White House

From California’s Central Valley to possibly ‘Madam ambassador’

Maria Echaveste (Courtesy of U.C. Berkeley School of Law)
Maria Echaveste (Courtesy of U.C. Berkeley School of Law)

Lifelong high achiever Maria Echaveste, a farmworker’s kid shaped by California’s San Joaquin Valley, has now been tapped for her biggest job yet, as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

If confirmed by the Senate, the 60-year-old Echaveste would be the first woman to hold the high-profile post. She would certainly be the first ambassador to have become a D.C. insider after spending some formative time in Fresno County farm labor camps.

“She’s a brilliant woman who understands the United States government, from her own time in the U.S. government,” Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in an interview, “and she knows a great deal about the Mexican government.”

President Barack Obama nominated Echaveste on Sept. 18 for the position, whose formal title is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the United Mexican States.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee could potentially hold Echaveste’s confirmation hearing during the post-election session in November or December, though speed is not the Senate’s strong suit. About 40 ambassadorial nominees are currently awaiting Senate action, with some having waited more than a year.

“I feel special pride in this nomination and will do everything I can to help her get confirmed quickly,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a member of the foreign relations panel, said Tuesday.

Complicating the timetable is the possibility that Republicans could regain control of the Senate, though there’s no indication that GOP senators might object to Echaveste specifically.

“Maria Echaveste brings a deep understanding of Washington and a long personal and professional history working on Mexican and Mexican-American issues, both of which will serve her well,” Council on Foreign Relations scholar Shannon K. O’Neil said in an e-mail interview Tuesday.

Echaveste is declining media interviews.

Born in Harlingen, Texas, to migrant parents and the oldest of seven children, Echaveste moved with her family when she was young to Clovis, outside of Fresno. When she was 12, the family moved again, to Southern California.

Now a policy adviser, and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, where she also was a student, Echaveste has risen steadily since her graduation from Stanford University and Berkeley. She previously served in the Clinton administration, eventually as the White House deputy chief of staff.

Sacramento-area congresswoman Doris Matsui, a fellow Democrat who worked closely with Echaveste in the Clinton White House, said Tuesday that “her professional, academic and personal experience makes her an outstanding nominee.”

For the Obama administration’s State Department, Echaveste served as special representative to Bolivia.

She has been a regular donor to Democratic candidates, campaign records show, but her contributions have been modest, often several hundred dollars at a time.

As co-founder of the K Street-based Nueva Vista Group, Echaveste formerly registered as a lobbyist on behalf of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, among others. She is no longer a registered lobbyist, records show, though she maintains her status as the company’s senior adviser.

Echaveste will need all her hard-won skills, first to navigate the confirmation hurdles ahead and then to represent U.S. interests in what Davidow called a “very complicated relationship” between two countries that share a 2,000-mile border. Davidow, who served as ambassador between 1998 and 2002, is presently a senior advisor to the Cohen Group, a consulting firm.

“What the ambassador does is not only explain the U.S. government to the foreign government, but also explain the foreign government to the United States,” Davidow noted.

The far-flung U.S. presence in Mexico is one of the largest U.S. missions in the world, posing serious management demands. Twenty percent of all arrests of Americans abroad occur in the U.S. consular district in Tijuana, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General noted, while the Juarez consular office processes more immigrant visas than any other U.S. post in the world.

Diplomatically, the job requires mastery of policies, including immigration reform and its harder-edged cousin, border control, as well as the struggle over drug trafficking. Two-way trade in goods and services between the countries surpasses half-a-trillion dollars a year.

“She understands that the U.S.-Mexico relationship is not just about government-to-government relationship, but about managing the complex network of economic, social, and political engagements that happen every day between the two countries,” Andrew Selee, executive vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said of Echaveste.

Echaveste would not be the first non-career diplomat to head the embassy located on Mexico City’s busy Paseo de la Reforma. Six of the last 10 U.S. ambassadors to Mexico came from outside of the State Department. Their prior careers have ranged from movie actor and congressman to corporate executive and Texas lawyer.

The current ambassador, E. Anthony Wayne, is a Sacramento, Calif., native and career foreign service officer.