In a dimly lit church recreation room in Long Beach this spring, Kamala Harris had just finished speaking when the assembled pastors prepared a prayer for her. Harris, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, formed a circle with the ministers.
Before the invocation started, Harris scoured the room. “Where’s Juan?” she repeated, motioning for her campaign manager. Juan Rodriguez, helping guide Harris’ run after advising her as attorney general, approached Harris’ husband, clasping his hand.
Harris stepped back to make room for them, and the preachers commenced their prayer.
Rodriguez, 31, has spent his career becoming indispensable. After starting out as an intern for then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he soon was a regular in the room. The son of immigrants from Central America who came to the United States illegally, Rodriguez immersed himself in policy while rising to be the mayor’s top liaison to city leaders and powerful interests in Sacramento.
Last year, Harris asked Rodriguez to come on as manager when her Senate bid hit its roughest point, relying on his business-school background to turn around its finances and his reassuring temperament to smooth choppy communications and lift morale.
When Rodriguez joins the San Francisco-based consulting firm SCN Strategies as the first new partner since it formed in the 1990s, opening a Los Angeles office where he will work on campaigns and public affairs, he will become part of a small fraternity of California strategists focused on statewide contests. Led by Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Dan Newman, SCN’s clients include Harris, Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Clegg said there are few rising strategists as connected, respected, trusted and effective as Rodriguez. His relationships, policy command and personal connections to progressive causes make him “a dream package,” Clegg said.
For Rodriguez, the position is an opportunity to diversify engagement and participation at the highest level of politics. Harris, herself the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, said her confidant represents “on so many levels the new generation of California.”
“We know it’s important for us to be in that room because when we walk into that room people who identify with us believe they can also be there,” Harris said. “That’s part of what it means to inspire through leadership. And Juan is the epitome of that. Juan knows that he being in that room is bigger than him.”
Rodriguez was born in Burbank and grew up in North Hollywood. He watched people he was close to thrive in the middle class while other friends struggled, dropping out of school and joining gangs. His parents were both 19 when they fled El Salvador for the United States in the late 1970s and early ’80s around the civil war, part of the first waves of unaccompanied minors and young adults to exit the country, later bringing along their younger siblings.
A housekeeper, his mom caught the bus to clean homes for families in Beverly Hills. He remembers his dad, a carpenter, rising well before the sun most mornings to finish work early enough to pick up Juan’s mother.
Juan tagged along when she couldn’t find child care, when he wasn’t in school, or playing sports. He pitched in, cleaning sometimes so they could get home. “You get an education, and work hard, and you won’t have to do this,” she told him. Years later, he traveled along the same bus route as a freshman at UCLA.
He learned about immigration firsthand. Before his parents’ marriage, Juan’s mother had a daughter in El Salvador. They tried unsuccessfully to bring her to L.A., initially illegally, then through the formal process when they became U.S. residents. Juan’s first language was Spanish, so he took English classes. He was 8 by the time his sister arrived, at 13, and he observed her integrate into public schools. His parents became American citizens and had two daughters after Juan.
On his first campaign, for then-L.A. school board President Caprice Young, Rodriguez canvassed, phone-banked and stuffed envelopes as a young volunteer. He saw the teachers union attack Young for spending district money to upgrade an office space instead of for classroom instruction. Her resulting loss provided a lesson for Rodriguez he continues to teach: “no unforced errors.”
He got serious about earning money as a disc jockey while at UCLA to pay his way through school and help with the mortgage when a benign brain tumor prevented his mother from working.
He was drawn back into politics when a family she had worked for invited them to a fundraiser for Villaraigosa in 2004. Rodriguez arrived in his best Sunday suit and remembers how nice the mayor was to him. Though he took an internship with Villaraigosa, Rodriguez remained fascinated with financial markets and planned to work on Wall Street – “making a lot of money and really taking care of my parents,” he said.
Still preparing for his move east, Rodriguez later interned again for Villaraigosa. He was offered a temporary job working on the U.S. Census, and stayed on as conflict grew over state efforts to phase out local economic development programs to balance the state budget. At 25, Rodriguez was the mayor’s director of state relations and New York was no longer his dream. “He was super hungry,” said Jim DeBoo, then the city’s chief lobbyist in Sacramento.
“But more than that, he had an innate feel for how politics worked,” DeBoo added. “More and more the mayor wanted him around, and it was because Juan, by sheer force sometimes, gets everything done.”
Rodriguez grew closer with local and state leaders while assisting Villaraigosa in policy skirmishes over redevelopment agencies, education reform, prison realignment and immigration, as the mayor pushed for a shift with the LAPD on its car-impoundment policy. Senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles described Rodriguez as approachable, professional and politically mature – “not an individual susceptible ... to braggadocio.”
With the mayor, Rodriguez also organized local support for an early version of a state bill limiting requests for immigration holds in local jails. Austin Beutner, the city’s first deputy mayor under Villaraigosa, said Rodriguez approached problems with questions about what needed to be accomplished, and why. On transportation, Beutner said they consulted people who take several buses a day.
“Much of transit conversation is about infrastructure,” Beutner said. “Juan begins at the other end. Who are we trying to serve and what are their needs?”
Maria Elena Durazo, then head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, views Rodriguez as something of a godfather for his peers in politics. She recalled working late one night, when he brought three or four young people to the union’s headquarters to meet with her.
“Usually it’s all about ‘me, me, me,’ ” Durazo said. “He brought them in to talk about ‘We ... This is what we would do.’ It was so refreshing, and you could tell it was all led by Juan and his ideas about what this generation should be doing.”
Villaraigosa left office in 2013, and Rodriguez was recruited to work for the attorney general’s office as Harris’ conduit to Los Angeles. Nathan Barankin, chief deputy attorney general, said in one of their earliest talks he felt as though Rodriguez was interviewing him for the position.
“I couldn’t size this dude up,” Barankin said. “But he checked every single box we wanted: He knew everyone, and he didn’t just know them casually. He had worked with them on real projects, political and policy issues, and he had a lot of depth.”
As Harris’ point person in L.A., Rodriguez brought the perspective of a nonlawyer. He fortified ties between communities, including Latinos and African Americans, using his experiences to mold her approaches to civil rights, criminal justice, education and environmental issues. Rodriguez sums up his method as shifting from advising officials how to “control” Black Lives Matter as a political liability, for example, to recognizing that inequalities exist.
He was behind the scenes as the attorney general targeted unscrupulous consultants taking advantage of immigrants and encouraging law firms to provide legal aid to unaccompanied minors. Michael Troncoso, former chief counsel to Harris, said bills from 2012-14 “will never have Juan’s name on them, but happened exclusively because he connected the right people and was able to articulate the policies.”
Not everyone can thrive in the pressure-packed position, Troncoso said: “Keeping up with (Harris) analytically and intellectually requires a significant amount of agility and preparation.” A senior lawyer once compared discussing a case with her to arguing in federal court.
Brian Nelson, former general counsel, said Rodriguez and Harris bonded quickly, sharing “an almost preternatural ability to understand how these things on paper will work out in the real world.” Coming into the U.S. Senate campaign midstream, Rodriguez cut staff and renegotiated retainers to bring down spending. “It was a very difficult moment for a lot of people,” Rodriguez said.
He went on to organize Harris’ successful drive for the Democratic Party endorsement. Then he helped increase the gap between Harris and her opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in the primary by advocating that the campaign spend heavily on TV ads rather than hold its fire for the November runoff. Rodriguez’s diligence rubbed off on his family, founders of the small but spirited grass-roots operation “Salvadorans for Kamala,” which they formed without his knowledge.
“They went rogue,” Harris joked, noting the deliveries of pupusas she received.
She credited Rodriguez with landing numerous endorsements, namely the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión. In debate preparations with her, Troncoso said, “Juan was often the last word before (Harris) was going to make a decision as she shaped her approach.”
Rodriguez saw the contest as campaign manager and candidate in lockstep in terms of their beliefs based on common experiences. He said events in his life have given him strategic insight, as they did for the main character in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” who wins a game show by looking back on his adventures to answer the questions.
“That’s the perspective I feel like I have always brought to the table,” Rodriguez said.
“There is not enough of it out there,” he added. “It is going to be my purpose to try to include in that room more views and more voices.”