WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the living memory of the United States Senate there have been only four (maybe five) Latina chiefs of staff.
Veronica Duron, the chief of staff for Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), is the latest.
“I’m grateful for all [Veronica’s] continued work in my office,” Booker said in a statement to Latino Rebels. “Her presence and leadership style are rooted in love and compassion and it allows her to see things differently than most.
As chief of staff, Duron oversees the inner workings of Booker’s office, including the hiring and management of staff, interfacing with other member and committee offices, and basically anything else that the workday requires of the most senior aide to the junior senator from New Jersey.
“Veronica is smart and passionate about her work,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement to Latino Rebels, “and as one of only a handful of Latinas to ever become a Senate Chief of Staff, she continues inspiring others to follow in her footsteps and helping us bring more diversity to the U.S. Senate.”
Despite the power she now wields, Duron was born in Texas to neither wealth nor privilege. Raised by her mother and grandmother, Duron was the first member of her family to attend college, earning her bachelor’s degree in history and sociology with a minor in Mexican-American studies from the University of Texas at Austin.
“The only reason I applied was that I needed to get out of my house, like I wanted to do something different,” Duron told Latino Rebels. “I came from the south side of San Antonio where everyone’s Mexican basically and getting to college where it was so heavily white-culture-dominated I was like, I really don’t know if I could do this… I really didn’t have anyone to lean on in my family to talk about college with, so what saved me was joining student organizations, like a Latina sorority and other community service organizations. Honestly, that’s what gave me the support network to get through college.”
After graduating from college at the top of her class, Duron was unsure of what she wanted to do with her career. She found work at a nearby immigration law firm but she said the longer she worked at the law firm, the more Duron felt that law school was not in the cards for her career.
Having never been outside of Texas, Duron applied to a nine-month fellowship in Washington, D.C., through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). She was accepted and arrived on Capitol Hill in 2008.
“I got here and thankfully had a cohort of twenty other Latinos who came with me,” Duron said from behind the desk of her window office in the Hart Senate Office Building.
“It wasn’t until CHCI, in that fellowship program, that I was like, ‘This is like a whole new world,’” Duron said. “There’s like the White House and agencies and Congress that I didn’t even know existed as career options.”
Climbing the Hill
Duron’s CHCI fellowship placed her as a junior aide in the office of Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX). When Ortiz lost re-election two years later in 2010, CHCI helped Duron land a role on the policy staff of Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who remembers her fondly.
“Veronica was essential to my office and the entire country in helping lead the fight against the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and take health care away from millions of Americans,” Schumer said. “We were lucky to have Veronica in our team for eight years, and I’m proud of her trailblazing career on Capitol Hill.”
Looking back, Duron remembers Democrats’ fight to preserve Obamacare during Donald Trump’s presidency as some of the most challenging of her years on Capitol Hill, but she first cut her teeth as a legislative assistant to Schumer by spearheading the congressional response to the Ebola crisis of 2013.
“Senator Schumer was on the healthcare committee,” Duron recalled of her early days on Schumer’s team before the senator from New York became the first Jewish American to serve as Majority Leader in the upper chamber of Congress after Harry Reid (D-NV) announced his retirement in 2015. “It was right after Obamacare had passed and we were working on things like the huge Ebola outbreak and we were able to get the federal government to help and get reimbursements for research and safety protocols… so that was the first really big thing I did as a healthcare legislative assistant.”
When Trump won the White House in 2016, his administration quickly put Obamacare in the crosshairs for legislative annihilation. As a member of Schumer’s team, Duron worked day and night to preserve the healthcare law that she had seen through from its infancy in the House during her CHCI fellowship.
“The country was in transition. The Senate was in transition. So it was a time for all of us to step up and lead without really knowing what the day-to-day was going to look like,” Duron said. “All of a sudden, I was handling healthcare for the Democratic caucus. We got to work with the finance and health committees, with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s healthcare team, and we worked for months trying to get this movement in the country to make sure it wasn’t easy for Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and gut Medicaid.”
Months of effort by Duron and her team came to a head on the night of July 28, 2018, when the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ) broke with most of his party to cast the deciding vote that preserved Obamacare.
“I was on the Senate floor,” Duron said, “and we had to prepare for either way because we weren’t 100% sure as to how he was going to vote. We were preparing in the event that he voted with Republicans to gut the ACA and so we spent a lot of the night in the cloakroom locking down the next 10 amendment votes in the event that [McCain] voted yes. We were so tired. We were exhausted. And it was amazing.”
Becoming a Chief
After several years in Schumer’s office, Duron joined Booker’s office in 2019 and was promoted to chief of staff in January. The decision to change offices wasn’t easy, Duron noted, but ultimately it was Booker’s bonafides as a progressive lawmaker, combined with his integrity and character, that convinced Duron to join his team.
“He is one of those senators who you can take at his word because he leads with his heart and means what he says,” Duron said. “Plus it had always been a pleasure for me to work with [Booker’s] office, which can only happen from the top down. It takes a good boss to create the kind of enthusiasm for the work that we have in Senator Booker’s office. I really love Senator Booker, and I really love working for him and so to take the next step and help him shape the team in this transition period was exciting.”
The experience Duron brings to Booker’s office is not lost on the senator from New Jersey.
“Veronica has proven to be a unique and successful leader,” Booker told Latino Rebels. “In a Congress and world that too often rely on division, she brings a calm, steady and unifying tone to all the work we do.”
Pablo Manríquez is Latino Rebels’ Washington correspondent. He is an immigrant from Santiago de Chile with a political science degree from the University of Notre Dame. The Washington Post calls him “an Internet folk hero.” Twitter: @PabloReports.