Picking His Place
Geronimo Rodriguez left the picking fields to go to high school; by age 22 he was working for the Clinton White House
Published in 2006 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on February 13, 2006
Updated on March 6, 2017
Austin attorney Geronimo Rodriguez Jr. grew up a migrant farm worker, using his fingers as tools, traveling the country with his family to pick everything from grapefruit in Texas to asparagus and strawberries in Washington state. As a man, Rodriguez has stood hand-in-hand with some of the most powerful people in politics, most especially former President Bill Clinton. His story is the stuff of American legend.
“We used to migrate every year in the spring, leaving South Texas,” Rodriguez recalls of his migrant roots. And when all the other students were on spring break, we would be driving up to Washington state.”
And while Rodriguez understood the necessity of the labor (“I know my parents needed me to work; we needed that money,” he explains), he often recognized, and battled, his family’s place in society.
“I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I used to get after my mom for applying for food stamps,” Rodriguez continues. “I told her that people in the government … all they wanted to do was put us down. Now I feel like an idiot for having done this, but I remember refusing to eat until I got really hungry in the middle of the night. All because they bought the food with that food stamp money.”
As high school neared, however, Rodriguez sat down with his receptive parents to explain to them that, should he have opportunity to further his education, colleges would expect him to both achieve high marks and attend school for a full calendar year. In what Rodriguez describes as “a tough decision at the time,” his parents altered their early-September cucumber-picking schedule to accommodate their children’s hunger to be in class on day one.
Rodriguez — while continuing to migrate — feasted upon the opportunity. He loved (and excelled in) his classes, eventually becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school, doing so in grand fashion as he finished in the top 5 percent of his class. After being awarded a College Assistance Migrant Program scholarship to St. Edward’s University in Austin, Rodriguez coupled the feat by being the first in his family to graduate from college.
Neither his momentum nor his talents went unnoticed. In 1991 Rodriguez, just 22 and working with the Texas attorney general, got his first taste of national politics. He received a call from the Texas campaign manager for Bill Clinton, a man for whom he felt great affinity.
“He was the only candidate out there talking about the dignity of work, and welfare reform,” Rodriguez says.
Removed from the picking fields by a mere handful of years, Rodriguez soon found himself Clinton’s Texas field director, responsible for organizing 157 counties within the state. In 1996, Rodriguez — now boasting a law degree from the University of Texas — was again called upon by Clinton. This time it was to be his deputy statewide director for the state of Arizona. Rodriguez’s work helped elect a Democrat there for the first time since the Truman administration.
His work did not go unrewarded. In the nation’s capital, Rodriguez brought his working-class heritage to the Department of Labor. In addition, as acting associate director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, Rodriguez recommended a third of Clinton’s senior-level appointments. It was an opportunity highlighted, says Rodriguez, with the appointment of Armando Falcon to the Office of Federal Housing Enforcement Oversight.
Since those years, Rodriguez has remained active in both law and politics. As an attorney with the Austin firm of Leonard Frost Levin Van Court & Marsh, his practice focuses on real estate, municipal finance, bond and legislative matters. Politically, he continues his strong ties to the Democratic Party, having served as the Texas state director and Colorado Base Vote Director for the Kerry/Edwards ticket in 2004.
“I really believe that for the rest of my life I’m going to be involved in presidential politics in one way or another,” Rodriguez responds when asked of a potential return to the White House.
And what of those migrant roads that his parents, to this day, continue to travel? They, too, remain rooted in Rodriguez’s heart, in his head, in his hands.
“Sometimes I think I can take all the risk in the entire world because I believe in something and because I’ve got nothing to lose,” Rodriguez says. “There are two things that nobody can take away from me: my education and the fact that I know that I can always go back and work in the fields.”