First Latina Senate chief of staff banks on Hispanic turnout to oust Valadao

Courtesy of Amanda Renteria

The first Latina chief of staff in Senate history, Amanda Renteria, is hoping she can convince voters her government experience and personal background are enough to pick her over a tough GOP incumbent.

The Democrat, a native of California’s Central Valley, has returned home to challenge freshman Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) in the heavily Hispanic swing district.

Valadao won comfortably against a weak Democratic opponent two years ago, and since joining Congress has sought to position himself as a centrist in the district, backing immigration reform and focusing on agricultural issues.

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Democrats privately admit that the district is a tough one to crack in midterm elections, though they are encouraged to have Renteria as a candidate.

Although more than two-thirds of the district’s residents are Hispanic, they don’t typically turn out to vote in midterm elections. President Obama won the district by 11 points in 2012, but in off-year elections, the district leans slightly Republican.

“In the Central Valley, there are districts that numerically have a Democratic advantage, but in terms of turnout, there isn’t that kind of safety for Democratic lawmakers,” said California-based Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell. “Some of the Republicans in the Central Valley have been able to strike a chord on immigration that is different than what you see in the national debate.”

But Renteria is hopeful that as a major player in passing the farm bill, she can go toe to toe with the congressman on the biggest issues facing her home region. Renteria was chief of staff to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) when the Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman helped strike bipartisan agreements to pass the agriculture bill through Congress.

“My experience in working on the farm bill, and in working on the auto reorganization, both of those experiences were coalition-oriented and incredibly bipartisan, and the truth is, neither would have happened without the skills of being able to bring people together,” she told The Hill in a recent interview.

“I think that is what makes me unique in a world and a time where so many people have been rewarded for just stopping the system, someone who knows what it feels like when the farm bill gets done, who knows what it feels like when you’ve actually moved our country forward because you brought everyone together, that spirit and energy, as well as know-how, is something that’s really missing,” she continued.

Renteria says that’s the background she has. After graduating from Stanford University and Harvard Business School, she returned to Northern California to work in city government before taking a job with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and moving to D.C.

She’s also looked to leverage her bilingual background and roots in the region against Valadao, a Portuguese-American dairy farmer who also has a background common in the Central Valley. Renteria was the first Democrat to advertise in Spanish this election and has done interviews in both English and Spanish for the campaign, stumping at local menudo festivals as well as county fairs.

Her policy positions are those of a Democrat looking to appeal across the aisle. Renteria says she strongly opposes a national cap-and-trade system to deal with global warming, saying “there’s no way I think it makes sense” because of its potential economic impact on farming.

The Democratic hopeful also refused to say how she would have voted on ObamaCare, though she says that something needed to be done at the time and that she opposes repealing the law now.

Renteria argues that Valadao, despite his work across the aisle on immigration and water issues, isn’t doing enough.

“The Central Valley is in a different place right now in terms of the crises that are going around, on water, immigration, education. People aren’t working because of the drought,” she said. “We’re in a place that’s been long forgotten, and no one’s helped.”

Renteria also accused the freshman incumbent of only backing comprehensive immigration reform for political reasons. She points out that Valadao opposed the California Dream Act, which would have given young immigrants in the state illegally access to in-state tuition and scholarships, and says he should have signed a discharge petition to force a vote on comprehensive national reform on the House floor.

Valadao’s campaign fired back, citing his work across the aisle as critical to breaking partisan gridlock.

“Congressman Valadao remains committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, our opponent continues to regurgitate the tired, partisan talking points of her liberal pals in Washington, D.C.,” Valadao campaign spokesman Tal Eslick said in a statement.