As a child in California, Daniel Chavez would miss the last week of school to go pick grapes with his family. The family, including his grandmother and cousins, would return to the same farm year after year.
The Chavezes lived in Watts, but would move into tents pitched at the farm until the grape-picking season was over, which usually meant Chavez missed the first week of school as well.
"When you're poor, you don't know you're poor," said Chavez, who was 7 years old when he started picking grapes. "I remember grape fights, being chased by bees. And I remember the 12-hour-a-day work weeks."
At 15, Chavez began volunteering with the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and met Cesar Chavez, no relation. That experience started Chavez, 50, on the road to being a lifelong advocate. The latest turns have led him to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), where the Franklin Farms-area resident is the director of national voter registration and is director of the new citizens program.
"He's just a great guy and you're not going to find anyone more dedicated to the principles of this nation," said Renee Redwood, director of political operations at the DNC.
CHAVEZ' EARLY experiences volunteering for the UFW led to his volunteering as a paralegal with the Legal Aid Foundation, which sparked his interest in the law.
"I got interested in law school with the idea I could help the farm workers and those who needed an advocate," Chavez said.
After graduation, he eventually opened his own law practice, but became dissatisfied with the law as his practice became increasingly popular.
"I was becoming too successful, especially when I was having repeat business from the workers for DUI or petty theft," Chavez said. "I realized I wasn't changing their lives. That's not what I wanted to do with my education."
So Chavez returned to his volunteer work and became involved in a peace march from California to Washington D.C., in 1986 to protest the missile defense system known as "Star Wars."
The march took nine month, with the marchers walking 18 miles per day. It was also a turning point for Chavez, who played an organizational role.
"It was the first time I organized something in another state," Chavez said. "As a Hispanic, it was an awakening for me. I realized I could go anywhere and organize people."
It is his ability to organize people that draws praise from Redwood. She said he understands the fundamentals of how to engage people, as well as the necessary protocols and the process.
HIS ACTIVISM carried Chavez into the political arena, first by working on the Michael Dukakis for President campaign in 1988, then the presidential campaigns for Bill Clinton. The success of the Clinton campaigns led to a presidential appointment to the U.S. Department of Labor, where he served as deputy director of intergovernmental affairs and special assistant to the deputy secretary in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
"Having been a farm worker and to go to middle management in the Department of Labor, it was a nice turn around," Chavez said.
It also led to his relocation to the area, where he lives with his wife Mary, a cardiovascular technician in Washington D.C. The couple has three children, Christina and Michael, both in college, and Daniel, a high-school student. The children would travel with Chavez as he worked on political campaigns and each has also stepped into the fray. Christina is the co-chair of the College Democrats of America at her campus. Michael worked on a city council campaign in Denver and Daniel volunteered for Mark Warner's gubernatorial campaign.
Warner has since appointed Chavez to the Migrate and Seasonal Workers Board, which is a four-year appointment.
ALL OF HIS EXPERIENCE in politics has led Chavez to the belief he can do more good behind-the-scene than as the face on the campaign billboard.
"He really is an advocate for people, one of the few in politics," Redwood said. "He just gives so much, so that the least represented among us has an opportunity for involvement."
As for the recent defeats in Congressional races for the Democrats, Chavez sees opportunity, not defeat.
"There was one thing I learned from Cesar Chavez. He never saw failure. He would say, 'We just haven't won yet.' When he first started the union, there were a bunch of setbacks. He saw it as getting closer to his goal. I've adopted the same philosophy. We just haven't won yet."