She knows it sounds excessively earnest, but Antoinette Rangel ’09 tells her colleagues, “It’s been a pleasure to serve the American people with you today!” every evening before leaving the White House. (And it does sound so like Aaron Sorkin that one can almost hear patriotic music swelling in the background as she walks and talks. But after talking to Rangel and her friends and colleagues it becomes clear that the enthusiasm is utterly genuine.)
As deputy director of Hispanic Media Outreach for the Obama administration, Rangel has served as a major point of contact during a year in which Hispanic media outlets have been especially keen to hear the president’s position on certain issues. The days before President Obama announced his executive action on immigration—which aims to protect more than four million undocumented immigrants—were the “kind of days you’re so busy you can hardly see straight; you forget to eat lunch; you’re moving a million miles an hour, fervently ticking items off a never-ending to-do list.” Rangel insists, however, she was smiling the entire time.
While tweeting from the White House’s bilingual Twitter account during the president’s speech on the executive action, she couldn’t help but think of all the work preceding that moment. In particular, one of the president’s lines stood out to her: “We were strangers once, too.”
“It was very powerful,” she writes in an email, “for the president to remind us all of what binds us together as a nation: a tradition of welcoming immigrants is the very fabric of who we are.”
Since creating jobs like Rangel’s, the administration says it’s seen broader coverage from Hispanic outlets, which not only report on the White House’s work on immigration, but also on health care, student loans, the minimum wage, and other topics. During previous administrations, Hispanic media was addressed under the larger banner of specialized media. (Though this would’ve been a difficult tradition to keep, since Hispanic media outlets are proliferating, with more than 20 having been formed since 2000.)
Rangel says that within the White House, people have viewed the Hispanic media coverage of the executive actions as largely positive, although she acknowledges that this year immigration advocates have become impatient for the federal government to act. “It’s tough to be patient,” Rangel writes. “I know, as a Latina myself, how it impacts millions of lives daily.” Later she adds, “In my family, I’ve seen the impact of lack of education, opportunity, and access to health care—for me it isn’t just statistics on a page but people in my life whom I love.”
When Rangel first got her job in the Obama administration, one of her cousins asked something to the effect of “Oh, are you going to be the help? And take care of the girls?”
That fueled her, she writes, saying it “reminds me how important being part of this administration is; because I think about my family and all the other young Latinas who might not think it’s possible to work in a place like the White House. And to them I say what the president says so often: dream big dreams.”
Rangel’s days rarely end when she leaves her White House desk. Most evenings after work she heads straight to class at Georgetown Law School, where she also serves as a transfer peer mentor. Rangel had been a law student at Northeastern, in Boston, when she took the job in the Obama administration’s communications office in 2010; now she’s catching up in night classes. She’s also in a gospel choir and twice a month works the night shift at a women’s homeless shelter in Northwest D.C. In what free time she had, she’d been training for the Marine Corps Marathon, which she completed in November while wearing a liberal amount of American flag apparel.
But Rangel revels in the frenetic pace of her days. In fact, when Univision profiled her as one of the 15 most influential Latinos or Latinas in the executive branch, she told them the one thing she’d change is the number of hours she has to work—that is, she’d like to be in the White House more. Apparently, the long days and the vow to be attached to her Blackberry and iPhone aren’t enough. “Even on the most tiring days,” she says, “the place still takes my breath away.”
When Rangel was a kid, she had a very typical list of dream jobs. She was intrigued by the elephant trainers she saw every year at the circus near her home in the Bronx. She considered becoming an actress or a singer. Once she got older, however, her ambitions grew.
She attended La Guardia High School, best known as the setting for the 1980 film Fame, hoping both for a good education and time to sing. Her English teacher Ed McCarthy says she didn’t voice any specific ambitions, but that she was “driven to do good.” Before graduating, she considered becoming a lawyer or running for political office, testing out the latter by serving as copresident of her senior class. Then, in 2005, she went to Middlebury as a Posse Scholar. At Middlebury, Posse students arrive early their first year, and Rangel was the first person to introduce herself to everyone. And she just kept going from there.
Rangel served all four years on the Community Council; she lived at the social house KDR. She played rugby, sang jazz, attended weekly Posse meetings, and led a spring-break service trip to the Dominican Republic. She volunteered at a nursing home nearby, as well as with the Migrant Farmworkers Coalition. She was president of the College Democrats. She also worked on several political campaigns—the summer after she completed high school, she campaigned for Gifford Miller when he ran against Mayor Michael Bloomberg in NYC. As well, she did a summer stint for Hillary Clinton before the 2008 presidential primaries, telling the Middlebury Campus that fall, “I believe that Hillary has the experience to lead starting on day one.”
Ross Commons Dean Ann Hanson served with Rangel on Middlebury’s Community Council and recalls a time when Rangel was nearly speechless after running into Chief Justice John Roberts, who was on campus to give a lecture. Earlier, Rangel had sat at his table for lunch and later that day he said hello while passing her on the sidewalk.
“You’ll never believe it, Ann,” Hanson remembers Rangel saying, “but he knows my name!”
Murray Dry, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, recollects that Rangel wanted to be a U.S. senator. He was skeptical about how feasible this career path was, but admired Rangel’s work ethic enough to entertain the idea. “She wasn’t the type of student who only takes courses she would easily succeed in,” Dry says. “She was not the top student, but worked incredibly hard. I admired that. Sticking with something, it’s not something you see in every student.”
Dry believes Rangel would make an excellent representative—a job she’s considered. In fact, she told at least one White House reporter that she hopes to one day join New York’s congressional delegation. And she’s spoken of similar ambitions to those close to her.
Julia Stevens, a childhood friend, remembers when they were in ninth grade Rangel saying she was going to be governor of New York someday. “I was in awe of her,” Stevens says. “I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think I’ll ever know.”
And Sheyenne Brown ’09, who was in Rangel’s Posse class, predicts that after Rangel graduates law school and is a “badass civil rights attorney” for awhile, she’ll “be the first woman or Hispanic president.” Brown continues, “I’d say she had been very clear about her political aspirations from the very beginning. If not explicitly, then in her demeanor.”
Rangel impresses those around her with her drive, her ambition, and her ability to accomplish a lot. Which means that her busy D.C. life must feel comforting: it’s the way she’s always led her life. If anything, her chief strategy seems to be amassing experiences until all obstacles are scared away in the face of brute busyness.
After ending her collegiate career as president of the Student Government Association, Rangel went to Northeastern, planning to apply for summer internships at the White House every summer until she was offered a job. She didn’t have long to wait. After her first year of law school, she landed an internship in the White House Office of Political Affairs. There she ran into an old friend, Josh Earnest, a deputy press secretary in the White House. (The two had worked together on a gubernatorial campaign in Florida in 2006.) That summer, they often had lunch together, and as Rangel was preparing to return to Boston to begin her second year of law school, Earnest suggested she apply for a full-time job as press wrangler. She said she couldn’t, that the timing was bad. But after spending the night thinking it over, she changed her mind.
“When I returned to planet Earth,” she says, “and realized I’d just been offered the opportunity to interview for a dream job, I emailed Josh at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and said I was 150 percent in and that I’d do whatever it took to get the position.”
Most of her personal peanut gallery, the ones who have been placing odds on how far she’ll go, have been on White House tours. Rangel estimates she’s given hundreds—tours for her mom’s best friend’s third-grade class, for friends from home, for Middlebury professors. They comment on how balanced and healthy she looks, but don’t quite understand how that’s possible, given how much she’s doing.
“People call me turbo, or very type-A,” Rangel says. “It is very hard for me to sit still.” She adds, “I thrive off being busy and am definitely a workaholic.” It’s these qualities that make her an effective advocate for the causes that are important to her, says Josh Earnest, now the White House press secretary. “Her success stems from her tenacity and determination to fight for what she believes in.”
Perhaps, say some, Rangel’s ability to stay balanced comes from perspective, perspective that allows her to be serious about her work while never taking herself so seriously (a quality rarely seen in Washington).
When Sheyenne Brown met Rangel that first week at Middlebury, she remembers that the LaGuardia High graduate had been on a “mismatching kick where she wore these crazy clothes. I just knew it was because she was trying to be different.” Different from Middlebury, maybe, but perfectly in synch with who Rangel was—a new place wasn’t going to change that. (Her freshman year, Rangel and her father made a cardboard Ben & Jerry’s pint for her Halloween costume—extending a family tradition of designing and constructing outlandish costumes—and several people at Middlebury remember it even today.)
It’s momentarily stunning to hear Brown describe Rangel as “one of the most obnoxious people I’d ever met,” though, to be honest, Brown’s sentiment is both understandable and endearing, especially when you hear her talk about it. (At the beginning of their freshman year, the two had driven to Vermont together, with Rangel playing “Chariot” by Gavin DeGraw on the car stereo repeatedly. “Sheyenne will never forgive me for playing that song,” she says.)
“I guess Ant kind of grew on me like a fungus, and I honestly say that with such love and gratefulness,” Brown says. “She pretty much forced her way into my heart, and I can’t even pinpoint when I started to adore her the way I do now.”
One White House tour in particular stands out for Rangel. When her sister Elia first saw the Oval Office, “the gravity of it hit her, and her face lit up with excitement and turned bright red.”
“It’s very exciting to share this place with others,” Rangel says. “Every day it feels surreal, like at some point someone will wake me from this incredible dream.”
Out of anyone else’s mouth, such sentiment would sound excessively earnest. But for Rangel, it just sounds . . . right.
Jaime Fuller ’11 writes for New York magazine. She previously covered politics at the Washington Post. As an editor with the Middlebury Campus, she covered the “Rangel Administration” of the College’s Student Government Association.