Loretta Sanchez: A Case Study in When to Apologize

Here at the 2015 California State Democratic Convention, the hottest topic of conversation is Congresswoman and Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez’ shocking and offensive gaffe mocking a Native American war cry:

Two days after entering the race for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Loretta Sanchez met with an Indian American group on Saturday and mimicked a racial stereotype of American Indians. In a video shown to The Sacramento Bee and posted online shortly after, Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, describes a pending meeting she had with an East Indian.

“I am going to his office, thinking that I am going to meet with a,” she said, holding her hand in front of her mouth and making an echo sound. “Right? … because he said Indian American. “And I go in there and it was great. It was just great because he said ‘I want to get my community involved.’ Involved. And that was the first time that we saw the Indian American community really come. …”

Obviously, this is shockingly bad judgment by a politician who should know better. It’s certainly not an auspicious start to a campaign that begins significantly behind the more popular and better funded campaign of her opponent Attorney General Kamala Harris. It’s worth noting that Elizabeth Warren has endorsed Harris and went out of her way to praise the Attorney General for her efforts to rein in Wall Street excess in their efforts to rein in foreclosure fraud. Under the best of circumstances it will be difficult for Congresswoman Sanchez, a politician known for a having a fairly conservative voting record, to gain traction in the Senate race.

Still, it’s early. A good communications team would recognize the severity of the gaffe, apologize and let it blow over within a week. But she apparently doesn’t have a good communications team:

Sanchez, 55, would not say if the gesture was an appropriate one for any group of people. When asked, she said only, “I think that Native Americans have an incredibly great history, and a great presence in our country, and many of them are supporting our election.”

A candidate ready for prime time would have fielded questions from reporters and apologized, noting that she herself is a minority, that she has long been an advocate for Native Americans in her district, that her experience only serves as a reminder of how careful we should all be in not offending valued historical and cultural traditions, but that this campaign needs to be about the issues facing all Californians, etc. It’s a fairly easy play.

But it’s clear that Loretta Sanchez’ campaign isn’t ready. And that in her first major test, Ms. Sanchez has shown not one but two cases of shockingly poor judgment.

UPDATE: Congresswoman Sanchez apologized this morning from the podium during the convention’s general session. While it was a genuine apology and not of the “i’m sorry if you were offended” variety, the tone was anything but contrite. She moved immediately from admitting the offense to attacking her opponent for “hiding behind her handlers.” I’m sure that sounded good as a strategy to move from the defensive to the offensive, but sometimes you need to just take your lumps and move on. Voters don’t care about attacks and counterattacks this early in the campaign, so all the maneuvering is simply done for media and party activists. With most of the activists already inclined to support Kamala Harris, moving immediately from an awful gaffe to failing to apologize in time, to using the apology to attack an opponent is still very poor judgment.