When he became president, Joe Biden placed a bust of Cesar Chavez, the legendary labor rights organizer, in the Oval Office. Now Chavez’s granddaughter Julie Chavez Rodriguez, already the highest-ranking Latina in the White House, has been named the manager of his 2024 campaign, which Biden formally announced in a video released on Tuesday morning.
Her rise from the Central Valley of California to the halls of power in Washington is a personal triumph as well as a symbol of Latinos’ growing prominence within the Democratic Party and in national politics.
And in a city where every political star-in-the-making can expect unflattering rumors from former colleagues or jealous rivals, Chavez Rodriguez appears to have engendered an unusual amount of genuine goodwill.
“She’s great as a leader, and she’s great as a manager,” Ron Klain, the former White House chief of staff and one of Biden’s closest aides, told Yahoo News, pronouncing himself a “huge fan” of Chavez Rodriguez.
Young staffers relatively new to Team Biden were similarly effusive.
“There aren’t enough good things to say about Julie,” a former White House colleague, Kevin Munoz, who is now also working on the Biden campaign, wrote on Twitter. “She works harder than anyone, gets the job done, zero ego — all while being an excellent colleague and friend. Knows how to build coalitions — critical to expanding our winning 2020 coalition.”
A storied legacy
Cesar Chavez, a native of Arizona with roots in Mexico, became a champion of California’s farmworkers throughout the 1950s and ’60s, helping them organize into unions that pushed for better pay and conditions. With Dolores Huerta, he helped found the National Farm Workers Association, now known as United Farm Workers, which became a powerhouse in both state and national politics.
Chavez Rodriguez grew up in Tehachapi, near the southern terminus of California’s immensely fertile Central Valley. “I spent my childhood in meetings, at rallies, walking picket lines, and handing out leaflets in front of supermarkets,” she has written. “I knew the names of the top five most harmful pesticides at the age of 12 and could recite some of my grandfather’s most widely known quotes.”
Many of the same concerns her grandfather faced and fought — exploitation, discrimination, low pay — continue to plague both the agricultural sector and other portions of the American economy.
Biden has vowed to restore “the dignity of work” by empowering unions and implementing trade policies that favor American companies. Chavez Rodriguez is thus an apt symbol of those aspirations, which progressive critics say the president has not always met.
Allies, however, say Chavez Rodriguez is far more than a living symbol of her grandfather’s towering legacy. “Being a Chavez is part of who she is,” Cecilia Muñoz, who worked with Chavez Rodriguez in the Obama administration, told the Associated Press. But she added that Chavez Rodríguez has earned her increasingly prominent positions based on her political acumen, not family connections.
“My family legacy is something I am deeply proud of; I stand on huge shoulders,” Chavez Rodriguez told NBC News in a 2015 interview. “But it is also not something I lead with when I meet people.”
From California to Washington, D.C.
Now 45, Chavez Rodriguez attended the University of California at Berkeley and later worked for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which advocates for causes important to Latinos.
In 2008 she volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She stayed on for both of his terms in the White House, rising to the position of deputy in the public engagement office.
“It takes consistent, sustained organizing and pressure to be able to see great progress in our country,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, as her profile in the Democratic establishment was rising.
She later went to work for Kamala Harris, who was elected to the Senate in 2016 and decided to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2019. Harris earned the endorsement of the United Farm Workers, in what was widely seen as a major boost to her campaign.
A senior staffer on the Harris campaign praised Chavez Rodriguez as “unflappable and constantly focused on the task at hand,” telling Yahoo News that she “always had the trust and support of colleagues and, most importantly, the candidate.” The campaign faltered, but after Biden chose Harris as his vice presidential nominee, Chavez Rodriguez worked on the general election as a deputy campaign manager.
After the Biden-Harris ticket prevailed, Chavez Rodriguez joined the White House to lead the office of intergovernmental affairs. Last summer, Biden promoted her to a senior adviser, a move that drew praise from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which said it was “proud that a Latina will advise President Biden as he makes critical decisions that impact our Latino communities across the country.”
Kevin Munoz, who is now in charge of media relations for the Biden campaign, says that coordinating natural disaster response and other relief efforts across jurisdictions as the intergovernmental affairs office director will serve as apt preparation for the fast-paced, sometimes chaotic nature of running a presidential campaign.
“There’s really no time to hold,” he said of her White House work. “It’s really about executing and operationalizing plans as quickly as possible, which is exactly what you need on a campaign.”
The coming campaign
Chavez Rodriguez will lead a campaign that has to contend with low enthusiasm for a second Biden term — or for a Biden-Trump rematch. Her top deputy will be Quentin Fulks, who helped Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., prevail over Herschel Walker, a former professional football star who had the support of Trump.
“Julie and Quentin are trusted, effective leaders that know the stakes of this election,” Biden said in a statement about their appointments that accompanied Tuesday’s reelection announcement.
She will likely have to compete for influence with the president, who will also be advised by longtime aides including Anita Dunn, Bruce Reed, Steve Ricchetti and Ron Klain, all of whom have also been top White House advisers.
Munoz predicted that those dynamics would not challenge the much younger Chavez Rodriguez, a relative newcomer to Biden’s inner circle. “Julie has deep connections in the White House,” he said.
Biden “has a great deal of confidence in her,” Klain told Yahoo News.
An earlier version of this article inaccurately described Dolores Huerta as the wife of Cesar Chavez.