From poverty to power, new California Speaker seeks Democratic caucus unity but offers few details
Jul 8, 2023, 10:04 PM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas was a child growing up in California’s rural Central Coast, he watched his grandfather risk his job fighting in the farmworkers’ rights movement to bring a better life to his family and his fellow workers.
A Mexican immigrant, his grandfather was the lead organizer for the United Farm Workers at the vineyard where he picked grapes. The union eventually won a labor agreement that provided farmworkers with better working conditions, higher wages and pensions: a victory that helped lift Rivas’ family out of poverty.
“The one thing he always shared with me is change doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen,” Rivas said of his grandfather.
Rivas, 43, recently became California’s first speaker from a rural area in modern times, hailing from the city of Hollister where he lives with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.
Rivas and his allies say his journey from an impoverished home to one of the most powerful positions in California politics will usher in a fresh set of perspectives that could bring people together on issues facing the nation’s most populous state.
After a relatively quiet four years in the Assembly focused on agricultural and farmworker issues, Rivas unhappy about how the power struggle played out.
Rivas is now one of three most powerful political figures in California, alongside the governor and Senate president pro tempore. The speaker installs committee chairs, controls what legislation gets voted on and negotiates the budget with the governor and Senate leader. He also wields power by assisting fellow Democrats with their campaigns.
On paper, Rivas and his predecessor hold similar political views and so far he has been vague about his specific policy priorities. He said he’ll focus on passing bills addressing affordability in the state and reviewing existing laws to make sure “government works for the people of California.”
Rivas has talked about the urgency to tackle California’s homelessness crisis, which accounts for nearly a third of the nation’s homeless population, as well as the state needing to improve public services and infrastructure and combat climate change. A continuing budget deficit is likely after a $32 billion shortfall this year.
Rivas also must try to keep his lieutenants loyal to move his agenda forward. He insisted animosity within the caucus is in the past, though he demoted some of Rendon’s allies in his first days in office. Democrats hold three-quarters of the seats in the Assembly, the largest majority in the state’s history.
“The challenge is that anybody can call for a vote at any time to replace the speaker, so you have to keep making sure at least 41 of the 80 are happy so that they don’t vote you out,” said Bill Wong, a Rendon ally who served as political director for the Assembly Democratic caucus.
Rivas and his younger brother, Rick, were raised by a single mother and his grandparents. While his grandfather worked in the fields, Rivas’ grandmother worked in the cannery.
As a child, Rivas said he didn’t realize his family was poor until he asked his mother if he could have friends sleepover. Rivas was sharing a three-bedroom duplex with eight other family members.
“She’s like, ‘Well, one, there’s really no place for them to stay. But two, it probably wouldn’t be a good look for you if your friends knew that you shared a bed with your mom, your brother, your great-grandmother,” Rivas recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
Inspired by their grandfather’s community organizing, the Rivas brothers jumped into politics in their early 20s, helping run local campaigns, including for now-Senator Anna Caballero.
Growing up with a severe stutter, Rivas said he didn’t expect a career in politics. But when he decided to run for the San Benito Board of Supervisors in 2010, he unseated an incumbent with Rick’s help.
Before Rivas become a skilled bridge builder who isn’t afraid of a fight, he wasn’t easy to work with, said former San Benito Supervisor Anthony Botelho. His style was so abrasive that his colleagues on the board decided to skip over him in the typical rotation for board vice president, fearing he didn’t have the temperament.
Botelho, a Republican, pulled Rivas aside and suggested he focus more on working with his colleagues than fighting them.
“And he took it to heart. He really did,” Botelho said.
Rivas learned to find consensus with his colleagues to tackle the effects of the Great Recession while sticking to his progressive principles, Botelho said. When a controversial local zoning decision came up, Rivas refused to support it. Botelho caved and joined the majority even though he had concerns.
“That proved something to me right there that he’s tough enough to stay with his convictions, and I wish I was that good,” Botelho said.
Rivas also was the first to champion a successful, citizen-led anti-fracking effort in the county, despite a formidable opposition campaign by the oil industry.
Rivas hasn’t said how he plans to navigate the relationship with his brother, who is now an executive with the powerful American Beverage Association, as he assumes the speakership. A spokesperson with the speaker’s office said “his legislative record speaks for itself.”
PRIORITIES AS SPEAKER
Exactly how Rivas will bring those convictions and experience to the speakership remains to be seen. He has said little about his specific plans as the Assembly leader.
Rivas pledged “minimal disruptions” to the caucus but has made some leadership changes, elevating his political allies. Rivas also removed Democratic Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula from a budget subcommittee after Arambula attempted to challenge Rivas’ speakership in January.
Rivas wouldn’t say whether he would break from Rendon’s hands-off approach giving his committee chairs control over legislative priorities. But he planned to deploy the same strategies he used to win allies as he jockeyed for the speakership.
“The overwhelming majority of the caucus has moved on,” Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, a Rivas ally, said of the intraparty fighting.
Even some Republicans say they’re excited about Rivas, pointing to his time as chair of the Agricultural Committee when he conducted a statewide tour to learn about different rural communities.
Republican Assemblymember Heath Flora, who serves on the committee, said “we’re in good hands” if Rivas is as good a speaker as he was a chair.
Rivas said he expects to continue advocating for farmworkers and bridging the gap between urban and rural areas, and he may author some legislation in those areas. During his first term, Rivas successfully led a bill that helps streamline farmworker housing with the backing of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta.
“He seems to care about the community and … he seems to be following through with his statements,” said Natalie Herendeen, executive director of the Center for Community Advocacy, which helps farmworkers organize.
The opportunities that helped pull his family out of poverty and helped him ascend to the speakership are dwindling in California, Rivas said, but he vows to bring them back.
“When I look back on the hard work and opportunities I’ve had, I want my daughter to enjoy those same opportunities, but I think many people are questioning whether that is possible in this state,” Rivas said. “That’s the important work we have to do.”