BOISE — City Council Member Lisa Sánchez isn’t afraid to stand out.
There are a lot of reasons she stands apart from her colleagues on the Boise City Council. She is believed to be the first Latina elected to city government in 2017 and is currently the only person of color serving on council. Sánchez, 49, lives near many of the other council members in the North End, but she rents a duplex instead of owning her own home in the high-priced area.
She also openly talks about her personal experiences with poverty, racism and what it was like to have her home foreclosed on during the Great Recession over a decade ago, personal details other council members either do not readily share or have not experienced. Until this year, Sánchez was a relatively innocuous player in Boise politics. She rarely commented to the media and did not publicly endorse either Dave Bieter or Lauren McLean in last fall’s contentious mayoral election.
But, in the past few months she has become a lightning rod for some Idahoans who say her recent comments about white supremacy and racism in the wake of the protests of George Floyd’s death are in themselves racist. A group of constituents filed recall petitions against both Sánchez and Mayor McLean earlier this month and are now gathering signatures to try to secure a recall election.
Some comments against Sánchez on social media accuse her of being dishonest with her priorities when she ran against Bieter-endorsed incumbent Frank Walker and others in 2017 and won by over 4,400 votes. But, she said she has always been authentic with voters about her views.
“I never lied to the constituents,” she said. “I never told them I was more than what I am. A lot of the things I discussed on my campaign are things people don’t discuss in polite company. People don’t talk about how they made it through the last recession. They don’t talk about the things they had to do to survive. We don’t discuss those things in polite company, but that was the basis of my campaign.”
ALLEGATIONS OF RACISM
The firestorm around Sánchez largely stems from her June 4 Facebook on her personal page addressed to the parents of 18-year-old Michael Wallace, who was arrested after he allegedly fired his rifle into the ground near the Capitol during a counterprotest of a Black Lives Matter rally; police investigated the case as an unintentional or accidental discharge.
In her emotional post, Sánchez said Wallace and other white youth who open carry are treated differently than black and brown young people would be if they were to carry semi-automatic rifles to protests.
She also described herself as a “Brown woman who chose not to have children for fear of their abuse and murder by white people.” She made a similar statement about choosing not to have children at a city council meeting in June 2018.
Sánchez said many of the allegations of racism from her critics come from people who are uncomfortable with acknowledging that they are white, and she is not, and how race factors into the different opportunities and challenges people of color have in America.
“(Race) affects the quality of life you have and your opportunities and the way you interact with the world,” she said. “The reason people really recoil when they hear me use the term white so much is that one of the privileges white people get in our society is normality. White people get to be normal.”
However, her critics don’t see it that way. Joe Filicetti, one of the organizers of the recall campaign against her, said if her statements were about any group other than white people, they would be unacceptable.
“No city employee could write what she wrote and still have a job,” Filicetti said. “It’s that simple. If you modified the word white and put any other color in there, it would be so far over the line it’s not even funny.”
Swarms of social media comments against Sánchez have raged since the June 4 post, and her public page has been periodically shut down by Facebook after getting an influx of negative reviews. On her page, commenters refer to her as a socialist or a Marxist, and she has also taken heat for not standing to say the Pledge of Allegiance before a city council meeting.
“Total racist and has no place in our local government,” Dustin Dickson wrote on her Facebook page. “Very disrespectful to our police force.”
Wayne Hoffman, president of the libertarian think tank and lobbying group Idaho Freedom Foundation, voiced disdain for an Idaho Statesman editorial encouraging people to listen to Sánchez’s message on race.
“This is an elected official who is unhinged because she’s being hailed by the media as a hero for her hate speech,” he wrote on the foundation’s website on July 2. “The newspaper refuses to condemn, let alone question, her filthy, disgusting, misinformed rhetoric. I doubt the Statesman would respond similarly if it was a white elected official making intolerant statements about minorities.”
Sánchez admits her post was “raw” and strongly worded, but she said it shows her authenticity as someone without any prior experience in politics.
“I don’t think that what people in positions like mine tend to do,” she said, about the post. “I think there’s a lot of message crafting, and I can understand why.”
Sánchez has been an ardent supporter of the Boise Police Department in the past and has appeared at many of the department’s events, including joining other city officials Wednesday to welcome new Boise police officers. In a Facebook post after, she praised Police Chief Ryan Lee for his remarks.
Yet, Sánchez in two interviews over the past month said her trust in police was violated after she heard from City Council President Elaine Clegg in October 2019 that former Boise Police Chief Bill Bones had learned of threats against Clegg’s safety and had police officers watching her house without her knowledge.
“How would you feel if there were threats against your safety and police officers were watching your house and no one told you?” Sánchez said.
And in response to a pro-law enforcement Facebook post this month, Sanchez commented that she would not feel safe going on a ride-along with any police officer.
Sánchez, along with City Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton, voted against the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget last week because it would increase funding for the police department by more than $1 million.
Sánchez was born in a small town in Arizona. She moved to Burley, Idaho, when she was 11 and has lived in the Gem State ever since.
Burley wasn’t “home” to her though. The city of less than 10,000 people, downwind from the Simplot potato factory, was a difficult place to grow up as a Latina, she said. Sánchez said the community was not nearly as open or diverse as her old town in Arizona and she yearned to leave and make her life somewhere with clean air to breathe in a welcoming community.
“It’s one thing to be a poor person and have your life figuratively stink, but it’s another thing to have your life literally stink,” she said. “I knew growing up those things would matter to me. I knew I wanted to live in a place where I could breathe clean air and people were kind to me and made newcomers feel welcome. Even though it was a painful experience growing up there, it helped shape me and figure out what my values were.”
While in Burley, she was inspired by her mother, a former commissioner for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, and her grandmother’s no-nonsense way of communicating and fighting for social justice. She said growing up in that environment, plus the mentorship and guidance from other Latinas in the community helped guide her and push her to leave Burley and become the first person in her family to go to college.
She earned a scholarship to study communications at Boise State University, and for the first couple of years she was going full speed toward her degree. Her progress slowed, however, when she moved up the ranks from student body vice president to president, which required her to give up her job as a resident assistant on campus, which paid for her room and board.
Sánchez said exposing these barriers that prevent people without financial means from holding elected positions has become a major priority of hers. She often talks publicly about how people who hold elected office often have to be well-off in order to handle the balancing act of paying bills and representing people in a democracy.
“What I couldn’t handle was living off campus for the first time, having to pay rent and worry about parking,” she said. “On the outside it was like, ‘Oh wow, she gets to be in meetings with President Ruch,’ but what they didn’t know is I experienced food insecurity for the first time in my life when I was student body president. I didn’t have a family that could help support me.”
She eventually left school and held a variety of positions, including as a paralegal and working in marketing, membership and development for the Girl Scouts of Silver Sage Council from 1999 until 2007. Sánchez eventually went back to school in 2007 to finish up the final credits she needed to earn her undergraduate degree, and became a bilingual civil rights investigator for the Idaho Human Rights Commission.
‘PASSIONATE’ ABOUT CHANGE
Former Idaho Supreme Court Judge Sergio Gutierrez has known Sánchez since the 1990s when she was studying at BSU. When asked about the allegations of racism against Sánchez, he pointed to her long history of working at organizations that assist anyone in the community in need, not just the Latino community or those of one particular race or ethnicity. He described her as ‘passionate’ and ‘thoughtful’ about how to make Boise more open and equitable for everyone.
He also said there is a tendency for people, like Sánchez, who directly call out racial injustice or systems that reinforce racism to be viewed as racist. But frankly talking about racial injustice does not mean someone is racist, Gutierrez said.
“I think she would, as many others would, identify the institutions that have failed in that regard, and so I wouldn’t take that as someone speaking on a racist basis, but rather on injustice and the work that needs to be done to improve the life of every citizen,” he said.
Prior to the recent controversy around her, Sánchez raised eyebrows at city council meetings for her frank manner in addressing how she felt her perspective was left out of the decision-making process. In January, when City Council Member Holli Woodings was poised to be voted in by council as the president pro tem, Sánchez made a public statement saying she was ready to be moved to council leadership. In front of the packed room, she asked if Woodings would agree to mentor her so she could become pro tem next year in exchange for her vote.
Woodings gave her a noncommittal answer, but Sánchez still voted in favor of her being named to council leadership.
Sánchez spoke up again a few months later after council approved Lee as police chief. She praised the selection, but expressed frustration that she was not invited to participate alongside several other city council members in the hiring process.
“I very much wish I could have been a part of the interviews, and would have liked to have had the opportunity to meet you in person,” Sánchez said at the meeting. “I very much felt I should have been part of this process. I’m the only person of color on this council.”
Accounts of how Sánchez was left out of the process differ. A statement from McLean said council leadership selected which of the council members would interview Lee, but BoiseDev.com reports McLean’s office made the selection. Sánchez said no one invited her to participate.
A public records request for emails between McLean’s office and council members about the hiring of Lee did not confirm or deny any of the accounts provided by officials.
Hallyburton, who took office in 2020 alongside McLean, calls Sánchez as a mentor and a friend who encouraged him to run for office. He said Sánchez’s way of governing is a bit different than what most people are used to, both because of her honesty, but also because of the way she relays information.
Sánchez is known to tell lengthy personal stories from the dais before she makes a decision or drives home a point. Hallyburton said he has learned from Sánchez over the years that this is an important way she relates to the world and tries to relate her life experiences to people so they can grow in their empathy for others.
“What she says is usually pretty blunt and pretty honest, and sometimes a little bit too fast of truth for a lot of people, but when I sit with it … I begin to understand a little bit more,” he said. “Sometimes these people who are really, really frustrated and respond really negatively aren’t taking the time to think about it from her perspective and have empathy of how they would feel if you had a different background.”
Despite her critics and the recall effort, Sánchez said she wants to continue pushing the envelope and asking Boise to examine itself and become a more open and welcoming place.
“It has to be a commitment from each individual to learn and want to dismantle this system that creates a different reality for white people than it does for people of color,” she said. “It’s painful. I get nothing out of this experience, except knowing that at the end of my term whether that’s 2021 or whether it’s sooner than that, I need to know I did my level best to effect change for the better.”