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Renteria Doesn’t Blend In

Correction Appended

Amanda Renteria’s parents emigrated from central Mexico in the 1960s to work as fruit pickers in California. They settled in the rural town of Woodlake and raised three daughters. When Renteria, the middle child, was accepted to Stanford University and signed on with the elite school’s basketball team, her small high school was so thrilled that an announcement was made over the intercom system.

“I was completely embarrassed. All I wanted to do was blend in,” Renteria said, still cringing at the memory.

Now the top aide to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Renteria does not always blend in. Nor does she try to. At 33, she is one of the younger chiefs of staff and is the only Latina chief in the Senate. She plays in a male-dominated basketball league. In fact, she’s such a fitness junkie that she sits on an exercise ball rather than a desk chair.

Renteria extends her high energy level to the Stabenow office. For instance, soon after she was elevated to the chief post from legislative director this year, she launched a “fun committee.”

The fun committee hosted a staff celebration — loaded with blueberries and fresh veggies — after a $3 billion subsidy for specialty crops was inserted into the farm bill this year. Michigan is a large producer of blueberries, apples, cherries, asparagus and celery, and to push the subsidy, Renteria reached out to chiefs from states rich in specialty crops.

“Amanda knows the importance of celebrating,” Stabenow said. “I think it’s all part of team building, which she is very good at.”

Renteria joined Stabenow’s office in 2006 as a legislative aide on financial issues. She became legislative director in 2007, and was named chief of staff in early 2008.

Stabenow hailed Renteria’s “relationship-building” with Senate colleagues, which began as soon as Renteria came into the job.

Renteria, approachable and energetic, contacted other chiefs to ask questions about ethics and Senator-to-Senator relationships. She also asked chiefs from other Midwest offices to cooperate on Great Lakes issues, and of course, on specialty crops.

“I saw where we were really missing an opportunity with specialty crops, and I reached out to other chiefs to see about getting something done,” she said. “There’s a lot more creativity if you have a coalition behind something.”

Renteria majored in economics and political science at Stanford, where she wrote her senior thesis on women in politics. Rather than opting for government, though, Renteria became a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs in Los Angeles. After three years, she decided she needed to “make a difference, cheesy as that sounds,” in the public sector.

Renteria next became a math teacher at her former high school, Woodlake. She then had a stint with the city of San Jose, where she consulted on a neighborhood revitalization initiative. She earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, with the goal of focusing on community development.

So “when I got to Washington, I was already exposed to a lot of this stuff,” Renteria pointed out. “I knew what [Community Development Block Grant] funds were. I knew what it was like to teach in a classroom with limited resources.”

Renteria moved to Washington in 2006 to work for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the female Senators elected in 1992 — the year of the woman — who inspired Renteria’s senior thesis. “And she was a Stanford woman!” Renteria said. “It was perfect. It all just really came together.”

While Renteria speaks passionately about her years as a teacher and local government worker, it is clearly her business background that has formed her methodical approach to politics. As chief of staff, she is deliberative and thorough, and someone who sticks to “a process that makes good decisions.”

“I generally want to come to a decision as a group when I can,” she said. “There are just times when you have staff think of things differently. Experts think of things differently. I get into the debate, too.”

For example, Renteria “put everyone on the hot seat” when the Senate considered the $700 billion financial rescue package. Staff assistants answered hundreds of constituent calls and legislative aides reviewed the bill, while Renteria quizzed staffers and presided over a debate arguing both for and against the legislation.

Weighing the feedback, Stabenow eventually cast one of 25 dissenting votes against the bill (it passed the Senate 74-25). Renteria said it was “definitely one of the hardest weeks” she’s had as chief.

“It was one of those things where we had three conference calls, and we still didn’t know what to do,” Renteria said. “It took a long time to make a decision for the Senator.”

Renteria noted that chiefs “have to deal with decisions no one wants to make.”

One example is Renteria’s overhaul of the way that Stabenow’s office considers appropriations requests. She shifted the primary responsibility from the Washington staff, usually the first point of contact for constituents with appropriations requests, to the state staff. Requests are now channeled through a district manager in Michigan before reaching the desk of any Washington staffer. Renteria said the shift has made for a more localized and efficient process.

But it took some convincing for Renteria to get everyone on board. The staff was accustomed to the existing process, and Stabenow was hesitant to make any changes with appropriations that might confuse constituents.

At the same time, “You have to keep the Senator comfortable and let her know the ball is rolling and we’re going to get this done,” Renteria said. “In order to get where you want to go, you have to take risks. [Stabenow] takes risks.”

Renteria had never set foot in Michigan before joining Stabenow’s office, and she had to quickly brush up on the state’s major issues before her first day on the job. Before Renteria was even on the payroll, Stabenow ordered her to attend Detroit’s auto show, the marquee event in the state. Renteria travels to the Wolverine State every recess, and back to her small hometown in California about two times a year.

“My phone doesn’t work [in California], and neither does my BlackBerry,” Renteria said, laughing. “It really keeps me grounded.”

Renteria is currently fulfilling her mission of making a difference in Stabenow’s office. But she does miss the immediate gratification of local government, and she hints she might return to those roots some day.

Another family member may have beaten her to it. Renteria’s mother, who worked as a school secretary in Woodlake for 35 years, is currently running for a seat on the school board. Renteria marvels at how her mom, for years the woman behind the desk taking other people’s calls, is campaigning to call the shots herself.

“I forgot about what kind of difference you can make when you run,” she said. “Maybe one day I’ll be like my mom and run for school board.”

Correction: Oct. 23, 2008

The article incorrectly stated that Renteria is the only Hispanic chief of staff in the Senate. At least three Hispanic chiefs, including Renteria, currently work in the Senate.

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