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Who Is Robert Rivas, California’s New Assembly Speaker?

Rivas often presents himself as a humble, soft-spoken person, but many who know him see the balanced policy, pragmatism and calculations that have led him to one of the state’s top political offices.

Robert Rivas tells anyone who will listen that his rise from farmworker housing on the rural Central Coast to Assembly Speaker is wholly unexpected, the California Dream become reality.

The Hollister, Calif., Assemblyman, who assumes the role on June 30, presents himself as a humble, soft-spoken person who fell into the job.

But many who have watched the Democrat’s climb from an outgoing high-schooler to a San Benito County supervisor to the holder of one most powerful political offices in the state are not surprised.

Throughout his journey, Rivas, 43, has carefully balanced policy and pragmatism. He made an early name for himself as an anti-fracking environmental champion, but he’s also proven he can collaborate with more conservative colleagues.

And even in a Capitol filled with strivers seeking more powerful roles, Rivas’ ambition stands out. At least six months before making his move against outgoing Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, Rivas and his political consultant brother were already starting to plot his power play.

“My impression is Rob knows he can do good things in politics and is not going to waste that opportunity,” said Wayne Norton, a member of the San Benito County Democratic Central Committee and a longtime Rivas ally.

A Rural California Childhood

Rivas spent much of his childhood in Paicines, an unincorporated San Benito County community about 55 miles southeast of San Jose.

He was an infant when his mother, Mayra Flores, brought him from Henderson, Nevada, to live with her parents. As a single mom, she worked as a school secretary and kindergarten teacher while raising him and younger brother Rick.

Their grandfather, Servando Flores, was a Mexican immigrant who found longterm work at Almaden Vineyards. Rivas spent his first few years in grower-provided farmworker housing — a three-bedroom, 600-square-foot duplex he shared with nine relatives, according to Rivas’ aunt, Nidya Norma Flores Fidler.

The legacy of the United Farm Workers labor union looms large in Rivas’ family history. Servando organized for the UFW alongside civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. One of his paychecks hangs on a wall in Rivas’ Assembly office.

Paicines is still a land of vineyards where the rolling golden hills are dotted with oak trees. A sign on the general store, the only retailer for miles, welcomes visitors to “Downtown Paicines.”

“I didn’t know we lived in poverty,” Rivas said. “I spent all my time outside riding my bike. I spent a lot of time with my brother climbing trees — we had these huge fig trees.”

Sacramento Bee reporters attempted to contact multiple Rivas family members at their homes. One, who was willing to talk, told them to coordinate with the Assemblyman’s team, which declined to make him available.

Almaden no longer exists, and neither does the grower-provided housing where Rivas said he lived until he was about 8. That’s when Flores purchased a house in Hollister — a city about 20 minutes northwest of Paicines — and the family moved into town.

An Outgoing Teen

From a young age, Rivas has displayed a charisma and competitiveness that his under-the-radar political persona tends to mask.

Cuco Chavez, a friend since childhood, said Rivas always had a strong drive to win. One year, the two were on competing Little League teams and Rivas was frustrated because his friend’s was better. Rivas later insisted on switching to Chavez’s squad.

“He could not stand being on the losing team,” Chavez said.

He also dealt with a stutter, which his aunt said was most noticeable when he was excited or in a hurry. Rivas said some of his earliest memories involve struggling to speak or say certain words.

Speech therapy helped, but the stutter continues to affect his public speaking. He still prefers to print out his speeches, marking them with reminders to pause in certain places.

“It’s very frustrating,” Rivas said. “I feel embarrassed at times. I have been criticized for it at times. But, certainly, you just can’t let people get under your skin and just have to make the most of those opportunities.”

As is the case for some people who stutter, the issue came and went over time. It didn’t hamper him at San Benito High School — now Hollister High School — where yearbook photos show an outgoing guy with a busy social calendar.

A true 1990s teen, Rivas sported earrings and gelled hair with bleached tips. He wore a cheerleading uniform to encourage seniors playing in a powderpuff football game, and he donned a wig as part of a junior-year disco day. He was elected senior class president and was also voted “Most likely to rule the world.”

Rivas displayed a youthful humor on the track-and-field page of his senior yearbook: “I joined track because I thought that there was an event for beautiful people.”

He grew serious about his studies when he enrolled at Butte College in Oroville. Chavez, who roomed with him, said his friend begandevoting long hours to reading and writing papers. He dug into books on Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and had a poster of John F. Kennedy in his room.

The Rivas Brothers

No political origin story about Rivas is complete without his brother, Rick, his “closest adviser,” as he frequently calls him.

Robert leaves no doubt about Rick’s importance. Together they forged a partnership that continues to this day.

“He’s a political genius,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Although Robert ended up as the elected official, some say Rick is the savvier of the two.

The brothers “grew up almost as twins but have totally different personalities,” said Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Merced. Rick and Robert worked on her successful 2006 Assembly campaign.

“(Rick) understands politics in a way that Robert is not interested in,” she added. “Robert is talented in policy and making friends and being a good colleague, and Rick just has different skills.”

Rick was 11 when he lied about his age to volunteer for the local Democratic Party, according to Robert.

When Rick was in high school, he led a successful campaign to restore soap to school bathrooms after it was removed because of vandalism concerns. Two of his strategies: Challenging people to shake hands with those leaving the bathroom and giving administrators bars of soap wrapped in ribbon, said Juan Robledo, a teacher at the time.

Rick is more outspoken, Chavez said. He will give his opinion, whether or not you want to hear it.

The Assemblyman and His Adviser

So how did Robert end up as the candidate and Rick the man behind the scenes?

Following his early volunteer experience, Rick helped run campaigns for local and state offices.

One of his clients was Robledo, who won a seat on the San Benito High School District Board. He remembers the younger Rivas saying he had made too many enemies to run for office.

Norton, the San Benito County Democratic Central Committee member, said Robert was not the most ambitious of the brothers, but the best candidate.

“Robert is the kind of guy, when he stands on your doorstep, you immediately like him,” Norton said. “You don’t turn away. I don’t think Rick’s necessarily that way, but Robert really is.”

To this day, Rick remains heavily involved in his brother’s life and career — the two live together with a cousin when they’re in Sacramento.

Their close relationship has raised concerns because of Rick’s deep ties to Sacramento politics.

Rick is California vice president for the American Beverage Association, a trade group for PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Co. and other makers of soft drinks. He leads the group’s government and public affairs work in the state, but is not a registered lobbyist.

Rick has also worked as a legislative affairs director for Govern for California, an organization that wants to push back on the influence of “government employee unions, healthcare providers, crony capitalists, regulated entities, and rent seekers.”

Despite his lobbying and advocacy background, Rick’s work does not appear to have influenced Robert’s voting record.

Rick declined repeated interview requests, but he was involved in fielding Bee inquiries for other family members.

Robert said his brother is not on his payroll. And supporters of the two insist their closeness is not a problem.

According to California law, public officials aren’t supposed to use their positions to make or influence governmental decisions to benefit themselves or family members. But the law only considers spouses, registered domestic partners and dependent children as family members.

“You can’t fault somebody for having family in the business,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Porterville, who serves on the Assembly Agriculture Committee with Rivas. “But it does draw the question: How much of an influence is that?”

An Unlikely Politician?

Robert Rivas’ early political career included stints as a field representative for former Assemblyman Simon Salinas and a campaign staffer for Caballero. Publicly, however, Rivas has long stated he never thought he could be a politician.

But his mentors saw more potential.

Caballero and Salinas encouraged him to run for the San Benito County Board of Supervisors in 2010. Some local leaders told him the campaign would be a good experience, but that he didn’t have much of a shot at winning.

“So that was all the motivation I needed,” Rivas said.

Rick ran the campaign, and Robert spent months door-knocking and struggling through candidate forums that tested his public speaking skills.

Rivas said his wife, Christen, couldn’t bear to watch his speeches because they were such a challenge with his stutter. But he “powered through it” and ultimately won the seat.

At 31, he was younger and more liberal than other supervisors. Former conservative Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he initially felt Rivas was still in campaign mode, criticizing other board members rather than trying to find consensus.

After Rivas’ first year in office, Botelho sat down with him and suggested a different approach.

“You have to reach out and see where people are, rather than be critical behind the scenes,” Botelho recalled telling him. He said Rivas followed his advice.

Rivas said his experience in local politics taught him important lessons about relationships and working with people who have different ideologies.

“You have to find a way, whether you’re Republican, Democrat, whether your values align or not,” he said.

Fracking and the environment became early priorities as a supervisor. Norton and anti-fracking activists started meeting with him around 2012 as they began efforts to more heavily regulate county oil and gas drillers.

“We didn’t have to convince him,” Norton said. “He knew what we were talking about. He knew the issue, and he knew how important it was.”

In 2014, Rivas supported a successful local ballot measure to ban fracking in certain parts of the county. The issue helped raise his profile and played a role in propelling him toward the Legislature.

Rivas’ Assembly Power Play

Rivas claims he “didn’t come to the building wanting to be speaker.” But within three years, he coveted the role.

Behind the governor, the Assembly speaker is one of the most powerful political figures in the state. The speaker oversees California’s largest political body, which means selecting committee assignments, controlling the flow of legislation and negotiating the budget. He also influences a multi-million-dollar campaign fund for Assembly candidates.

In December 2021 Rick told Norton his brother might make a play for the job. At that time, Rivas was chair of the Agriculture Committee and vice chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus.

He eventually approached colleagues about endorsing him for the position.

Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, said he was also interested in the role at the time.

“I realized personally, and then I think others who had aspirations, too, that nobody was willing to work harder for the members of the body than Robert,” Bryan said.

By late May 2022, Rivas had built enough support to officially challenge Speaker Rendon. Multiple members who backed Rivas said in interviews they found his childhood story — the years spent in farmworker housing, overcoming a stutter — compelling and part of the reason he would make a good speaker.

“It’s the kind of story that makes you feel good about California and good about the California Dream,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, D-San Fernando Valley.

But Rendon wasn’t prepared to simply give up the speakership. He held onto the job after a bruising six-hour Democratic caucus meeting.

The battle continued through the summer and into Assembly midterm elections. Rivas supporters gave money to a political action committee that had the goal of making him the next speaker, instead of using the more traditional Democratic Party funding operation.

Following the election, an emotional Rivas and a group of jubilant Assembly members emerged from another lengthy caucus meeting and announced a deal that would result in a transfer of power on June 30.

He took the moment to tell his story once again.

“Only in California can we say that a kid that came from farmworker housing ascended to be the next speaker of the California state Assembly.”

©2023 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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