Danny Meza serves as Chief of Staff for U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a role in which he has helped to shape legislation, consult on trade deals and navigate matters of national security. Along with Congressman Castro, Meza played a vital role in the creation of the U.S.-Japan Congressional Caucus, the first organization of Capitol Hill lawmakers devoted to the multi-faceted relationship between the two countries.
Meza was born in San Antonio, Texas to a family active in local politics. Growing up, he developed interests in law and global commerce, and was motivated to learn more about international trade policy by the Japanese foreign investment he saw blossoming in his home state. After attending law school in Chicago, he worked in international trade law for KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2009, he moved to Washington, DC and became a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Commerce. During his tenure there, an influential mentor helped to broaden his familiarity and engagement with the U.S.-Japan relationship.
After Meza’s childhood family friend Joaquin Castro was elected to Congress in 2012, Meza joined his office as Chief of Staff shortly after. The two worked together to launch the U.S.-Japan Congressional Caucus two years later. And in 2017, Meza traveled with Congressman Castro and other national leaders as part of the official U.S. Congressional Delegation to Japan.
NichiBei Connect spoke with Meza about his professional journey, the importance of growing the U.S.-Japan relationship, and how mentorship can elevate people at any stage of their careers.
How did you first become interested in Japan as a country or culture?
When I was growing up in San Antonio, my family worked in politics, so we always followed political discussions. My first exposure to Japan came from the contentious relationship that the countries developed during the trade battles of the 1980s.
NAFTA was established when I was finishing high school, and the signing ceremony was held in San Antonio. That was a big thing for me. I gained a whole new perspective on global commerce. I had already decided that I wanted to pursue international trade law as a career, and the treaty made me feel like I was starting my studies at the right time, just when the topic was beginning to emerge in an important way.
Another big development that caught my attention was a decision by Toyota to open a production plant in San Antonio. The prospect of a major Japanese company bringing a factory to San Antonio, and creating new local jobs, was very exciting.
So when I left for Chicago for law school, I went with professional curiosity about international trade, excitement about how the field was growing, and the inspiring promise of seeing a Japanese corporation invest significantly in my home city.
How did that confluence of interests manifest in your career after law school?
After graduating, I was able to focus on international law at my first job, which was with KPMG in Chicago. After that, I left for San Francisco to work on export control issues with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Between those two jobs, I was fortunate to be able to focus on my interest in international trade law, and turn what had begun as a curiosity into something that I did professionally.
In San Francisco, like in San Antonio, I saw significant Japanese investment and influence. I was very interested to explore further. This was in the early 2000s, so Silicon Valley was in full bloom with growing companies and large overseas investments. Working and learning in that sort of environment laid the foundation for my transition to Washington, DC, which happened after President Obama was elected. I wanted to work for his administration, and ended up at the U.S. Department of Commerce, again focusing on export controls. The U.S. Department of Commerce gave me my first exposure to working with foreign governments, including the government of Japan. It also gave me a great opportunity to learn about the Japanese-American community.
The chief of staff I reported to was Japanese-American and had spent all of her career working on Japan-related issues. She worked with the U.S.-Japan Council and had lived in Japan. She knew the organizations that were key to the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Since I spent my childhood in Texas, 150 miles from the Mexican border, much of my politics growing up was centered around Mexican-American civil rights. Given my chief of staff’s background, much of her experience was rooted in Asian-American and Japanese-American civil rights. There were a lot of parallels between the challenges the communities faced, and those were helpful for me to discover. Even with all of the time I’d spent working with large international corporations earlier in my career, I had still been afraid that bridging the gap between my background and other cultures would be a challenge, and that a real understanding of countries like Japan would be potentially out of reach for me. I was very fortunate that my boss was there to help. She introduced me to her connections and friends, and laid out her experiences so that I could learn from them. I stayed at the Department of Commerce with her for four years and had the opportunity to work with and get to know the U.S.-Japan Council, the Japanese Embassy, and the Japanese government as a whole during that time.
How did you begin working with Congressman Joaquin Castro?
The Congressman and I always had a lot in common. We both grew up in families that worked in politics, we were both Mexican-American, and we were both from the same area of Texas. I first met him when we were young because our parents were friends and my family helped him with his state legislature campaigns. There was a long history, so when he began talking about running for Congress, we discussed me joining his office on Capitol Hill.
How did that relationship lead to the creation of the U.S.-Japan Congressional Caucus?
During his freshman year, Congressman Castro sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. At that time, one of the things he and I were looking at was how to represent our city effectively when he was only one of over four hundred members of the House of Representatives. That’s where the Toyota plant came in—at this point, it was now fully operational and employing many people in San Antonio. In Congress, the Trans-Pacific Partnership faced pending Congressional action shortly after Japan joined the TPP. It was becoming increasingly clear how important Japanese investment would be for the people of San Antonio, and for the U.S. as a whole. So in 2014, we created the U.S.-Japan Caucus in Congress, which opened the door to a deeper U.S.-Japan relationship on Capitol Hill than had ever existed before.
What were your key goals for the Caucus?
Congressman Castro felt that we needed to engage with the next generation of Japanese leaders, and to begin building strong ties between them and younger members of Congress, many of whom came to DC in the same class as Congressman Castro. We also felt it was important to engage many members of Congress in relationship-building because the U.S.-Japan relationship needs to go beyond the countries’ capitols. We need both American and Japanese leaders to take the relationship back to their home communities, and lay strong foundations for the next fifty years.
What are some of your favorite aspects of Japanese culture?
That actually relates to my roots in Texas. Texans are known to have a lot of personality, and that personality is frequently put on display. I love that Texans are proud of their backgrounds—and I’ve seen strong local pride in Japan as well. Different regions of Japan greatly value their local cultures and histories. Cities have mascots that are used to promote and distinguish their communities, and those mascots often have interesting stories behind them. I’ve enjoyed seeing Japanese expressions of local and community pride, and it’s remarkable how much that pride reminds me of my home in Texas.
What’s a typical day on the job like for a Congressional chief of staff?
It could be anything. We usually start very early in the morning and end late at night. [Laughs.] The hours are odd because we deal with everything from constituents’ issues to press inquiries to addressing pressing policy issues. There can be a lot to juggle at any given time. But it’s my job to make sure the boat stays pointed in the right direction, no matter what happens.
As a chief of staff, you’re the most senior staffer in the office, and you’re the principal policy and political adviser. Your job is to work with the member of Congress you serve to choose the direction the office should take, how it will represent your city and state, and how to stay current with the ups and downs of the Congressional calendar, because so much of what Congress deals with is unplanned and impromptu.
Can you give an example?
The first August I spent on Capitol Hill, we had a month to go back to our district in San Antonio for meetings, and I remember getting the call about Congress examining military action in Syria. We’d been following the situation closely and knew it wasn’t good, but the prospect of Congressional approval for military action was an unexpected development that needed immediate attention. When you’re a chief of staff, it’s an ongoing challenge to keep your goals and plans moving forward while constantly adapting to the changing needs of the country and of your constituents.
Why should readers get involved in the Japan-U.S. relationship?
It has facets for everybody, whatever your career may be. There are security, business, and cultural components, and real people-to-people ties. Like the pandemic we’re dealing with right now, the challenges that we are going to face in the future will require us to work together internationally. That applies to matters of public health, climate change, and nearly anything else.
Especially in my time working in government, I’ve found that there’s always a need for more person-to-person connections between our two countries. Like any relationship, the U.S.-Japan partnership requires upkeep. We need U.S.-Japan conversations to happen between people everywhere in both countries, and not just in the nations’ capitols.
What role has mentorship played in your career?
My former chief of staff at the Department of Commerce was a mentor to me both professionally and personally. Her name was Sharon Yanagi, and she played a key role in introducing me to the broader context of the U.S.-Japan relationship. The positive energy I felt from her and from people she connected me with was very important. I took that energy to my next job, working with Congressman Castro. Had it not been for that experience with her, I don’t know if the launch of the U.S.-Japan Congressional Caucus would have been as successful. When we were going through the process of creating it, even though I didn’t work with her anymore, we continued to talk frequently about the Caucus, ideas for engagement and how to foster connections with Japanese and Asian-American organizations. That’s really the benefit of good mentors—they help you develop relationships not just for your immediate position, but that you take with you into future endeavors.
What advice could you offer to young people seeking mentors in the U.S.-Japan space?
Look for mentors who have something in common with you, whether it’s shared experiences, interests, or identities. You want to establish synergy and develop a relationship that is positive in both directions, not transactional. You’re relying on your mentor to invest in you in a personal way, and you need to invest personally as well. By deepening your relationships, you’ll make it possible to maintain your connections with your mentors, even as they move jobs and advance in their own careers.
What advice could you give to people who want to give back as mentors?
You’re going to find it a lot more rewarding than you might anticipate. Because I had such a positive experience learning from my mentor Sharon, I’ve gone out of my way to bring bright young people into whatever I’m doing. In fact, the principal staffer who handles the day-to-day of the caucus, Danielle Moon, is my mentee. I’ve always felt that I was given so much by my mentor that I want to give back and help others find a career roadmap that will get them where they want to be.
What advice could you offer to people who want to build a career like yours, whether in politics or international trade law?
Start young. I’ve benefitted hugely from being available to seize opportunities right when they were presented. If you start building your professional relationships early and have them cemented in place, you’ll have the support you need to take advantage of opportunities when they come your way.
What if you’re already further along in your career?
It’s never too late to try something new. I began working at the Department of Commerce in my mid-thirties. At least in my mind, that felt like I was starting too late to establish myself in a new area. I’m glad I was wrong.
I would also advise people who are mid-career to not be afraid of exploring paths that aren’t obvious or conventional. With foreign policy in particular, one of the many challenges is that there’s a strong sense of pedigree. That dynamic can intimidate people and discourage them from pursuing their interests. But foreign policy, and the U.S.-Japan relationship in particular, benefits from the involvement of people who come from different backgrounds and can think outside the box. So many of the immediate challenges that we face require creative thinking and unconventional solutions.
Do you have any final thoughts to share?
Regardless of your background, professional history, or experience, if you want to positively contribute to the U.S.-Japan relationship, you can and you should. People will welcome your efforts. I encourage anyone reading this to seek opportunities to get involved.