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The Washington Post

House Mates

Loretta and Linda Sanchez Are Congress's First Sister Act. They Work Well Together. The Question Is, Can They Live Together?

By Roxanne Roberts

December 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 


Loretta and Linda Sanchez on a house-hunting expedition this week on Capitol Hill.

(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)


Linda Sanchez has a new haircut. Her big sister doesn't approve.

"She thinks it's too spiky," Linda explains.

"Who cut it for you? Donna?" asks Loretta Sanchez, referring to the hairdresser they both use.

Linda nods. "I told her I wanted something young and a little bit edgy."

Linda is younger and, yes, a little bit edgy. Loretta is older and, yes, a little bit bossy. Together they're making history as the first sisters ever to serve together in Congress.

Loretta, 42, is a three-term Democrat from Orange County, Calif. Last month Linda, 33 and also a Democrat, was elected to her first term representing a district in Los Angeles County. But at the moment they're just two sisters about to be become roommates for the first time since they were kids. The plan is to buy and share a house on Capitol Hill, which is why they've squeezed an afternoon house-hunting trip into this week's too-busy schedules.

The good news is that they know each other so well. The bad news is that they know each other so well. Loretta is a morning person, up at dawn and asleep by 10 p.m. Linda is a night owl. Loretta is a Capricorn, Linda an Aquarius. Loretta likes opera and Neil Young. Linda is really into Pink right now. Loretta is neat. Linda is messy.

"Everything in its place, by color," says Loretta. "My shoes are all in place. Her idea is piles."

Linda rolls her eyes. "If you drape your coat across the back of a chair, it doesn't disturb the order of the cosmos, Loretta."

Loretta persists: "If you hang up your coat exactly where it's supposed to be, on the right hanger in the right way, it will last 10 years longer."

Think "The Odd Couple" in four-inch heels, and you've got a pretty good idea where this is going.

Loretta is the big sister -- neat, disciplined, serious. She earned an MBA from American University and went into investment banking before entering politics. Linda is funnier, more liberal, the baby sister who got a law degree from UCLA and became a civil rights lawyer, labor activist and head of the Orange County AFL-CIO. Both Democrats focus on education and health care. Linda worked on her sister's earlier campaigns. This year Loretta had an easy reelection and brought her experience and fundraising skills to Linda's race in a newly created congressional district. When Linda won the bitter March primary in the heavily Democratic district, the sisters started thinking about living together in Washington.

Loretta has been renting a studio apartment on Capitol Hill, but wants a place big enough for entertaining. Her wish list includes two bedrooms, two baths and location, location, location -- a place close enough to reach the Capitol within the 15-minute vote call.

They've looked at fixer-uppers -- even made an offer on one this summer -- but now the search is narrowing to something that doesn't require major time or money for renovation. On this afternoon, real estate agent Linda Hughes has two properties to show. The first is a two-bedroom, one-bath rowhouse with a basement apartment. Listed at $539,000, it would be manageable on two $150,000 congressional salaries.

The sisters' husbands are staying in California and will see their wives on weekends. Loretta is married to bond trader Stephen Brixey, Linda to Mark Valentine, who owns a small electrical business. Neither couple has children, and Loretta's Persian cat and Linda's sheepdog will stay on the West Coast.

Loretta looks around the rowhouse. "Maybe we'll buy a little kitty for this place," she says, primarily to annoy her sister.

"A little dog," says Linda.

"Kitty," coos Loretta.

"No no no," answers Linda.

Truth is, they probably won't get a cat or dog. Nor will they cook in the kitchen, which -- given their schedules and habits -- they are unlikely to use.

"I haven't cooked in about six years," admits Loretta.

"We grew up in a family of seven, and you learn to cook Mexican food by watching, not by recipes," says Linda. "So whenever I cook, it's got to be for nine people because I don't know how to make anything smaller."

They head upstairs. After a quick spin around the first bedroom, Loretta spots the bath.

"Look at how big this bathroom is!" she tells her sister. "I wonder if we could divide it into two bathrooms?"

They look at the front bedroom, a big room with floor-to-ceiling windows. They agree: This room gets the morning sun, and Loretta is the morning person, so she would take this bedroom.

They grew up sharing a bedroom with their middle sister, Martha. Now they each want their own space -- for a little privacy, and to prevent getting on each other's nerves.

"We have Cold War fights where we don't speak until we get over it," explains Linda. The longest fight lasted about a year.

"That's not true!" protests Loretta.

"It is true," insists Linda. It happened around the time she graduated from law school. Loretta doesn't remember, but concedes that it's possible.

"She's stubborn," says Loretta.

"That's the pot calling the kettle black," says Linda.

Loretta goes back into the bathroom for another look. "This we'd have to redo."

Family Ties

The rowhouse's separate apartment could be rented out or used for guests. And the sisters expect to have plenty of visitors.

The Sanchez family grew up in three-bedroom house in Anaheim. Loretta and Linda are the second and sixth of seven children of Mexican immigrants. Their father, Ignacio, is a 78-year-old retired machinist. Their mother, Maria, is a 65-year-old teacher at a bilingual elementary school.

"In every Latino family, there's a sense of 'We need to stick together,' " says Linda. "It's us against the world. But I think in our particular family, that's even stronger because our folks expected great things from us. They wanted us to take advantage of all the opportunities they never had."

Their parents, who are now divorced, didn't finish high school. But all seven kids attended college, and their mother got her teaching degree after raising the children.

Nine years older than her baby sister, Loretta was a mentor, a protector, a second mother to Linda. Of course she bosses her around. Earlier in the day, Linda said, "You know, Loretta, it's kind of like having Mom here. Will you stop?"

They both laughed. Of course she can't stop.

"Have you worked on getting some tickets for the swearing-in?" Loretta asks her sister.

There will be 14 Sanchez family members at the Jan. 7 ceremony, but each representative is allotted only one ticket. That means Linda has to call other lawmakers and politely beg for extra seats.

"You know how to do that," Loretta reminds her. "I told you, right?"

Linda rolls her eyes. "I'm going to do it this afternoon."

Higher Heels

On the drive to see the second house of the day, the subject of decorating taste pops up.

"Mine is good," says Loretta. "I don't know about hers."

"Loretta's is old, stodgy," Linda shoots back. "Mine is bright, sponge-painted colors . . ." A short rhapsody follows on the merits of lime green and tangerine.

Loretta likes Old World Mediterranean style. "Linda's more Mexicanish, I'm more Italianish," she explains. But these California girls both agree: Washington is waaaay too conservative.

"It's really buttoned down, especially in the clothes and the decor," says Linda. "It's a culture shock. I went looking for some party shoes -- party shoes, mind you -- to wear with a ball gown. They didn't have any heels bigger than two inches! I was looking for 'hootchy shoes' -- three- or four-inch heels -- because my dress was long. And I couldn't find them."

"Puerto Rico," says Loretta. "That's where you buy good high heels."

Linda is 5-1. Loretta is 5-4. They've been wearing stilettos since they were teens. "I finally broke down and bought my first pair of boots that had a sensible heel," says Linda. "It broke my heart."

Loretta nods in sympathy. "We're Latinas. We come out of the womb high heel first."

Door No. 2

The second rowhouse is just two minutes from the Longworth building, where the congresswomen will have their offices.

This one is smaller than the first house and cheaper: $479,000. The upside is two bedrooms and two baths, a great fireplace and backyard garden. The downside is a tiny kitchen and dining room, which will make it harder to entertain.

They follow the real estate agent upstairs. The smaller bedroom is cramped, but the master bedroom is big and beautiful. "Guess who would get the bigger bedroom?" Linda asks no one in particular.

They debate the merits of the house.

"It's a great place in terms of location," Linda offers.

"Location is great," Loretta agrees. "You could even live with the smaller bedroom. I know you could."

But she won't make her. They tease, they fuss, they disagree. But Loretta knows Linda doesn't really care if she gets the small bedroom, and Linda knows Loretta would never force her into a house she doesn't want. It's the unspoken language between them -- part of being sisters.

"Sisters are more intimate," Linda explains. "They're more honest. As a consequence, there's a different kind of bond between sisters in a family than brothers. When things go bad, when you argue, the intensity is greater because you share more. I think women have a deeper capacity for compassion and understanding. The flip side of that is when they're angry, there's a much deeper sense of injustice."

What goes unspoken is that they are both clearly thrilled to be in Congress together.

"Everything is always better for me when you share successes or even failures with your family," Linda says. "I think it will be good to come home to somebody who understands how difficult it can be to do the work here in Washington and can appreciate the mini-victories or help with the mini-failures."

Loretta looks at her, beaming. She has gotten a lot of attention in her three terms, a rising star in the Democratic Party, sought after for fundraisers, the new face of American politics.

"That's all fine and dandy, but I see more opportunity in the long run for Linda to be able to get to the White House," she says, and for once she's completely serious. "I want to give her all the tools I can to get to her there."

For once, Linda doesn't have a snappy retort. She just smiles.

Then the moment passes. They decide this place isn't quite right. The afternoon's house hunt is over, and the sisters dash off to their next appointments.

There is, after all, more history to be made.

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