It’s a day that seemed like it might not ever happen: Robert Rivas was sworn in Friday morning as speaker of the California Assembly.
The ascension of the Hollister Democrat—who represents the 29th Assembly District—to lead the lower chamber of the Legislature brings to a definitive close (for now) a dramatic power struggle that bitterly divided the majority caucus of the Assembly last summer and fall.
Internal changes that shake up how the state Capitol operates, such as rewarding close allies with powerful leadership roles and committee posts, are likely coming in the months ahead. What Rivas’ tenure will mean for the average Californian is less certain.
Rivas has a similar ideological profile to his longtime predecessor—the outgoing Speaker Anthony Rendon, a progressive Democrat from Lakewood—so supporters do not expect a dramatic shift in the priorities of Assembly Democrats.
But they note his promise, as he cobbled together votes last year from a diverse coalition of members, to establish an inclusive decision-making process, which supporters hope will lead to a more coherent and intentional legislative agenda.
“I’m expecting to see progress bringing the caucus together to address the most long-standing and significant policy issues facing California,” such as housing and climate change, said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, a Woodland Hills Democrat.
Rivas could also potentially ring in an era of closer collaboration with Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has clashed at times with lawmakers as he has increasingly sought to pursue his ambitious agenda through the Legislature.
At an event June 29, Newsom expressed excitement about working with Rivas, whom he noted was an early endorser of his as Newsom launched his campaign for governor before winning his first term in 2018.
“I have a bias for him. He was there for me early, when I first ran for governor, when others didn’t want to jump in the primary,” Newsom said. “I’m a big fan of the incoming speaker. So I feel blessed, because it’s not always the case.”
A long transfer of power
Rivas first made his move on the speakership more than a year ago, prompting a messy six-hour standoff in a closed-door caucus meeting that concluded with Rendon still in charge.
That might have marked the end for Rivas’ aspirations, but he continued to aggressively cultivate support in the lead-up to the November election, particularly among new candidates running for their first term in the Assembly. He set up his own fundraising operation to support their campaigns, which effectively served as a rival to the California Democratic Party’s efforts, irking Rendon and his allies.
Rivas was also boosted by Govern For California, a donor network pushing the boundaries of state campaign finance law, whose political advisers include his brother.
After another six-hour meeting with the newly elected Assembly Democratic caucus in November, Rivas emerged with an agreement to finally take over as speaker on June 30—though even that didn’t entirely calm potential challengers during the lengthy transition period.
Raised in farmworker housing on the rural Central Coast by his single mother and grandparents, Rivas will add a fresh outlook to a role that is traditionally held by members from the urban corridors of power in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, according to his supporters. They frequently point to his rise as an illustration of the California dream.
“Each of us brings to the floor different lived experiences and perspectives,” said Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, an Orinda Democrat.
That could benefit agricultural communities and other groups who are not generally the central focus of policy-making in Sacramento.
Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat, said that because of his upbringing, Rivas is sensitive to the needs of people who don’t have a lobbyist advocating for them at the Capitol and he will fight for them.
“He’s an incredibly kind, thoughtful leader,” Wicks said. “And in politics, that’s not always a given, is it?”
Rivas was first elected to the State Assembly in 2018. To win the election, he beat Big Oil, as a California petroleum PAC spent $2 million to defeat him in its first-ever funding of an Assembly race. As a San Benito County supervisor, he had led a successful referendum in 2010 that made San Benito the first county in the state to ban fracking.
While still in his first term, in the Fall of 2020, he was appointed as chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and elected as vice-chair of the influential Latino Legislative Caucus. Rivas served two terms on the San Benito County Board of Supervisors prior to becoming an Assemblymember.
Rivas was raised in Paicines, where his grandfather was a farmworker at Almaden Vineyards. Rivas and his brother Rick grew up in farmworker housing, cared for by their single mother and beloved grandparents, who emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s.
As a child, Rivas watched his grandfather stand side by side with Cesar Chavez and the UFW as a leader in the fight to win equal rights and fair contracts for farmworkers. Rivas’ grandfather was known for his passionate advocacy on behalf of his fellow workers, but also for his ability to work with owners to negotiate contracts acceptable to both sides.
For much of his childhood, Rivas struggled to overcome a severe stutter that rendered him almost speechless. It was only after years of speech therapy that Rivas was able to overcome the disability.
Rivas said his childhood experiences—growing up in a farmworker community and struggling to overcome a disability—gave him a direct understanding of the challenges faced by many in the community as they struggle to build better lives for themselves and their families.
As an Assemblymember, Rivas’ first-term legislative achievements include securing enactment of the first-in-the-nation Covid-19 Farmworker Relief Package, which included critical efforts related to agricultural workplace safety, access to PPE and testing, temporary housing, and access to healthcare and the courts.
He also championed the Farmworker Housing Act, which streamlines the process to build quality housing for farmworkers and their families. Rivas also won passage of the $89 million Golden State Teacher Grant Program, which provides $20,000 scholarships to teachers who commit to teach high-need subjects—like STEM, special education and bilingual education—in schools facing a shortage of qualified teachers.
A long-time champion of the environment, Rivas won bipartisan support for the Oil Transportation Safety Act, which improves the state’s preparedness to protect coastal regions after a potential spill of non-floating oil. The bill updates safety standards and ensures the state is ready to protect public health and marine life from this unique threat.
Rivas attended local public schools in San Juan Bautista and Hollister. He graduated with a bachelor’s in government from CSU- Sacramento and later earned a master’s in public administration from San Jose State University. Rivas lives in Hollister with his wife Christen and their daughter Melina.
Alexei Koseff is a reporter with CalMatters. San Jose Inside contributed to this report.