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07 May 2023, 3:59 pm

Raised on the front lines of labor activism, Biden's new campaign manager brings a low-profile to a job with big challenges

The “sisterhood” of Democratic power brokers was thrilled: President Joe Biden had just tapped one of its own, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, to run his 2024 re-election campaign.

Private text messages among a group of party strategists, former White House officials and campaign aides ping-ponged back and forth late last month as the women absorbed the news. The tone was both celebratory and defiant. When things go bad, campaign managers are often the first ones blamed. Not this time, the messages suggest. An informal network of well-connected Democratic women was stepping forward to protect her status should backbiting arise.

“So exciting(! !)” read one text message reviewed by NBC News. “[L]et’s get our sister circle together to do a dinner for her so she knows we’ve got her back!!”

“And now we — the whole sisterhood — needs to make sure she knows we are there for her!” another text reads.

Chávez Rodríguez has the title; the question is whether she’ll have the clout to go with it. She has never run a campaign before, much less that of a sitting president warning that democracy is at risk of collapse. And she’s a latecomer to Biden’s inner circle.

She worked on Kamala Harris’ 2020 ill-fated presidential campaign before switching to Biden after Harris dropped out. For the past two years, Chávez Rodríguez was in charge of the White House’s intergovernmental affairs office, a job that included coordinating with the mayors and governors when a hurricane hit or a wildfire spread.

Chávez Rodríguez garnered praise inside the administration and elsewhere for her work and comes to the new assignment with a distinguished pedigree: Her grandfather was the labor leader Cesar Chávez (Chávez Rodríguez and first lady Jill Biden planted a rose in the White House’s Rose Garden in March in memory of Chávez’s work in the farmworkers movement).

Yet Biden is surrounded by advisers he has known for decades and trusts implicitly. In a few cases, they’re family. In others, they’re family in all but name. Some helped guide Biden’s political ascent before Chávez Rodríguez, 45, was even born. Others stuck with him through illness, personal tragedy and two losing presidential bids. They’ll see and talk to him in the Oval Office as Chávez Rodríguez deploys staff and pores over budgets at campaign headquarters 120 miles up the road.

All those dynamics have given rise to misgivings that Chávez Rodríguez will be merely a figurehead, carrying out the priorities and enforcing the directives of the core loyalists, notably White House advisers Anita Dunn, Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon; former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, and the person who ran Biden’s only successful presidential campaign thus far, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon. (Dillon was his second campaign manager after the first was replaced as Biden pivoted from the primaries to the general election campaign against Donald Trump).

“No one in Democratic politics thinks she’s in charge. And that’s the problem,” said a Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about the campaign. The strategist added that a state party official recently confided, “‘Why the hell would I call her [Chávez Rodríguez]. I’m going to call Anita.'”

Another Democratic strategist, also speaking anonymously to offer frank assessments, said that while Chávez Rodríguez is smart and capable, the new role amounts to a "massive test."

"Campaigns ebb and flow," this strategist said. "When they dip, they will have to make a change. That often means deep-sixing the campaign manager."

Chávez Rodríguez was among the White House and party officials who spoke to a group of Biden fundraisers at an event last weekend at a Washington, D.C., hotel. One guest said that her speech was mostly an introduction that laid out her experience and background for those in the audience who didn’t know who she was.

“None of us have interacted with her or know her,” this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a private event.

Presidential races are littered with examples of candidates ousting campaign managers or “layering” them with people abruptly brought in to fix perceived weaknesses. Staff are expendable; the candidate is not. Chávez Rodríguez is the second Latina to head a major presidential campaign. The first, Patti Solis Doyle, ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and was replaced after rival Barack Obama reeled off a string of victories in the Democratic primaries en route to victory.

Friends and allies of Chávez Rodríguez don’t want her to meet a similar fate should the campaign falter. Those close to Biden insist that won’t happen. They said that she has won Biden’s trust and is respected by the same top tier of advisers who have the president’s ear.

One speaker at last weekend's event described her to the audience as the choice of not only the president but of Jill Biden, a peerless East Wing ally.

A presidential campaign is a place where people can get rolled and often do. When poll numbers slump or fundraising lags, the candidate faces pressure to assign blame and shake up the staff. Biden’s longtime confidants are untouchable; they’re forever part of his world. Chávez Rodríguez is a different case. But she has one enduring advantage: the “sisterhood” of Democratic strategists and operatives who have strong ties to the White House and are determined for her to succeed.

"It would send a terrible message if the second Latina ever to serve as campaign manager didn’t have the full authority at this moment," one Democratic strategist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freelly. "The assumption has to be that she has the full faith and confidence of the president."

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