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How to stay ‘alarmingly authentic’ while working on the Hill

Exiting Senate spokeswoman Jenna Valle-Riestra has some thoughts after a few eventful years on Judiciary

Jenna Valle-Riestra, then press secretary for the Senate Judiciary Committee, poses with gymnast Simone Biles in 2021.
Jenna Valle-Riestra, then press secretary for the Senate Judiciary Committee, poses with gymnast Simone Biles in 2021. (Courtesy Jenna Valle-Riestra)

Jenna Valle-Riestra is only 5’9” but towered over Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. 

The seven-time Olympic medalist, on Capitol Hill to testify last year on the FBI’s mishandling of abuse allegations against former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, was just one of many high-profile witnesses Valle-Riestra crossed paths with while working for the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. 

When the Senate confirmed the first Black woman Supreme Court justice, it was Valle-Riestra who told that story as the press secretary for the Senate Judiciary Committee that Durbin chairs. 

After four years on the Hill, working in both the minority and the majority and through a pandemic and insurrection, she left Durbin’s press shop this month for the Treasury Department. 

After packing up her desk in the Dirksen Building, she sat down with CQ Roll Call to discuss what comes next, and what she took away from the last few tumultuous years working in the seat of government. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What drew you to public service? 

A: My dad was Walnut Creek’s city attorney. So I’ve just grown up around public service, and he passed away when I was in high school. So it was always something that was kind of in the back of my head — how do I reflect his legacy?

Q: What was it like telling Senate Democrats’ story of the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson?

A: I was working 18 hours a day for three months straight. 

We all know it was so important to have the first Black woman ever on the court. But we would see letters from elementary school kids and reaction videos on Twitter from little girls around the country saying, “Oh, I can do that.” And that was just absolutely inspiring.

Q: What do you remember from your first day on the Hill? 

A: My first ever day on the Hill was August 2017. I interned under a program that’s based in Monterey, California, called the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, where every California State University gets to send one person a year. 

The advice I was given by one of our professors in the program was that I am alarmingly authentic and that will either make or break me on Capitol Hill, and don’t let that break me. 

My first day as a full-time staffer was Jan. 3, 2019.

Q: What was it like to have Durbin as a boss? 

A: For him, it’s not about being in the spotlight. It’s just about getting the work done. 

He’s very story based. So he’ll go on the floor and talk about specific Dreamers. If there’s gun violence in Chicago, he’ll read specific stories and he’ll text us and say, “Can we keep tabs on this kid that was hurt?” Like Cooper Roberts from Highland Park was a child that was struck in the spine [in the July Fourth shooting], and we were tracking him in the hospital, making sure he was OK, checking in with his family.  

Q: You met Simone Biles when she testified on abuse by Larry Nassar. What was that like? 

A: For Simone and the other gymnasts that testified, I was starstruck. But also I was struck way more by their courage, because everyone’s eyes were on this hearing. 

Q: You used digital media regularly in Judiciary hearings. Do you think that’s something we should be seeing more of across the Senate?

A: Yes. It shows how real an issue is. For instance, we had a hearing this last summer on the impact of gun violence on children. And I decided to do a video with only kids speaking in it. So I found the interviews of children after Uvalde and after Parkland and after domestic violence incidents. 

It’s one thing for me to say, “Hey, we gotta do more to protect our kids from gun violence.” It’s another thing to hear a bunch of 5- to 10-year-olds say it.

Q: How has being Latina influenced your experience on the Hill? 

A: As someone who is also white, I am very cognizant of not wanting to take away space from folks who may need it more than me. But the Congressional Hispanic Association is a space where they really allowed me to celebrate the fact that I am Latina and I am Spanish and it’s a huge part of my identity.

Something I am really proud of is that during the Justice Jackson hearings, we were putting out media on Twitter in Spanish. I didn’t get everything, but I tried translating most of our tweets.

There’s not that many Latina communications directors on the Hill. And so to be someone who’s moving up to senior communicator levels, you know, it makes me feel like it’s beyond me.

Q: Judiciary handles some heavy topics. How have you coped? 

A: A lot of the time my job is to make people realize how bad and how urgent an issue is. And so for me to be able to do that, I have to put myself into the heart of the issue. 

Like that one [gun violence] video, I was listening to 911 calls of children getting shot at. It was absolutely gut wrenching. There’s a healthy level of detachment sometimes — but I don’t ever want to get so detached that I lose my passion. 

Q: What are some specific habits that help you do that?

A: My vice is really bad reality TV shows. … In my free time I want to be able to unplug. I just finished re-binge-watching “Are You the One?” 

I do like to go on walks a lot. And I go to therapy, which I think is really important. It’s something that everyone should do, regardless of the type of work they do.

Q: What comes next for you as a spokesperson for the Treasury Department?

A: My primary portfolio is going to be focused on racial equity and underserved communities. A lot of that is going to be the American Rescue Plan and telling the story of how the administration is addressing some of the economic disparities in our economy.

Q: What will you miss most from the Hill?

A: Cups. I love Cups. Those people are so nice. And on a deeper level, Sen. [Bob] Casey’s chief of staff … she’s been the greatest mentor to me. 

Q: What have you been reading recently? 

A: There’s a book called “The World Could Be Otherwise” by Norman Fischer. It has nothing to do with politics. But it’s about essentially how Zen Buddhists approach suffering.

Basically, the premise of this book is that being in pain is something that is universally binding, regardless of who you’re interacting with. So it’s weird, because it has nothing to do with D.C., but it also in a way has everything to do with this work.

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