Code for Americas Amanda Renteria Lost Some Battles, but Is Winning the Political War
For much of her career, Amanda Renteria was the right-hand woman to a lot of powerful people as economic policy advisor to US senator Dianne Feinstein as Chief of Staff to u.s. Senator, Debbie stabenow and National phone directory for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Amanda also ran for office herself first for congress, then for governor of California today. She's leading code for America which partners with government jobs it work better through technology. We talk about what it's like to have a career that's constantly evolving and being an influential boss after years of working for other powerful people. Thank you for doing this Amanda course, it's good to see you. It's good to see you off of Twitter an email. I know Amanda your career zigzags, but the through life to me is a commitment to service growing up. What did service look like in your home service looked like really being part of the community and everyone came from you know, attending festivals to helping up the school to Church events. So it wasn't particularly service per se and the way that I think I understand public service to be today, but it was being part of a community being part of making sure, you know, everyone's taking care of and I think particularly when you grow up in rural, California and you know Latino Community households, it's about the kids and what does their future hold? So even though it's about the community there's an eye towards what does it look like in the future I found dead. Really cute photos of you as a kid doing folklore. Dance. Oh, I love my brother or I loved performing. I should say. I'm not sure I live practices 2 hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You look great doing it. And I also had to pull up a map to understand where in California you had grown up. I now get it sent Joaquin Valley your dad. I'm from Mexico in the sixties. Your mom is Mexican American Born in the states grew up in Woodlake, California. How did they instill in you a sense of who you are? Well, it's funny. You say well, I think my dad would say red bank's which was the labor camp. He actually grew up in and then everyone stayed in Woodlake after some of the toughest labor camps got dismantled in California dead. From the earliest ages growing up where I did we both attended Chevy avaz and rodeos and those are basically a Mexican rodeo. And so we lived this long my sisters and I of Mexican dancing and also learning about the country culture and mixing those two. I often described as everybody wears a hat off whether it's a cowboy hat or a bunch metal hat my dad happens to wear a trench it'll hat and so there was just really interesting world of combining different cultures together all around all around farming and so it was wonderful to grow up there and for me the learning Mexican dancing was learning about my culture. You go to Stanford double major in economics and political science. Here's the private rail of most which is that you walked onto the softball team third base and the basketball team guard cuz it's like God, that's all like, I'm stood next time. I know for I feel like the walking on two two collegiate sports teams. There's got to be a lesson baked in their thoughts about not waiting for an invitation. Hey, I didn't know how hard it would be which I think is probably a good thing cuz you do it. Anyway, there's a couple of reasons. I did it one. I did love sports package. I had to figure out how to pay for college. I didn't want my parents to know how expensive it was. I was really afraid that at any moment they would pull me back and say you can't do this, you know, you gain too far away. My academic advisor said, you know, don't worry about it. You'll have loans at the end of this and I was trying to explain don't you I can't just go home and say that like it's at the time twenty-two thousand bucks a month. And so I tried to figure out how do you have a pay for and she just sort of in the discussion said, you know, the only people who really get out of here without any debt are folks who get full-ride scholarships and they you know Sports and I was like sports I can do that. And so fortunately I did I got an athletic scholarship. 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So I did that as an honors thesis, but I felt like I needed to learn more about the professional World more about business more about how things worked and wages of people at Stanford were applying to all these different jobs. I really liked math and numbers and economics and financial services were there and I fell in love with learning how to be a professional wearing a suit. I didn't know how to do that going to cloth napkin restaurants was all new to me and the intensity of financial markets really fit wage. With just the energy and the competitive nature of it. I really just found it to pull me in so that I learned the craft of business and financial services that really happened throughout policy and everything else to really understand that side of the world. My dad always taught us as well to figure out, you know, business and money and understand it. He's always trying to follow the money anytime I'd ask more questions like me cannot follow the money and I think that just stuck and I felt like I needed to learn more it was my next step of understanding the real world. And so I took that for 3 and 1/2 years, but as you said 3 and 1/2 years your first career Pivot Point you had home to California to teach. Yeah, I still say this day the hardest decisions in my career was leaving my first job largely because that's what you're good at. That's what you know, I had just been in I figured out how to make ends meet figured out is about my only also the the company page. She had to be alluring totally and and the future potential compensation as well. But that was never a driving motivator for me. I suppose still hasn't since I haven't gone back into the private sector, but the way I left had a lot to do with going back home being with my mom. She's talking to her comadre and we're at a basketball game in my hometown and leans over was like what I'm doing now because people at that time remembered I was the first woman Latina from my high school to go to Stanford. It was a really big deal at the time and so here's now looking back saying, you know, what is she doing now boss and my mom's like well, she's working on a bank kind of like a bank teller and I remember just hearing her words and it wasn't her description and it wasn't it was the tone. It was the she was supposed to do something and I drove back to LA going man. What am I supposed to be doing? You know, what am I supposed to be doing in this world? And so I moved back home. To teach and coach for a lot of folks that Goldman. It was a very strange change. I fell in love with teaching and that was my first public service job and I fell in love with the idea that you wake up every day to help Empower people. It was meaningful and meant something and so thank goodness. I had that moment that I over heard my parents talking about that a lot with my own kids. I think a lot of people who have that moment of recognizing that what they want to do is commit themselves to a career in public service. They then if they choose an advanced degree turn around and get a masters of public policy or a masters of public administration. Why going at the MBA instead? I understood my skills. I understood I saw the world is such a gift that young to understand your skills when your early twenties know that well partly I understood it because I left it in such a stark difference right? I went from Financial Services. Is 2 in the classroom and I recognized while I loved being in the classroom and I loved doing that. I knew I had something I knew I was good at that thing. I was doing for 3 and 1/2 years. It just felt right to me and it felt different than the academic philosophy that I felt like I studied a lot more at Stanford and so business felt like a framing I understood it was asked if I got I was surprised I got into Harvard Business School to be fair. And when I got there it did all make sense. It did make a ton of its fit me well for them or my skill-set for how I thought about the world. I certainly didn't fit in there. I think that's probably a common theme in my life that I somehow belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but I was on a different coast different experience with the classroom full of folks who didn't grow up in the same way that I did. I relate to that so deeply the fitting and everywhere fitting in know where I suppose a lot of us do and then as if just to continue to confound people you go to Capitol Hill I do well I did not Capitol Hill initially. I graduated from business school and went where do I how do I get back to the office combination of the rewards of teaching and the intensity and the power of like financial markets and I thought where do those things combined and I thought it was government and so off I went right on the front lines work in the city of San Jose worked on Community Development block grants that work directly with Community empowerment and I happened to be in Senator Feinstein's office asking her to support these and six months later that senior advisor says, you know, I know this is an interesting call out of the Blues, but would you ever be interested in working for Senator Feinstein person? I wrote about in my honors thesis home. And how could you not say? Yes, I thought I'd do it for a year. And then after a decade one year after another it was an incredibly fascinating time. I was there during the Great Recession working at that point for the senator from Michigan Debbie stabenow. The Affordable Care Act was done. I was on the finance committee. And then in my final stint she became chairwoman of the ad committee which in fact was brought me right back home to where I grew up again. And so yeah every single year built on the other and I really did fall in love with being in the Senate. Part of the reason why I fell in love with it is cuz I did feel like I was able to stretch it a little bit here and there I was eight months pregnant while we were deciding whether or not maternity care would be in the base bill of the Affordable Care Act and it was moments like that that it mattered to be in the room when so the Sonia Sotomayor was voted in. I was on the floor and the Senators crying in the corner. I'd like to think that even though I was just one person there that there were times where I pulled it in that direction. And so I do see it as this place of hope but also of like a slow-moving piece of work. Well put I want to tell you about a comedy podcast that I think you'll love it's called Spanish presents each week Spanish at keep presents highlights the best song next comedy and experience with exciting gas discussions about Latin X culture and even a little improv Spanish. I keep presents is hosted by comedians Carlos Santos Reyes Alicea equipment failure and Tony Rodriguez with special guests, like after Luis Guzman first Latina Disney princess and my girl Aimee Carrero, he has a tumor designer pet ocado. And even Mister Cheney himself Pitbull and if you're asking yourself do I need to know Spanish to enjoy this podcast? The answer is no but you might learn a little along the way listen to Spanish. I keep presents in your podcasts app now and subscribes you don't miss an episode. For someone who doesn't know what does a chief of staff to u.s. Senator do I used to call it the land of uncomfortable conversations? Cuz you always have a choice figure out how to make things work. Right? You also had to be the one that says things that Senators not appropriate for the center to take on or that, you know, the staff has worked through but there's that last thing you've got to negotiate off so it's bull putting strategy putting, you know, some vision and Leadership on it, but really doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work to make things happen. You were the first Latina Chief of Staff in the history of the United States Senate. How did that actually show up for you in your lived experience of doing the job as funny there was an article on the hill thought that yes there were doing the Chiefs on right and the title was Renteria doesn't blend in there were moments. I just didn't fit him, but I think that was okay Thursday. But like tell me like do you remember any of them? Yeah, I mean they were kind of all over the place like when we'd be in a room and we were talking about immigrant communities and what it meant in healthcare and people looked around like well, how do you immigrant? I remember this conversation like well, how do immigrant communities like get Healthcare and everyone like looked around and it was like but let me tell you right it was that same story of being a chief of staff pregnant and trying to figure out how to make a coat fit so you can get on the senate floor and you look around you long as anyone had this problem before why is it just me it was when you walked into the lunchroom and you looked around or when people were talking about whether or not the Senate dining hall should be unionized and you know, your mom was part of a union and that's how you would Healthcare when you were younger cuz she was a secretary for the schools. It came up so often in many ways that it was just kind of like the daily life. But it was also I think for me a language I was learning to one of the things that would be interesting for me. And when I got to Senator Feinstein's office calling the Senator Senator, I thought how do I advise somebody that I have to give a formal title to cuz for me the one and Dona means you speak a certain way you don't give advice to your don't alonia. So there was all these cultural changes that were really different for me as an advisor for me. Just walking around the halls looking at what I'm seeing what I was driving into work. It's also what I came to love over time. Is that okay? How do I use this to ask interesting questions? Do we need a senator's own elevator? I get that people need to get to the the floor soon. But it's really that the people's house. Right? Is that does that feel like that? That's part of the challenge of being on the hill though, right which is that you are so far removed from a lot of the communities that you seek to serve. That's right. And that's been the story of my life going back and forth the financial services going back home to teach and coach that bouncing back and forth is me because if I get too far away, it doesn't feel like I I know my roots as well. I don't know how to keep that up over time. But even the summer I we spent the time with my family trying to teach my kids what it's like to be gay family what it's like to be in Rural America what it's like to be and the kind of communities I grew up and but I think that's what makes for good policy the more good stewardship good leadership the more money you keep making that connection. I think we are a better world. If we don't lose that touch 2016 you were hired to be the national political director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. What does being the national political director for a campaign like that entail? So in this case it was two things. It was one working with elected leaders all across the country making sure they had what they needed obviously getting endorsements as part of the process cuz we had a superdelegate race. It was a little bit structured differently and then the other was building out our constituent services. So making sure we had Outreach leaders in the different communities African-American lgbtq Latin X etcetera and then along that process because of relationships. I got pulled in as the senior advisor who went to Flint or when zika happened got pulled in to go and have a communication awareness effort there. And so it puts you in the middle of in some ways. I could Chief of Staff where you're working behind the scenes with a lot of folks who are in front of the camera. It was I have to say just seen the country in a presidential. There's nothing quite changing. Like it obviously this year's different but there's nothing quite like traveling to like 35 different states many more than once talking about their lives. Where were you on June 8th 2016. I was in Javits Center. I was one of the spokespeople. I remember when we all had to go off air. I remember my last question before elections started which was what you think it will mean to have, you know, a woman lead the most powerful nation in the world. Yeah, and then to go from there just several hours later it not happening. But the shock of it all on the drive back home because I didn't want to stay in Manhattan. I felt like when my kids woke up. I needed to tell them I we're 3:00 in the morning and my husband and I are on a you know in a cab back home so I could get up in three hours to tell them actually happened. So it was a tough moment and I think in some ways again, I go back to my roots it led me back to that same lesson learned when I ran for congress, which is Faith. You gotta build power from the ground up people have to feel engage all across the country at school board races and local races. You don't do it in one election cycle. It really is every day in day out building leadership and Power. I want to recommend a podcast that offers Big Ideas and surprising stories. It's called pin drop from Ted. You'll journey across the globe with filmmaker Solium Rush of Allah in search of the most imaginative ideas from each place this season here from a handful of musicians like Renata Flores who are bringing Pride back to quechua bruised native language with their music and listen to locals from Rapa Nui AKA Easter Island to find out what happens to the tourism Paradise when people stop showing up be sure to check out pin drop wherever you listen. You run for office Twice first for congress then for governor of California what went into that first decision to run for Congress? After being on the hill for ten years you look around and you say if you really want to change policy What's Next Step? It's not lost that you can you know be in the first letter, you know, chief of staff and recognizing you can only call so far and then you need to make sure that if you want to change policy, you got to change a policy makers that really was the first step of it did that occur to you first or did someone come back recruit you and plant that seed what I knew is we need to change the way policy was made and fought for in the place that I grew up. And so I want to get a policy-maker that could do that kind of work. It wasn't necessarily me. But when I was talking to my girlfriends and I was like goddamn this is what we need in the Central Valley. And so I'm thinking about how can I get someone there to fight off this stuff in the same way that Senators sit down and I'll fights right? How can I get someone from my home town to do that? And like any good girlfriend looks around like come on man. Like you're the one that says if not you who that support that stuck which is if not you who so then you throw your hat in the ring and you do it and I gotta say one of the biggest lessons from running, you know, I was talking to change one of my base audience right older Latino women like my mom they were my strongest base where I grew up she says to me but like don't you think we need someone like them to represent us wage? And for me that just stuck which was oh my goodness. We're not just running for office. We are trying to change what the image of leadership is. I want people to look in the mirror as who should be your leader and it looks like you no matter who you are. And so we changed our campaign at that moment from the ads. We were telling it was much more about the strawberry so that they could see someone like them could lead even if we weren't going to lead in this one and that's largely why also joined the presidential campaign cuz I thought God if we can change the image of leadership in one cycle, what a difference that can make again at that local level is people would see themselves. I think it makes an impact on anyone that's been left out. In general, we don't talk a lot about losses. What did you learn from? Those two defeats what you're fighting for? My biggest lesson of the feet 1 a.m. Is when I saw my poll numbers in the Congressional race and realize it was nearly impossible to win a general election. So that no matter how hard I worked wage no matter the fact that we put in a modern campaign that we raise more money than anyone had Ever Raised by a long shot during that period of time. We reached out to more communities etcetera, etcetera. It just not gonna happen and that moment of what are we fighting for? Why did we do this became so crystal clear to me that by the end of the general election, even though we're all crying foul campaign team was hugging and I loved that team no matter what happened. I told them because we were fighting for something in that fight doesn't end at that point and that's giving me some clarity to fight for them. Have your voice heard is a one how can our listeners prepare and help others prepare in the months ahead. Like we keep hearing plan your vote. What what do we need to be doing inside? Our own families in front of groups? We are really good at Community. One of the things that we do is we hang out we bring everyone together. We that's what you learn to do. It is now time to do that for voting age and I will say this which is there's a lot of questions this year about when new vote how to vote and I think it is incumbent on all of us who are in these networks are in these circles to not only get people to vote but educate folks both on what they're voting for as well as deconstructing some of the misinformation that's out there the biggest wage I think massive effort we can put in is this misinformation campaign about whatever it is including the difficulty of voting we need to educate folks not only on how to vote but yep. Vote. I think we're in the perfect Nexus as Latinas to do that. You're now the CEO of code for America. How does running a nonprofit compared to working on Capitol Hill or a working on a campaign or running for office? In some ways it's not too different than being behind the scenes working on the hill cuz it's about the work and what you're doing so very much feels a little bit. Like when I was at the city of San Jose first started out at the local level. The difference is that we are working with a tool and a medium technology that has the ability to make change at scale. That part of me is pretty remarkable, you know, we often talk about you can make change of scale and government and you can make change at scale and technology and bringing them together really has an opportunity to change how systems work in our country. We're going to use technology. We've got to make sure that we are bending technology for good. And so we spend a lot of our time not just offering programs that are out there making government systems better, but it's how do we make government systems that are particularly focused on communities that have been left out food stamps are Earned Income Tax Credit, that's the kind of programs that we're doing. Thanks for joining us Latina to Latina is executive-produced and owned by Julie Ogle Antigua Williams and me Alicia Menendez, Virginia. Laura is our managing producer cedrick Wilson is our professor Catalina Rodriguez mixed. This episode is our social media editor. We love hearing from you email us at Ola and remember to subscriber follow us on radio public Apple podcast on Google podcasts, wherever you are listening. And please please leave a review. It is one of the fastest easiest ways to help us grow as a community off.