Showing the Importance of the Latino Vote, Julie Chavez Rodriguez Will Run Biden’s 2024 Campaign

From a Washington Post story by Meryl Kornfield headlined “Julie Chavez Rodriguez, from quiet aide to running Biden’s campaign”:

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the newly announced campaign manager for President Biden’s reelection effort, likes to jokes that when she was a child, her family — including her grandfather Cesar Chavez, legendary founder of the United Farm Workers of America — did not hold Sunday picnics. They held Sunday pickets.

By age 5, Chavez Rodriguez was handing out pamphlets to farmworkers. She helped organize marches demanding labor protections for those who harvest the nation’s fruits and vegetables. At age 9, she was arrested outside a New Jersey grocery store while distributing fliers about the dangers of pesticides.

Her organizing skills have powered Chavez Rodriguez, 45, to key positions in the Obama and Biden White Houses. But she has never managed a campaign for public office, and now she is tasked with helping win the highest office of all — the presidency of the United States — while warding off what Democrats see as the existential catastrophe of a potential return of Donald Trump to the White House.

Chavez Rodriguez’s job could be made even more challenging by Biden’s unorthodox approach. The president plans to keep his closest and longest-serving aides around him at the White House, and they are likely to formulate much of the strategy for the campaign, while Chavez Rodriguez will be running the operation from a headquarters probably located in Wilmington, Del.

People who have worked with Chavez Rodriguez acknowledge the questions, but say she has the abilities to overcome them.

“I kind of laugh at the folks who say, ‘Well, she’s not run a big campaign,’” said Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s Democratic governor. Her current position, heading the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, “is an enormous job, incredibly complex, that she’s done really well for 2½ years. So I think she’s going to be great.”

That role is a link between the White House and state and local officials nationwide, allowing Chavez Rodriguez to make contacts and earn favors throughout the country.

Murphy’s chief of staff, George Helmy, recalled Biden’s visit to New Jersey in 2021 the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Chavez Rodriguez, who worked on that trip, managed to find and send Helmy a photo that a White House photographer had captured of his two young sons meeting the president.

“Going out of her way, given how much she has on her plate every day, to go find that photo was pretty incredible, and something people like me never forget,” Helmy said.

Chavez Rodriguez will leave the White House for her new job on May 16. She now faces the challenge of transforming from a behind-the-scenes navigator to essentially becoming the face of the Biden campaign operation, one of the most high-profile jobs in modern politics.

As early as her 20s, Chavez Rodriguez was driving around strawberry fields for the AFL-CIO to collect workers’ testimonies and monitor labor conditions, partnering with Luis Heredia, who was then a student and is now the state director for Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). Chavez Rodriguez connected as easily with the workers hunched over the strawberry plants all day as with the youthful organizers hopeful they might one day create change, Heredia said, adding, “Understanding people was her superpower.”

Those early organizing days would come in handy when she canvassed neighborhoods in Colorado for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, bringing her to the attention of his advisers and ultimately to the White House. She went on to work for then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris and then Biden, earning a reputation as a wonk of sorts, someone who could quickly jump from issue to issue and make connections with the right people.

“They say in politics there’s show horses and workhorses, and Julie is a quintessential workhorse,” said Jon Carson, a director of the White House Office of Public Engagement under Obama.

People who have worked with Chavez Rodriguez describe an unassuming woman — someone so low-key that several of her colleagues did not know her grandfather was the union folk hero Chavez, whose bust sits in Biden’s Oval Office and whose home was honored as a national monument by Obama.

Chavez organized farmworkers during the 1960s, an area where many had failed given that so many of the workers were itinerant and spoke little English. He pioneered tactics including a grape boycott, earning him a revered place in the Democratic pantheon alongside such figures as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet Carson, the Obama official, said he found out about Chavez Rodriguez’s family’s legacy only six months after working with her. “It wasn’t even [she] who told me,” he said.

In the Obama White House, Chavez Rodriguez’s job was to oversee Latino engagement, working with advocacy groups and ramping up education related to health care. But her reach expanded beyond Latino affairs as officials realized her ability to juggle tasks, her superiors said.

Among the projects she led was “Champions of Change,” a program to recognize innovators in various communities and earn the administration positive headlines in the process. She headed a group of staffers internally dubbed the “gets s— done team,” or GSD, for their ability to make ideas come alive, said Paulette Aniskoff, who succeeded Carson as director of the public engagement office.

“She’s just like, ‘Get it done, find a way to make it happen, do it,’” Aniskoff said.

Chavez Rodriguez already has some experience translating her network of contacts into a campaign setting. When she joined Harris’s short-lived 2020 presidential campaign, her network was “relied on to build support for Kamala in a crowded primary,” according to a staffer on the Harris campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their current job.

“On almost every trip, Julie was at Kamala’s side — managing every move, every meeting, every prep session, every event, everything the candidate and traveling team did,” the staffer said.

Under Biden, Chavez Rodriguez’s job involves dealing with often-demanding governors and mayors who want federal resources, presidential visits, emergency declarations, guidance on disasters and other White House help. It is her record of deftly handling those relationships that persuaded Biden’s inner circle to make her campaign manager.

Murphy, who now chairs the National Governors Association, described Chavez Rodriguez as a soothing presence during the coronavirus pandemic — a time of enormous pressure, if not panic, for state officials. States often wanted Biden to sign off on deploying National Guard members to nursing homes, testing centers and vaccine clinics, a task that fell to Chavez Rodriguez, whose responsibilities included emergency preparedness.

Still, that role is quite different from managing a presidential run, a job that usually goes to someone who has already led at least one successful campaign of a candidate vying for federal office.

But Murphy said Chavez Rodriguez’s skills will translate well. “Somebody might have had a great history, for example, as the campaign manager in state X or statewide and have done a really good job, but they may not have played at the national level,” Murphy said. “She knows the players and she knows the issues.”

Top Biden aides such as Anita Dunn and Jen O’Malley Dillon, who managed Biden’s last campaign, will continue to be stationed at the White House and have a big hand in the campaign’s direction. Chavez Rodriguez will oversee much of the day-to-day operation at the campaign headquarters likely to be in Delaware.

Her role will include building coalitions and appeasing restive party factions, critical pieces of a modern campaign. Biden arguably won in 2020 in part because he was able to rally the Democrats’ progressive wing behind him, while Hillary Clinton failed to do that in 2016.

Chavez Rodriguez has strong relationships with progressive activists as well as union organizers, and it is not lost on Democratic strategists that she is a prominent Latina figure, a potentially important factor for Biden, whose support among Latinos has sometimes fallen short of expectations.

“It’s important to see ourselves within the staff of this campaign, and obviously seeing Julie, it’s a nod to us that they are going to take our community to be an important voter bloc,” said Nathalie Rayes, president and chief executive of the Latino Victory Fund.

Chavez Rodriguez is particularly knowledgeable about immigration, a volatile issue where Biden has sometimes struggled for the right policy and message.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, met Chavez Rodriguez in the 1990s in the heart of strawberry country in the Central Valley of California, where farmworkers had organized a march for fair wages. Cesar Chavez had died a few years earlier, and his granddaughter had already earned the respect of organizing leaders, Henry said.

More than a decade later, Henry said she noticed that Obama would regularly turn to Chavez Rodriguez during discussions of immigration in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

Henry encountered Chavez Rodriguez again recently, at a reception connected to the swearing-in of members of Congress. It was the sort of event where attendees often dance around each other, Henry said, their eyes darting toward the next important person to speak with. Instead, the two women engaged in an intensive policy discussion, as Chavez Rodriguez, now a senior adviser to the president, rattled off statistics about immigrants who had been granted temporary protected status.

“She’s always on her game,” Henry said.

Now Chavez Rodriguez will be the senior executive of a high-stakes campaign involving thousands of people, millions of dollars, sensitive messaging and explosive issues.

Kyle Lierman, who worked for Chavez Rodriguez in the Obama White House, is among those who argues that her self-effacing style will serve her well. Lierman recalled that mid-level staffers like him typically passed their work to their bosses so they could take credit for it in important meetings. Chavez Rodriguez surprised him, he said, by asking him to present a newly created “It’s On Us” initiative — an awareness campaign on campus sexual assault — to the senior White House staffers who met weekly in the Roosevelt Room.

Lierman said he expects Chavez Rodriguez to leave few visible fingerprints in her new job — but that, he said, will be a strength.

“She’s a behind-the-scenes force of nature,” Lierman said. “I think that allows her to get more done, because she doesn’t care who is getting the credit. She’ll look for people on the campaign who are humble but effective. And I think that’s going to serve the campaign tremendously well.”

Meryl Kornfield is a staff writer on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post.

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