From Organizing Farmworkers to Getting out the Vote

Julie Chávez Rodríguez, the grandchild of César Chávez and adviser to two U.S. presidents, discussed the importance of Latinos in U.S. politics with CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe.

April 1, 2024

Ed O'Keefe and Julie Chávez Rodríguez

Ed O'Keefe of CBS News (l) and Joe Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez discussed the importance of the Latino vote. (Jordan Tovin/GW Today)

For Julie Chávez Rodríguez, whose career spans appointments in the Senate, White House and the Department of the Interior—it goes back to the example set by her grandfather, a bust of whom holds a prideful space in the White House Oval Office. The art captures her grandfather César Chávez, the civil rights leader and organizer of farmworkers.

“He was a small brown man who didn’t come from a lot,” Chávez Rodríguez said. “But he was able through his own actions to show what [others] were capable of, what was possible in their own lives. I hope I can do a little bit of that with my own work.”

It reflects the distance traveled by Latinos in the United States like herself and Ed O’Keefe, the CBS News senior White House and political correspondent whom she joined in conversation Wednesday evening at the Jack Morton Auditorium. The event was the first presidential election year edition of “The Latino Voice in News & Politics” at the George Washington University sponsored by the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute.

In a year when immigration is a major issue on the ballot, Institute Executive Director Elizabeth Vaquera said the outcome of the 2024 elections could determine the future well-being of an entire generation.

“It is fundamental that Latino communities and their needs are represented in the media and politics,” she said. “Since the 2020 election, roughly four million Latinos have become eligible to vote, bringing the representation of potential Latino voters up to nearly 15% of the electorate. This group represents their own experiences, but also those in their families or communities who may not be able to represent themselves in a voting booth because of their age or immigrant status.”

Opening the conversation, O’Keefe remarked about the importance of Chávez Rodríguez’s appointment as the manager of Biden’s reelection campaign, but the event’s conversation focused on their shared Latino heritage and experiences in the United States.

O’Keefe said he and his siblings grew up as “three of five brown children at a public high school in upstate New York” and being Latino American meant “going to Guatemala every summer.”

“You don’t have to be a Hernández or a Chávez or a Ramos to be Latino. A guy named O’Keefe can be Latino as well,” he said, adding that he is angered by suggestions that he might have advanced more quickly in his career if he had downplayed his Guatemalan heritage.

He turned the subject to Chávez Rodríguez’s early years as the child and grandchild of farmworker organizers marching on picket lines, handing out leaflets and getting arrested at the age of 9.

“It’s my roots, and it’s given me a sense that when people come together, when they organize, when they care deeply about issues, they can bring about tremendous change at every level,” Chávez Rodríguez said.

When asked by a student how to get complacent relatives to vote, O’Keefe and Chávez Rodríguez stressed how important the Latino vote is and the slim margin of victory it contributed to the 2020 elections in small towns like Reading, Pennsylvania, with a population that is 80% Latino and a Latino mayor, and in a battleground state like Wisconsin, where a sizeable proportion of the voters in Milwaukee come from Central America.

The Obama presidential campaign’s movement style attracted her and led to her involvement in politics, she said. “It took some of its traditions from the early organizing of [the United Farm Workers], house meetings, house parties… a real strong organizing model, like we hadn’t seen in politics before.”

Since that time and her work as a senior adviser to Presidents Obama and Biden, and involvement in Vice President Kamala Harris’ campaign, Chávez Rodríguez said she has seen “a deeper recognition that the Latino community is not monolithic.” The evolution, she said, is reflected in the way smart political campaigns are run around the country, language tempered by Cuban influences in Florida and ads in Mexican Spanish out West.

“Language matters, accents matter,” Chávez Rodríguez said, “to show the diversity of what our community looks like… making sure that all that richness is being incorporated so they can see themselves not in just ads, but in what you’re advocating and the issues you’re trying to put forward.

 “All of that to me is to show people that we see you, and that we are fighting for you, we are connecting with you.”

Chávez Rodríguez said that is happening because people like herself, O’Keefe and the students and faculty in the audience are “in these halls here at universities, and at CBS, throughout the political sphere because it doesn’t happen on its own. It happens because we’re there representing, bringing others in and creating that collective of awareness of our own experiences.”