Features

Assemblymember Robert Rivas speaks on his new leadership role

The soon-to-be Assembly Speaker discusses Hazel Hawkins Hospital, traffic and autonomous cars in San Benito County. 

In the final resolution of a five-month power struggle between current California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and District 30 Assemblymember Robert Rivas, members of the assembly’s Democratic caucus decided that Rendon will remain speaker until the passage of the state budget on June 30, 2023, at which time Rivas will become speaker. 

It is a swift ascendancy for Rivas, 43, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2018 after serving two terms as a San Benito County Supervisor. He currently serves as chair of the Agriculture Committee and is on several others including the influential Appropriations and Judiciary Committees.

While he will be leaving those important committees once he becomes speaker, his new office provides him with one of the most powerful positions in state government. 

The speaker appoints various legislative officers, such as the Majority Floor Manager who will guide the Democratic caucus in how to vote on bills and motions. The speaker also appoints the chairpersons and members of Assembly committees and also appoints members to California State Boards and Commissions. As such, Rivas will have a great influence on the flow of legislation and the creation of the state budget.

Rivas first announced that he had the votes to become speaker in a May 27 press release, saying there had been “discussions on a transition” with Rendon, 54, earlier that day. However, after a six-hour closed-door meeting with the caucus on May 31, Rivas conceded the speakership to Rendon, saying he agreed with the members that Rendon should remain as speaker for at least the rest of this legislative session. 

The struggle continued into the election, as Rivas created his own political action committee outside the Democratic party, which served in opposition to the Assembly’s Rendon-controlled campaign account and financed more than a dozen races across the state.

After a meeting of the caucus on Nov. 10, an agreement was made to let Rendon continue as speaker until June 30, when Rivas would take over. A vote was held on Dec. 5, the first day of California’s 2023-24 legislative session, to confirm the transition of power. This leaves Rendon, who had pledged earlier to run for Speaker again, leaving the office a year before he hits his 12-year term limit as an assembly member in 2024.

BenitoLink spoke to Rivas on Dec. 14.

BenitoLink: Why make this move?

Rivas: This leadership transition was imminent, as Speaker Rendon is now serving in his last term. So this change was going to happen whether I or one of my colleagues would be the speaker. The speakership is a vital leadership role for the state of California and for the 40 million people who are counting on our state legislature to manage a $300-plus billion budget responsibly. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and I know in particular, having worked with Speaker Rendon in my first four years, that being Speaker is not an easy job. It is not a job that I sought, it is a job that my colleagues have asked me to step up and serve. The important work now is to unify our caucus and ensure we are prepared when the time comes. 

BenitoLink: Do you come in with any specific goals, and what are your plans for hitting the ground running?

Rivas: I am excited to have the next six months to plan. We still have a long way to go until June 30th, and I know a lot can change between now and then. If I have learned anything in my first four years, it’s that there is certainly no shortage of crises in the state of California and things can change very quickly. So right now, my focus is on working with Speaker Rendon and his team on a seamless and productive transition, and I will release my policy agenda closer to the transition. I want our caucus in a position to really do all we can to tackle a lot of these challenges, as we confront them and as they exist today.

BenitoLink: Hazel Hawkins Hospital seems to be a failing enterprise. How do you see yourself helping the community resolve that problem?

Rivas: Our office has been following up with state agencies to investigate if there are programs or plans that the hospital could benefit from, programs that it might be eligible for to ensure continued operations. This situation happening here locally at your hospital, although incredibly important, is part of a big problem for our region. It’s certainly not unique throughout the state, as many hospitals face challenges. One of the first issues I faced in an office was working with Saint Louise hospital, which was facing closure. They were subsequently absorbed and taken over by the county of Santa Clara. I worked extensively with the hospital and the local labor and nurses’ organizations. I’ll continue to work with Hazel Hawkins and with our state delegation to do everything I can to ensure that the doors remain open.

BenitoLink: Is there a chance of encouraging Kaiser to come into the area?

Rivas: I can’t comment on that—it would be a question for Hazel Hawkins. I’m not part of any of those discussions, and I’m not sure what the prospects are or what the logistics would look like. I know it was well reported. I was a county supervisor when I believed Hazel Hawkins was in discussions with Salinas Valley Memorial about a takeover. I am not aware of whether those discussions have been continued in recent times.

BenitoLink: We have the usual agricultural traffic and a lot of commuters. We have an Amazon distribution center now in Hollister and another distribution center coming. In addition, we will have whatever traffic Strada Verde will bring to Highways 101, if approved and built out. We need new and improved roads. What can you do to help us?

Rivas: I know the issue very well as a lifelong resident serving my time in local government and as a county supervisor. Transportation issues and critical infrastructure issues continue to affect too many residents and Californians across our state, you know, especially here in our region. We certainly have to find a better way to ensure that projects are completed on time to ensure that the long commute times residents are facing do not continue to erode our quality of life. In my very first days in the legislature, my staff and I had extensive meetings with Caltrans officials and with the California Transportation Commission, along with the local governments and all our regional stakeholders.

We are doing what we can to ensure that we are collaborating at the local and regional levels and doing what we can to engage all our state delegations to ensure that emphasis is placed on this region when it comes to meeting these priority projects. We’re one of the most productive agricultural regions not only in California but in this country and globally. The increase in congestion year after year is really impacting our agricultural transportation network. And finding ways to alleviate a lot of the congestion and problems has always been a huge priority for me, and I will continue to elevate this to the highest level of government.

BenitoLink: There are reports that the public and investors are beginning to sour on autonomous cars. Does that concern you since a lot of that industry is in California?

Rivas: I haven’t heard so much about the challenges around autonomous vehicles. There have certainly been a lot of Investments and a lot of interest in the future of autonomous vehicles, and the hub of all this research and work is right in our backyard in Silicon Valley. It seems like we’re certainly still a long way off to know if it is a viable technology moving forward but you know, certainly, anything is possible in this state.

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.