THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — It’s almost 2 p.m. when Alejandra Campoverdi steps into the elevator at the radiology clinic. She’s been fasting for hours. The scent in that confined space, leftover from someone’s recent lunch run, isn’t making it any easier.
“You smell that, right?” the former Obama White House official says as the doors slide open and she enters the hallway. “French fries! I’m so hungry.”
She’s always uneasy when she walks down hallways like this one. Within a few minutes, a nurse will be X-raying her chest and pumping a dye into her veins that will leave her a little lightheaded, but that might give her some answers.
Two years ago, Campoverdi learned that she has a genetic mutation, known as BRCA2, that means she is extremely likely to develop breast cancer, the disease that took the lives of her grandmother and great-grandmother, and nearly took her mother’s. She inherited the grit of those three Mexican American women, but they also bequeathed her a gene that could kill her.
Campoverdi’s diagnosis and her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy in the near future, which she is discussing publicly for the first time in a Washington Post interview, forms the emotional and intellectual foundation of her campaign to represent a portion of her native Los Angeles in Congress. She’s been an Obama White House staffer, one of the Ivy League-pedigreed 20-somethings who stylishly splashed into Washington full of optimism and swagger in the administration’s earliest, headiest days. She’s been a poor kid surviving on welfare, a reality show contestant, a Maxim model in skimpy lingerie, a Harvard graduate, a groundbreaking first-ever deputy director of Hispanic media at the White House.
“I do have this identity and history of personal experiences that inherently embody a lot of contradictions. I’ve ridden on Air Force One and in a ‘G ride,’ ” she says, using a slang term for a stolen car. “I’ve used a black Sharpie marker to color in the chips on the heel of my boot before walking to work in the West Wing.”
Now her underdog candidacy in an overflow field to succeed longtime Democratic congressman Xavier Becerra is turning into another test of whether Barack Obama spawned a generation of future leaders, a notion that has gained purchase with the election in the past few years of youthful former staffers Eric Lesser to the Massachusetts Senate and Michael Blake to the New York State Assembly.
“Her generation’s voice is waiting to be heard,” Mona Sutphen, Campoverdi’s White House boss, says in an interview.
In acknowledging publicly the results of her genetic test, Campoverdi — who sees the same doctor as actress Angelina Jolie — is closely tying her first run for public office in the April 4 primary to Obama’s legacy. She argues that changes to his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, will lead to fewer people having insurance coverage and access to potentially lifesaving preventive care and testing.
“There are safeguards in place,” she says in the car one afternoon, “that are life or death for people.”
Campoverdi is tall and slender with long, dark hair and a camera-ready smile that got her modeling jobs in her early 20s. She stands ever erect, a trait that sometimes is mistaken for formality but is actually the result of the rods implanted to correct a curved spine.
Campoverdi grew up in Santa Monica, one of the Los Angeles area’s more upscale communities, but her home was a cramped, government-subsidized apartment where eight members of her extended family lived. Her father was absent. Her first teenage love was a gang member, she says.
“That’s when you’re really negotiating your Latino identity,” she says. “Social mobility is traumatizing.”
“Hey, I still wear a necklace with my name on it,” she laughs, pointing to the gold chain around her neck that she’s paired with a simple black collared shirt and skinny black jeans.
Her mother, Cecilia Medellin, the daughter of a rootless laborer, emigrated from Mexico. She worked in a factory in Compton and got by with government food vouchers that made her daughter blush with embarrassment in the grocery store checkout lines.
In 1994, when Campoverdi was 14, she wrote a play about suicide and depression for a nonprofit theater program that paired at-risk youth with established actors. The main character was named Nothingness.
That year was tumultuous in California because of the passage of Proposition 187, a measure that denied government services to undocumented immigrants and provoked tensions among Latinos and native-born white Californians. It served as a political awakening for Campoverdi. She remembers people yelling, “Go back to Mexico.”
Not long after, her “Abi” — short for abuela, the Spanish word for grandmother — found a lump in her chest that would soon kill her. Maria Louisa Medellin had the same condition that had taken Campoverdi’s great-grandmother Maria Elena Uribe.
A few years later, Campoverdi’s mother, Cecilia Medellin, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Campoverdi, who’d recently graduated from the University of Southern California, where she’d received scholarships and grants to cover her tuition, moved home and slept on an inflatable mattress.
Everyone thought her mother was going to die. That’s what happened to women in their family.
But not this time. By then, Medellin had gotten a job as a kindergarten teacher with the Los Angeles school system. She had insurance and got the treatment she needed to make a full recovery.
“Thanks to God,” Campoverdi says, making the sign of the cross.
Finally, this thing that afflicted the women in their family was starting to look a little less invincible.
On a Sunday night in March 2010, Campoverdi was at her apartment in D.C.’s Chinatown and wearing a pair of old shorts when her BlackBerry buzzed. The email that popped into her phone read, “The president invites you for a toast on the Truman Balcony.”
Within minutes she was in a dress on her way to the White House for a small gathering celebrating the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Campoverdi had gone into debt for this moment. Two years earlier, after graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she’d given up a business-school scholarship and taken an unpaid job with Obama’s campaign. She racked up thousands of dollars on her credit card — on top of the $170,000 she already owed in student loans.
After the campaign, she got a call to interview for a job as the assistant to Sutphen, Obama’s high-powered deputy chief of staff. She took the job without asking how much it paid.
The job also came with something she’d lacked: health insurance. “She was incredibly excited to finally have health care — happily scheduling long put off doctors’ and dentists’ appointments,” said Sarah Hurwitz, who was a White House speechwriter for Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama.
One week after Obama’s inauguration, Gawker, in a story headlined “Ali Campoverdi: Obama Hottie, Feminist Paradox” published photos of her posing in lingerie that had run five years earlier in Maxim. The piece recounted how she’d tried out unsuccessfully for “The Apprentice,” the reality show starring Donald Trump. (Campoverdi says she never met him), and had been an also-ran years earlier on the reality program “For Love or Money.”
Campoverdi says she agreed to do the dating program not long after her mother, who urged her “to have an adventure,” recovered from cancer treatment. (She says she didn’t know it was a dating competition until shooting began.)
Suddenly her face — and body — were all over newspapers and websites around the world. “CAPITOL THRILL!,” one British tabloid gushed. Distressed that she might be a distraction, Campoverdi sat down with Sutphen to give her a heads-up.
“It wasn’t exactly the way you would want your debut to be,” recalled Sutphen, who quickly assured her new assistant that her job was safe.
White House staffers usually like to avoid the limelight, but it kept finding Campoverdi. For a few months, she dated Jon Favreau, Obama’s heartthrob speechwriter. Her 30th birthday party on the rooftop lounge of the W hotel in Washington was written up in the New York Times Magazine.
Her candidacy poses a question faced by women aspiring to leadership roles: Is sexuality an asset or a liability? Can someone once labeled an Obama Hottie be taken seriously — never mind how many degrees she has? And would the same questions be asked if the genders were different and we were talking about an Obama Hunk?
“It is misogynistic toward women as far as their natural human experiences as they’re figuring out their lives,” Campoverdi says. “The context of your journey gets scrubbed out, especially with folks who have nonlinear backgrounds like me.”
She remembers the fluorescent lights in the medical office in Miami. Harsh and bright.
Campoverdi had moved to Miami after more than three years in the White House to help launch Fusion, a joint venture between Spanish-language broadcaster Univision and ABC News. While there, she decided to investigate something that had been stuck in her mind: the mystery of her own body.
Under the glare of those medical office lights, she was told she’d tested positive for the BRCA2 gene.
“ ‘I know,’ ” Campoverdi recalls saying.
It was inevitable that Campoverdi would return to Los Angeles, which has always felt like home. She joined the Los Angeles Times, where she worked until July on immigration-focused video projects.
Back in her native city, she straddles two worlds — the glamour of local power players and celebrities, and the grittiness of impoverished neighborhoods. The district she hopes to represent spans the same dichotomy.
In the span of two days this month, she coffee-klatches at the trendy Ace Hotel downtown with her friend Sarah Gore Maiani, daughter of former vice president Al Gore, (they met a decade ago at a New Year’s Eve party on the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s) and ventures into a dreary stretch of Los Angeles north of downtown to participate in a nighttime workshop for alumni of the juvenile jail writing program where she volunteers once a week.
Another night finds Campoverdi hanging out with Taboo, a rapper with the Black Eyed Peas, who stops by a swanky farm-to-table bistro in the Eagle Rock neighborhood. Taboo, born Jaime Luis Gomez, fought a successful battle against testicular cancer. The two — both L.A.-born children of single mothers — have plans to collaborate on presentations for schoolchildren focused on healthy habits.
How did they meet?
“I have friends in the entertainment industry,” Campoverdi shrugs. “Agents and the like.”
In that same world, Campoverdi found Kristi Funk, a doctor whose patients include Jolie, who famously opted for a double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA2 gene.
“I’m going to do what Angelina did,” Campoverdi decided.
The traffic on the 101 freeway out of town is ferocious, as always. Campoverdi is wondering if she’ll be late for her mammogram appointment. She’s trekking out to Thousand Oaks because a radiology facility there is one of the few performing a sophisticated exam using technology called contrast-enhanced spectral mammography. It involves injecting a dye that highlights potential signs of a cancerous growth.
“Every time is scary,” Campoverdi says in the car on the way there. “Every time I go I could have cancer.”
Time is on her mind. She left the Los Angeles Times in July to explore other media opportunities before switching gears and opting to run for office. She’s still on the company’s insurance, which won’t last forever. Without a paying job, she’s getting into debt again, as she did in the Obama campaign. She says she pays the rent on her downtown apartment with her credit card.
Funk, her doctor, has set a target date for her mastectomy — when Campoverdi is 10 years younger than her mother was when she developed breast cancer. Her mother was 49. Campoverdi is 37.
She’s got two years.
She’d like to have children but she’s not in a serious relationship now. She’s gone through several rounds of egg freezing for fertility purposes, just in case she also opts to have her ovaries removed.
“I might have to make some tough choices,” she says, her voice trailing off.
At the radiology clinic, Campoverdi is ushered into the exam room, past breathtaking views of the rolling hills outside and the sign that reads “We love our patients a latte.”
When she comes out, she’s a bit wobbly. They told her that three things would happen when she got her injection: She’d get a hot flash. She’d want to pee. She’d get dizzy.
All three happened. The attendant told her, “Don’t worry, we have a crash cart here, and we’re all trained in CPR,” a declaration presumably meant to calm her that only made her more nervous.
On the way back to Los Angeles, Campoverdi pulls up images from a campaign ad she’s planning to air. They shot it the other day. The candidate brought along her grandmother’s rosary — the same string of beads she carried with her when she graduated from high school and college, and on her first and last days in the White House. Her mother was there for the shoot. An aunt, Nannette Magaña, was supposed to be there, too.
But she couldn’t make it. She was too sick.
She’s got breast cancer.