It’s a long way from Woodlake, where Amanda Renteria’s parents once toiled as migrant workers, to the political beehive in Brooklyn that serves as headquarters for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Their daughter is the Democratic candidate’s highest-ranking Hispanic staffer in an effort that has become – for her – personal as much as it is political.
Renteria, 41, is Clinton’s national political director, a key lieutenant in the battle against Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose criticism of Mexicans has been central to his campaign.
She’s responsible for the day-to-day moving parts of the campaign’s get-out-the-vote and political outreach operation. Elected officials and a checklist that includes slices of the electorate are all part of her portfolio: Hispanics, African-Americans, Jews, Roman Catholics, millennials, the LGBT community and anti-Trump Republicans, among others.
But Renteria’s task has become more than just finding the right alchemy of supporters to win.
Trump’s drumbeat ‑ building a wall to keep out immigrants; Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers – carries a painful resonance. She worries about the virulent emotions this campaign has unleashed and their possible lasting effect.
“It’s really a tough election because it’s made politics personal in a way that I think no other election has, at least in my lifetime,” Renteria said. “It’s a hard thing … knowing I’m Mexican-American and knowing the way Trump’s demonizing me.”
But she’s more concerned about “what my kids think and see.”
Renteria is one of the Democratic Party’s rising generation of influential players. Her résumé ‑ Stanford, Wall Street, Harvard, Capitol Hill ‑ can be a first-class ticket to Washington’s power salons, where elite schools and powerful contacts matter.
She was also a standout college athlete, a financial planner for the city of San Diego and a high school teacher and coach. She ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain (“I had to hide because no girls and drunks were allowed at that time”), and swam the mile crossing to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.
“Of course she did!” said her former boss and mentor, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
She left Stabenow’s office, where she rose to become her chief of staff, to run for Congress herself two years ago, challenging incumbent David Valadao. She lost, and was weighing a second try in 2016 when Clinton beckoned.
“Some people marry for comfort. I married for interesting,” said her husband, Patrick Brannelly, a program director for a nonprofit brain research group. “I did know exactly what I was in for.”
I didn’t grow up talking about politics at the kitchen table. … This election, it’s a change for an entire generation of Latinos because there no doubt you haven’t talked about this at your kitchen table.
Amanda Renteria, Clinton campaign political director
She and Brannelly have two boys, ages 4 and 6. She’s up with them at 6:30, making breakfast. But the campaign is one gigantic time suck. So Renteria, who has an ever-increasing to-do list in her head and an ever-decreasing amount of time to do it, also carries around the guilt felt by many parents who work all-consuming jobs.
In a Post-it note to her boys that she stuck to the refrigerator, Renteria wrote: “I know momma’s been gone a lot lately, but one day you’ll know it’s because I love you and want you to grow up in a world where anything is possible. Te Amo, Mama!”
“I think they get it,” Renteria said hopefully one recent afternoon at headquarters, two upper floors of an office building not far from the Brooklyn Bridge.
She was in her usual campaign mode: eyeglasses perched atop her head; her phone attached by ear buds. She carries a black notebook in one hand, in which she scribbles in red pen; and a cup of coffee in the other. She carries it around all day.
Renteria and her aides meet around a small table in her office, which looks out over a vast room of desks, cubicles and computers. Clinton may be having trouble luring millennials, but you wouldn’t know it by the looks of her headquarters, perhaps best described as college dorm meets Silicon Valley. Some workers park themselves and their laptops on large pillows inside the stairwells.
In one meeting, the discussion was about an ad airing on Spanish-language stations in Florida featuring Carlos Gutierrez. He’s a Cuban-American Republican and was the commerce secretary for President George W. Bush. He opposes Trump and is supporting Clinton.
“I think that’s going to move the dial for us in Miami,” said Sylvia Ruiz, director of Latino paid media for the campaign, sitting across from Renteria.
Energizing the Hispanic vote in swing states such as Florida is vital. Polls show that Clinton’s Hispanic support is strong, but there’s been grumbling that she’s not doing enough to make sure Hispanic voters show up on Election Day.
It’s hard to overstate their importance – 15 percent of the state’s electorate, according to the Florida Division of Elections. If Clinton wins all 18 states that every Democrat has carried in the past six presidential contests, plus Florida, then Trump’s home come January will remain Trump Tower.
Campaigns are tidal and veterans know how to roll with each shift in momentum. The heady days immediately following the Democratic convention, when Clinton led Trump by as much as the 15 points, measured in a McClatchy-Marist poll, created a false sense of well-being.
Lately, she’s been facing head winds.
“It’s tightened,” Renteria repeated matter-of-factly in nearly every meeting and phone call with campaign workers around the country. “We expected that. It’s why the grass roots is so important.”
Having somebody like Amanda out of the Central Valley being a political director for a major presidential candidate and potentially the next president of the United States is something folks … all across the Central Valley are very proud of.
Roger Salazar, a Sacramento-based Democratic media strategist
As time shortens, frustrations mount. Hard to take are the self-inflicted wounds. Like Clinton’s glib “basket of deplorables” description of half of Trump’s supporters. Or her decision not to reveal her pneumonia until compelled by a videotape of her nearly collapsing went public. That triggered a media frenzy about her health that suffocated everything else and had her straining for political oxygen.
It’s also a change election, and Clinton’s the one stuck with a gilt-edged establishment résumé. A quarter of a century inside the corridors of power ain’t what it used to be, at least not this year.
Marlon Marshall, Renteria’s immediate boss and a veteran of several presidential campaigns and the Obama White House, said Renteria did not get rattled.
“I think she does a great job taking that step back to determine what is the best way to move the ball forward,” said Marshall, Clinton’s director of states and political engagement.
It’s a cliché, but for Renteria, it fits.
She’s a lifelong jock. At Woodlake High, she wouldn’t allow herself to leave basketball practice until she’d made 12 consecutive free throws.
She played third base on the Stanford softball team and basketball, as well, with the scars to show for it: one slashed across her knee from three ACL surgeries and another on her shin, the result of crashing into a fence chasing a pop-up.
She also played semi-pro softball and still enjoys pickup basketball, usually staff face-offs of women vs. men. As Stabenow’s chief of staff, “one of the ways she did networking was to play basketball with a lot of the male chiefs,” the Michigan senator said.
Renteria’s father, Trinidad, was a Mexican immigrant; her mother, Helen, was Mexican-American. They raised three daughters; Amanda was in the middle.
Even today, no matter what I do, I’m still a Woodlake girl. I’m still that small-town girl.
As a little girl, she became part of a traditional Mexican dance troupe that performed all over the Valley, because her father told her, “I want you to know who you are and where you come from.”
He worked in construction. Her mother was a secretary. It was a rural, small-town American life. High school football games on Friday night. Family and community were paramount. Politics was rarely, if ever, a topic at the kitchen table. But she learned the weight that comes with making your mark.
When she was accepted to Stanford University, the first young woman and Latina ever from her high school, a teacher pulled her aside.
“ ‘It’s not about you,’ ” Renteria said, recalling the teacher’s words. “ ‘It’s about our community and that someone like you can succeed at a place like that.’ That stuck with me.”
It’s no surprise Renteria played third base, one of the most demanding positions on the diamond, where speed and soft, quick hands are required. Balls come at you like rockets. The short hop, if misplayed, can be treacherous.
“You work so hard to be good at it, but at the moment of truth, it’s letting your instincts work because you don’t have enough time,” Renteria said. “I think about that often in moments that you have in life, where you hope you’ve prepared enough … so that at the moment of truth, when there’s no time to think, you move in the right direction. I know the instinct you need to have so you don’t actually get hit in the mouth.”
And isn’t that pretty much what successful political campaigns are all about?