Juan Rodriguez: Aspiring political kingmaker

Juan Rodriguez
Juan Rodriguez, photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Sept. 7.

“One of the things that I'm pretty active in trying to do is making sure that I'm not the only person in these rooms that looks like me,” Juan Rodriguez said during an interview with The Times.

Born in Burbank and raised in North Hollywood as the son of immigrants from El Salvador, the Democratic political consultant and partner at Bearstar Strategies said that as a kid he accompanied his mother to the Beverly Hills and Studio City homes she cleaned as a housekeeper. Years later, his first invitations to political fundraisers came from the people for whom she had worked.

A 2005 meeting with Antonio Villaraigosa at one of those events reinforced his interest in politics. The former Los Angeles mayor asked him who he was there with. Rodriguez said his mother was working in the kitchen and that prompted Villaraigosa to introduce himself to her.

"Having my mother feel seen is something I hold very dear to my heart," Rodriguez said. "I was always so intrigued by how power was always next door to the people who didn't have it. It made me believe at the time that politics could be the great equalizer."

Villaraigosa hired Rodriguez as an intern a few years later, launching a meteoric rise that has included stints as director of state relations for the city of Los Angeles and as a top aide to then-California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. Harris later tapped Rodriguez to lead her successful 2016 Senate campaign and then her brief 2020 presidential bid, a failed endeavor for which the politician and her advisors were criticized.

Juan Rodriguez
Juan Rodriguez

Bearstar's founders, Ace Smith and Sean Clegg, saw the millennial strategist as the vanguard of a new generation of California political kingmakers when they hired him in 2017 to open a Los Angeles office for the campaign strategy firm. In addition to Harris, his roster of Bearstar clients has included U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and, most notably, Gov. Gavin Newsom. In 2021, Rodriguez successfully led the campaign against the governor's recall, for which he was named Democratic campaign manager of the year by the American Assn. of Political Consultants.

His work for Newsom is not over. On a Monday afternoon in late October, Rodriguez, 39, said he couldn't talk at the moment because he was tied up in a meeting with Jane Fonda and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The actors were among a slate of high-profile supporters Rodriguez was courting to join environmental justice groups in their campaign to thwart the oil industry’s efforts to reverse a 2022 California law that created mandatory buffer zones around new wells.

Newsom championed the law. Rodriguez is leading the multimillion-dollar 2024 ballot fight to keep it in place.

"There is kind of a worldview in terms of vision and what we believe in and what we don't," Rodriguez said, "so we often find ourselves fighting the fight on both fronts."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.