She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
When Amanda Renteria entered the race for California governor in February — just four months before the primaries — she sent the political establishment into a shudder. Her sudden entrance mystified politicos, many of whom questioning her intentions and inspiring conspiracy theories. For the Mexican-American candidate, who has long worked in politics and pushed for more women in government, the speculations are inapt but not entirely surprising.
“When no one like you — a woman, a woman of color — has ever won the governorship of California, people are skeptical of your ability to win,” Renteria, a 43-year-old Central Valley native, told Fierce.
Renteria is running in hopes of changing what she calls a “sick” political culture, one that views a woman’s campaign for elected office as more of a ploy than an effort by a highly experienced candidate to bring change to her community.
According to the former national political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, California needs new leadership, one that can inspire new generations, bring new voices to the table and is present and listens to the people they govern.
In June, the long-time politico, who has worked for Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in Washington and, most recently, was the chief of operations at the California Department of Justice, will face frontrunners Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa in the race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown.
Unlike her contenders, who have raised millions of dollars for their campaigns, Renteria believes part of changing the current culture of politics is breaking away from traditional fundraising and moving toward grassroots campaigning. Renteria, who ran for Congress in the Central Valley in 2014 and lost, despite raising $1.7 million with help from Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden, believes social media, rather than big-money politics, will help her win the election.
We chatted with Renteria, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and a Mexican-American mother, about her decision to run, her thoughts on her campaign backlash, her vision for California and the need for more Latinas in elected office.
Why did you decide to run for office?
We need to change our culture of politics. Not only that but we need to bring new faces and leaders. We are seeing so much new energy, whether today’s high school students speaking out, the Women’s March or the Dreamers movement, there’s a whole world of young energy and we need to bring in new voices into the political sphere. I believe we need a governor who harnesses that energy and listens, and one of the things you hear is that we have to change politics and you do that with new leadership.
How do you intend on changing the culture of politics?
You have to be where the people are. Already in my events, I’ve been speaking to young women organizations. My first appearance was with IGNITE, which helps to get young women engaged and tells them you have a voice and you can run. My second event will be back in my hometown, where I’ll be talking to families, most of them with connections to the Dreamers movement. It’s important to tell them we are with you. This is a farmworkers community, where I grew up, and we need to be there. We need to talk about the tough issues. I spent time in Delano talking with farmworker women, who are also a part of the #MeToo movement, even though they’re left out. We need to be there. There are so many issues where young people are engaged and involved, and we need to be with them, sharing their stories and elevating their voices.
You recently released your policy platform. Can you discuss some of the issues most important to you?
There are six basic things Californians want to see, and one is that they want a government that works only for them. And that’s what I intend to do. We also need safety, and this means with guns and making sure people aren’t coming into your homes and ripping families apart as well as safety at work. Obviously, seeing as I worked on maternity care, I believe in affordable health services. Another thing important in Central Valley is clean air and clean water. I was sent to Flint and know that everyone should have a basic right to clean air and clean water. Another important issue is education. We have to make sure our education system is forward-leaning and ready for the world we are living in. Also, we need to make sure people have affordable and accessible housing. In California, this is a unique challenge for us, but I believe it’s an important basic right for all Californians. The first thing I laid out in my policy platform, however, was changing the culture of politics and detaching money in politics. I don’t think you should be getting paid a full-time salary as a lieutenant governor while running a business. We already see how that’s a problem with our current president. We have to make that impossible. We need people who are working 100 percent for the people. That’s what public service is about. I also don’t think candidates should be able to fundraise until six months before an election. People get elected and then start working on re-election instead of governing. I believe in public service and believe in the possibilities of making a difference and improving people’s lives.
As a former national political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and most recently former chief of operations at the California Department of Justice, how do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for elected office?
I think it’s incredibly important to have done the work, to be the person who is at the table and understanding what it means to pass a bill and work with stakeholders. I’ve managed extremely large budgets and a team of 100 people. I understand policy at the highest stake. I worked in the Senate during a period of time that policy effected our lives immensely, during the financial crises, the Affordable Care Act and the Farm Bill. When I was working with the senator of Michigan, we had to get through the auto-reorganization. All of this has been a really important training ground. I’m not sure there could be better training. It’s particularly important here in California right now to have a governor who knows the way Washington works, who is prepared to fight with this administration, to go into the fight with eyes wide open and know what we are doing when engaging with the administration. No one else running for this office has as much experience working with the federal government that is affecting us today.
Even with this vast experience, there has been some questioning of your motivation for running and doubts about your chances of winning. How do you handle that?
I have to put it in context: When no one like you — a woman, a woman of color — has ever won the governorship of California, people are skeptical of your ability to win. Having been the first woman and Latino from my high school to go to Stanford, more people told me I couldn’t than I could. As the first Latina chief of staff, you don’t think you could do that living in rural America. But over time you train, you grow confidence. There are naysayers, but in this country, a lot is possible. That’s what makes America and California great. Our state is so diverse and innovative, I don’t think it makes sense to tell people things are impossible. That’s what we do here in California: we win and we make things possible that we are told was impossible. But doing something that hasn’t been done before makes people nervous. Everything about my career and life has been consistent; it’s been about making a difference for others. The reaction toward my entering the race shows the sickness of the current political culture. People no longer believe you want to make a difference. They think you must be doing what someone else told you to do. When I’ve had the choice to sell out and make money, every single time I chose to take the path to make the most difference. This happened to me when I ran in my hometown. I was at the height of my career, but I didn’t take the lobby job. Instead, I went home to make a difference. You don’t choose your calling. This is mine, and it’s been consistent.
In the past, you have stated that Trump’s rhetoric surrounding Mexicans and immigrants affected you personally, saying “It’s a hard thing … knowing I’m Mexican-American and knowing the way Trump’s demonizing me.” Has his election inspired you at all to run for office?
Of course. Someone told me recently that I’m the antithesis to Trump. I worked on Clinton’s campaign, as the highest-ranking Latina; I’m the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father; I’m of a younger generation; and I make up my own mind. Even the idea of where he was born and raised, him in a big city and me in a rural small town; him of millionaire parents and me of a farmworker community. It was funny when I heard that I was the antithesis of who he is and what he stands for, but it’s true.
I know you care deeply about expanding the number of women in elected positions, even writing your senior thesis on women in politics. What do you think you, as a woman, as a Latina and as a child of an immigrant, could bring to California politics?
I’ve always believed that it’s important for women to run. The numbers are not there. We are not at the table. This has always been true, but right now we have a moment to truly turn the page. We are seeing women empowerment in ways we never did before. Women are saying, I know I can do this, and it’s really important for young people, especially those just entering their professional careers or who are still young in it, to see women out there doing this, being courageous enough to step up, listening to them and ensuring that their future will be easier than the path before.
What would governing your state mean to you?
It’s interesting because I don’t look at it as what it would mean to me but who we are as Californians. We claim to see ourselves as progressives who are leading the country to new and better places, and we keep saying in this country, in the Democratic Party, that we need different faces, new voices and to listen to new perspectives. We need to really make that come true. California will continue to be on the leading front and we need to take the rest of the country, too.
Do you have a message for Latinas with dreams to run for public office but see those as unfeasible?
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My abuela would say, if you don’t see it, then other people can’t. I know Latinas see themselves as leaders. I know we feel that passion inside. But often what happens is we hear society tell us we can’t do it or we let someone else tell us when it’s our time or think we have to wait till we are “really” ready. But I think we have to look inside ourselves and say no, that fire is here. We don’t have to wait. Step up when you know there’s a path forward and you can make a difference.
The primary election will be held on June 5 with the top two finishers – regardless of party – facing off in the general election on November 6.