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Renteria Doesn’t Blend In

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.

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