Julie Chávez Rodríguez grew up in the labor movement. Now she runs Biden's campaign
On a table in the Oval Office, just behind the Resolute Desk, there's a bronze bust of a famous labor leader prominently displayed among photos of President Biden's family.
The bust honors United Farm Workers union leader César Chávez. And now, Biden has named his granddaughter — Julie Chávez Rodríguez — as campaign manager for his 2024 reelection campaign.
For years, she's worked mainly out of the spotlight in Democratic politics. Now, she will oversee thousands of political staff and volunteers and coordinate closely with the White House to get Biden's message out to voters.
Chávez Rodríguez has "spent her life fighting for the causes that the president champions" and bases her political strategy on understanding what people are going through, said Jen O'Malley Dillon, who was Biden's campaign manager for his 2020 race. (O'Malley Dillon, who is now Biden's deputy chief of staff, spoke to NPR in her personal capacity.)
"What she is carrying on her shoulders, there is not a bigger job when it comes to this work. And there is nobody that's more ready for it because of the path that she's had to get to this point," O'Malley Dillon said.
As a kid, Chávez Rodríguez got an early taste of the power of a well-organized campaign, watching and listening to her grandfather lead farm workers.
Her uncle, Paul Chávez, said she started to get involved before she was even a teenager, passing out flyers at union headquarters.
"I can remember her coming home from school — she was in elementary school, maybe middle school, coming in and just having a curiosity," he said, recalling how she would ask what she could do to help around the union offices.
When she was 9, she was arrested – while picketing with her parents at a local grocery store.
"It's those kinds of experiences that will impact a person. It helps really form who they are," Paul Chávez said.
She played an important role in the Obama White House
After college, Chávez Rodríguez volunteered for the Obama campaign, and then joined his administration.
She was first responsible for the administration's outreach to the Latino community, but quickly moved up the ranks, joining the Office of Public Engagement.
Her boss was Valerie Jarrett, one of former President Barack Obama's closest advisers. They worked together on connecting the White House with different constituencies, from business to labor to advocates.
Chávez Rodríguez always did her homework, but Jarrett says she never traded on her last name – not even when Obama flew to California to dedicate a national monument to César Chávez.
Jarrett recalled how when it came time for the president to pose for photos with the family, Chávez Rodríguez stood back.
"I saw Julie standing way off to the side and I said, 'Julie, why aren't you in the photo?'" Jarrett said. "And she said, 'No, no, I'm staffing.' And I said, 'Julie: you're his granddaughter.'"
Chávez Rodríguez worked for Harris before Biden
Chávez Rodríguez went on to work for then-Senator Kamala Harris in her California office, and later worked on Harris' 2020 presidential campaign. After the bruising Democratic primary battle, she joined Biden's team.
It was a time when there were a lot of questions about whether Biden could unite the party. Chávez Rodríguez was called upon to have tough conversations with allies, said Cristóbal Alex, who worked with her on the campaign and later at the White House.
Chávez Rodríguez tapped into her deep relationships in the labor community and various coalitions to help explain why they all needed to come together.
"We use to have this slogan on the campaign when she joined in 2020," Alex said. "The slogan was, 'In Julie We Trust.'"
Biden is known for counting on a very small circle of political advisers. Some of them have been with him for decades. Chávez Rodríguez — who has been his point person with governors and mayors — doesn't have that same kind of history with him.
But she clearly has his trust, says Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey. He credited Chávez Rodríguez with getting Biden to visit New Jersey following Hurricane Ida.
"You could tell when somebody's got the command of the room and the respect of the principal – she is in the cockpit," said Murphy, who is also chairman of the National Governors Association.
She is a senior Latina in Biden's White House
Chávez Rodríguez' rise to such a high-profile campaign position is a sign of the Latino community's political force, said Cecilia Muñoz, who directed the Domestic Policy Council during the Obama administration.
"I've been watching email chains of former Obama administration officials, Latino community leaders who were out talking amongst ourselves, but also out in social media that are just so moved knowing that Julie's going to be in this kind of leadership position," Muñoz said.
"It's a milestone for the community — but especially because it's Julie," said Muñoz, who described Chávez Rodríguez as an organizer who "puts people first."
Her uncle sees some poetic justice in her new role
Chávez Rodríguez was just 6 when her grandfather, while announcing a boycott of grapes, delivered a word of caution for politicians of the day.
In his famous 1984 speech at the Commonwealth Club of California, César Chávez warned that the children and grandchildren of farm workers would remember the moment.
"They want to make their careers in politics," he said. "They want to hold power 20 and 30 years from now."
Paul Chávez said he thinks his father wouldn't be surprised that Chávez Rodríguez is playing such an important role in national politics — but he would be proud.
"The interesting thing is, for all those years that my dad led the farm worker movement, he was never invited to the White House," Chávez said.
"And now his granddaughter is running the reelection campaign for the president who seeks to remain in the White House. So there is some poetic justice in all of this."
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