WASHINGTON — A Woodlake woman who became the first Latina chief of staff to a U.S. senator has now set her eyes on the House of Representatives, as she embarks on a high-profile challenge to freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.
Amanda Renteria, a 38-year-old graduate of Woodlake High School, Stanford and Harvard Business School, says she is running as a way "to give people a voice and a vote that they haven't had before."
"I'm running because I grew up here, and I believe the Valley needs a strong voice in Washington," Renteria said. "We have to have folks who know how to work across the aisle, and who know how to be effective."
Renteria now lives with her husband and two young children in Sanger, having moved back to the Valley in August following her extended Capitol Hill stint. For the moment, she is working as a substitute teacher at Sanger High.
Renteria's candidacy could well make the 21st Congressional District race one of the nation's most closely watched, and the target of considerable outside spending. In addition to her high-flying résumé, Renteria is running in a district where 73% of the 712,866 residents are counted as Hispanic or Latino, according to Census Bureau records.
Democrats also enjoy a 47%-32% voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district, which includes all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties on the Valley's west side.
"A district like mine is always going to be competitive," Valadao acknowledged.
But Valadao, the 36-year-old son of Portuguese immigrants, enjoys advantages of his own. He's a native of the district and has held state or federal elected office in the southern San Joaquin Valley since 2011, boosting his name recognition. As an incumbent, and member of the House Appropriations Committee, he enjoys other built-in advantages that include, notably, the power to raise a great deal of money.
"Every challenger underestimates the power of incumbency and overestimates their power to get rid of the incumbent," said David Schecter, a Fresno State political science professor.
Last year, Valadao steamrolled a Democratic candidate, John Hernandez. Democrats point out that Hernandez was chronically underfunded and was almost totally off the radar screen of influential local party officials and the national party as a whole.
Renteria, by contrast, has already captured national Democrats' fancy. Veteran Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, called her "a quality candidate," while Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks campaigns, predicted "it's going to be a tough one for (Valadao) and there's going to be a lot of money spent."
Valadao currently has $448,814 in his campaign treasury, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing. He spent more than $1.1 million to win election in 2012, and Renteria said she expects the 2014 campaign spending to reach similar levels from both sides.
"I am sure we're going to have the resources to win the race," Renteria said, adding, "I honestly think this race is going to get a lot of attention."
Beyond fundraising, Schecter said an incumbent who is in a challenging region like Valadao will often get leeway from House leadership to cast votes against the party line on legislation that may be unpopular in the Democratic-majority district.
Most recently, Valadao was one of only 15 House Republicans to vote against a GOP bill that makes deep cuts in food stamp spending.
Renteria, declaring that "things are tough out here," nonetheless dismissed Valadao as not having done anything to help the district where poverty is widespread. Twenty-eight percent of the district's families report incomes below the poverty line, according to census data.
"I don't think he's been very effective at all," Renteria said.
The middle of three sisters, Renteria graduated from Woodlake High as the valedictorian and a star athlete: She was the second baseman on The Bee's 1992 Valley All-Star softball team, and in girls basketball made The Bee's all-star second team and helped Woodlake reach the regional semifinals. She was the Central Section's female scholar/athlete of the year in 1992. At Stanford, she played basketball as a walk-on, and played third base four seasons (1994-97) on the softball team, where she described herself as a slap hitter.
After a stint at Goldman Sachs and business school, as well as a year teaching high school at her alma mater, Renteria joined the staff of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. In 2006, she began working for Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, eventually rising to serve as chief of staff while Stabenow chaired the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
"My job was to put the agriculture committee together and pass a farm bill," Renteria said.
Renteria, who formally announced her candidacy on Sunday at Sanger Park, said she is prepared to "talk about my Washington experience" as a way to show how she can help district residents.
Republicans show every sign of taking her candidacy seriously.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has already established an anti-Renteria website, misleadingly called amandarenteriaforcongress.com. It identifies Renteria as a "Washington insider" and blasts her work for Feinstein, whom the website identifies as a "longtime advocate of high-speed rail." Valadao, a staunch opponent of California's high-speed rail plan, likewise casts Renteria as a newcomer to the district.
Renteria's hometown is in Rep. Devin Nunes' district. Sanger is tucked into the northeast corner of the 21st District.
"I don't really know who she is," Valadao said, "and people in the Valley really have no idea who she is."
Renteria countered that she is going to be "talking to everybody, as many folks as we can, on the ground in the little towns" as her campaign gets underway.
"I'm a girl," Renteria said, "who really does her homework."