Robert Rivas, new Speaker of the California Assembly. Photo courtesy of Robert Rivas, California Assembly

The key to understanding new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas’ leadership might be his severe childhood stutter.

Growing up, he often had his ears open more than his mouth. Now, Rivas said Wednesday in an interview hosted by the Sacramento Press Club, his greatest strength is hearing people out and engaging with the concerns of his colleagues.

“When sometimes you can’t say things, you have no choice but to listen,” the Hollister Democrat said.

That was the pitch Rivas said he made last year to his fellow Assembly Democrats as he waged a protracted, and highly political, battle with former Speaker Anthony Rendon for control of the lower house of the California Legislature. He would be a convener, inclusive, unifying the caucus’ agenda.

During the interview on July 12, his first major public event since he was sworn in as speaker less than two weeks ago, Rivas still seemed to be figuring out what exactly that would entail.

Repeatedly emphasizing that it was only his 12th day on the job, Rivas offered few specifics about what might be a priority as the Legislature enters its final month of session, or where he would want to direct the oversight efforts that he suggested during his inaugural speech should be a greater focus for lawmakers.

Rivas did acknowledge that he wants the Assembly to pass Senate Bill 423, a contentious measure to fast-track permits for new apartment buildings in much of the state, which only narrowly advanced out of committee earlier this week when several Democratic and Republican members teamed up to override the chairperson.

“With housing, we continue to just chip around the corners on this problem,” Rivas said. “But people expect us to make progress, and much more progress.”

In a rapid-fire round, he also expressed his support for legalizing psychedelic drugs in California and raising the minimum wage for health care workers to $25 per hour. His favorite Mexican food in Sacramento, he said, is a home-cooked meal from Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Fullerton Democrat.

Rivas tried to draw a sharp professional boundary with his brother, Rick Rivas, who has been his closest political adviser throughout his career and works as a consultant for the American Beverage Association, a soda industry group.

“My brother is not a lobbyist. He’s never lobbied me,” the speaker said. “I will always serve the residents of this state to the best of my ability and always maintain those lines of ethics, of doing things the right way.”

Though they have a tight bond—forged by sharing a bed as children—Robert Rivas said there would be no undue influence from his brother’s clients on his agenda. Rick Rivas also advises Govern For California, a donor network that aims to counteract the influence of public employee unions at the state Capitol and that pushed the boundaries of state campaign finance law as it boosted Robert Rivas’ speakership bid.

“How I won the speakership was through engagement and through the relationships I have built up and down this state,” he said, dismissing the notion that he bought the role. “I take that responsibility very seriously. I certainly appreciate all of the political advice my brother has ever given me. But he has a job to do and so do I.”

Alexei Koseff is a reporter with CalMatters.

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