There are two sides to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor: a Latina from a blue-collar family and a wealthy member of America’s power elite.
The White House portrays Sotomayor as a living image of the American dream, though its telling of the rags-to-riches story emphasizes the rags, a more politically appealing narrative, and plays down the riches.
Branding a complex person in a simplistic way can backfire in the highly charged environment surrounding her coming Senate hearing.
Discussions about Sotomayor and her ethnicity, gender and tax bracket carry risks for supporters and detractors. Inartful criticism by Republicans risks offending voters they’d like to win. Democrats, likewise, need to be cautious about how they conduct the debate in a nation uncomfortable talking about matters of race and gender.
On ethnicity, Sotomayor herself has recognized — and contributed to — the dichotomy. She proudly highlights her Puerto Rican roots but hasn’t always liked it when others have. She once took issue with a prospective employer who singled her out as a Latina with questions she viewed as offensive yet has shown a keen ethnic consciousness herself.
In a California speech in 2002 now under renewed scrutiny, she remarked that, on a court, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life."
In that same speech, "A Latina Judge’s Voice," Sotomayor drew attention to cultural differences between Mexican-Americans and Puerto Rican-Americans, and she narrowed her ethnicity beyond American, Hispanic and Puerto Rican to "Newyorkrican."
"For those of you on the West Coast who do not know what that term means: I am a born and bred New Yorker of Puerto Rican-born parents who came to the states during World War II," she explained.
Yet years ago, during a recruiting dinner in law school at Yale, Sotomayor objected when a law firm partner asked whether she would have been admitted to the school if she weren’t Puerto Rican, and whether law firms did a disservice by hiring minority students the firms know are unqualified and will ultimately be fired.
Afterward, Sotomayor confronted the partner about the questions, rejected his insistence that he meant no harm and turned down his invitation for further job interviews. She filed a discrimination complaint against the firm with the university, which could have barred the firm from recruiting on campus. She won a formal apology from the firm.
In speeches, Sotomayor has harkened back to her and her brother’s beginnings in a poor Bronx neighborhood, roots that President Barack Obama highlighted in introducing her this week.
"Born in the South Bronx, she was raised in a housing project," Obama said. "And even as she has accomplished so much in her life, she has never forgotten where she began, never lost touch with the community that supported her."
Yet Sotomayor did not live her entire childhood in a housing project in the South Bronx — she spent most of her teenage years in a middle-class neighborhood, attending private school and winning scholarships to Princeton and then Yale.
And Sotomayor’s life and lifestyle after law school largely resemble the background of many lawyers who rise to powerful positions in Washington.
She climbed her way up through New York’s Democratic power structure boosted by its ultimate brokers over those years — Gov. Mario Cuomo, Mayor Ed Koch, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. That’s the access of a partner in a corporate law firm, not a kid from the South Bronx.
She now earns more than $200,000 a year and owns a condominium in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood of million-dollar-plus homes. Her brother, Dr. Juan Sotomayor, is a physician in North Syracuse, N.Y., whose practice doesn’t accept Medicaid or Medicare — programs for the poor and elderly — according to its Web site.
Her ethnic consciousness was apparent in the earliest days of her career, in the New York City prosecutor’s office.
"What I am finding, both statistically and emotionally, is that the worst victims of crimes are not general society — i.e., white folks — but minorities themselves," she told The New York Times in 1983. "The violence, the sorrow are perpetrated by minorities on minorities."
The "riches" part of Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story began when she left her low-paying job in that prosecutor’s office and joined the Pavia & Harcourt law firm. Her clients included Fendi, maker of luxury purses that she was unlikely to have seen as a child in the Bronx.
Still, she kept her hand in the Puerto Rican community — possibly to the point of a conflict of interest.
She served simultaneously on New York’s campaign finance board and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group that took legal action in 1991 to fight what it considered discriminatory redistricting. Sotomayor didn’t recuse herself from a finance board discussion of the redistricting battle, despite the involvement of her own advocacy group.
Also during this time, Sotomayor served on the state board that makes mortgages available to low- and middle-income New Yorkers. She missed nearly a third of the board’s meetings during three of those years but apparently still left a mark. Cuomo said Sotomayor’s respect for the law, her "life story" and her integrity were deciding factors in his decision to name her to the agency.
And when she left in 1992, the agency’s board adopted a resolution praising her for defending "the rights and needs of the disadvantaged to attain, maintain, and secure affordable housing appropriate to their need." It went on: "Ms. Sotomayor also served as the conscience of the Board concerning the negative effects of gentrification which can harm communities and create hopelessness and homelessness if individuals and families are displaced."
Republicans are scrutinizing her full record and background, but carefully. The White House warned as much earlier this week.
"It is probably important for anybody involved in this debate to be exceedingly careful with the way in which they’ve decided to describe different aspects of this impending confirmation," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
With Hispanics a growing voting bloc, and ethnic sensitivities high, few are willing to be as blunt as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said of her comment that a Latina woman would rule more wisely than a white man: "New racism is no better than old racism."
Associated Press writers Cal Woodward in Washington, Sara Kugler in New York and Jessica M. Pasko in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.