportunity to turn to them when you’re in need of help and say, “I need help.”
I think people sometimes, not so much women, that gets lost up here. In that struggle of I want to move up and I want to be important and I want to be relevant, people are looking out for their own interests. I always remember a saying: “You have to be careful of who you step on on your way up because they’re going to be the people who will kick you on your way down.”
If you’re ruthless in trying to get what you want, that will come back to haunt you.
I really believe that, again, if you put in the time and effort and demonstrate that you’re confident and capable and have leadership qualities, eventually that’s rewarded.
For women, we still have some obstacles to overcome in terms of stepping into that limelight and putting yourself out there. When you run for Congress, your name is on the ballot, and you become a lightning rod for criticism or gossip or even just outright lies. You have to develop that thick skin.
Putting yourself out there in a leadership role is much the same. You become open to criticism. You have to develop that toughness and not take it personally, because it will eat you up if you take it personally.