Assemblyman Robert Rivas. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.
Assemblymember Robert Rivas. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

On June 30, Robert Rivas will be sworn in at the State Capitol as Speaker of the California Assembly, 165 miles away from the 600-square-foot farmworker housing in Paicines he called home as a boy. On taking the oath, the 43-year-old Hollister resident will become the second most powerful elected official in the state, behind Gov. Gavin Newsom and will be helping to chart the course of the most populous state in the union and the fifth largest economy in the world.

“His becoming speaker is clearly historic,” said San Benito County Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki. “He is known for taking a strong leadership voice on a variety of state issues all the way from environmental protection to farmworker housing, and he gets things done for the people, which is really what politics is all about. And that’s the signature of who Robert is.”

Rivas, who served as a county supervisor from 2011 to 2018, was first elected to the Assembly in 2018 and focused on legislation that benefited the county, which included authoring the first bill in the nation to provide assistance and relief to farmworkers during the pandemic. 

In 2020, he became the chair of the powerful Agriculture Committee, which oversees California’s $50 billion-a-year agriculture industry. One of his first actions was to secure $3.4 billion in funding for agricultural and environmental assistance, including $130 million for farmworker housing, $903 million for climate programs, and $294 million for the development of sustainable agriculture.

Gov. Gavin Newsom with State Assemblyman Robert Rivas. Photo courtesy of the Office of Robert Rivas.
Gov. Gavin Newsom with State Assemblymember Robert Rivas. Photo courtesy of the Office of Robert Rivas.

He has also secured funding for diverse needs within the county, including $750,000 for the proposed Riverview Regional Park and $3 million to help pay for San Juan Bautista’s wastewater project.

Rivas’ rise to power was not without challenges. He first announced that he had the votes to become speaker in a May 2022 news release, saying there had been “discussions on a transition” with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon earlier that day. However, after a six-hour closed-door meeting with the caucus on May 31, 2022, 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 stood 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. The outcome found Rendon, who had pledged earlier to run for speaker again, leaving the office a year before he reached the 12-year term limit as an Assembly member in 2024.

Rivas supporters, such as Leslie Austin, chair of the San Benito County Democratic Central Committee, and playwright-activist Luis Valdez believe his appointment is positive for the county as he understands rural issues.

“He has a deep understanding of the issues that directly impact our county and region such as agricultural workers’ rights, housing affordability, clean water access, environmental justice,” Austin said. “As a local resident, he intimately comprehends the challenges we face, including the struggle of rural communities to receive equitable resources.”

Valdez, El Teatro Campesino founder and who has been asked to speak at the 9.30 a.m. swearing-in ceremony, said Rivas has become a leader with “tremendous” heart and openness.

“I’m very impressed with his humility and his easy going approachability,” Valdez said. “He seems to be quite open to hearing all the necessary voices, and I don’t think he’s beholden to any private interests of any kind.” 

Others, while glad he is in that position, are more skeptical about the benefits he’ll bring to the county.

“This is where he was raised and where his family is and where his roots are,” said Robert Bernosky, chairman of the San Benito Republican Party and a delegate to the California Republican Party. “It would be abhorrent for him to pay attention to the much larger populated districts where all the money is and where they have the ability to have an outsized influence while we struggle here in San Benito County because of our rural nature.”

Asked if he thought Rivas would be able to successfully work across the aisle, Bernosky said he didn’t think so. 

“The reason I say that is there was a dramatic shift when he became a member of the Assembly,” he said. “Before, he would stop and talk to me as a local, political figure, and now he won’t even say hello to me when he’s in the community. But the door is always open.”

As Assembly speaker, Rivas will wield considerably more power than he did on his committee. Besides presiding over the Assembly, the speaker controls the flow of legislation and decides on committee assignments, effectively determining which bills get passed and who are the most active participants in the governing body. The speaker also works with the governor to develop legislation, establish the state budget, and besides his state duties, acts as the liaison between the state of California and the federal government.

The ceremony will be live streamed on Rivas’s Facebook page and the Assembly Democrats’ Facebook page and YouTube channel.

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