The Democratic Caucus has selected Assemblymember Robert Rivas of the Central Coast to serve as speaker—one of the most powerful political positions in the state government. The rural progressive grew up in a farmworker family and now represents one of the most productive agricultural districts in the nation.

But his initial attempt to usurp the speakership last year fractured the caucus. Democrats are also growing increasingly divided over issues impacting rural regions, as seen with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s efforts to fast-track infrastructure projects. Under Rivas’ leadership, the Assembly will continue to face critical budget decisions amid a growing deficit and a potential recession.

His leadership abilities will be put to the test as he attempts to guide the lawmakers toward consensus on key issues. While Rivas has not held such a prominent role before, examples of his leadership style are readily available from his stint as chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee as well as his efforts to shepherd through the Legislature bond proposals on climate resilience and sustainable farming practices.

Rivas’ legislative career began where he did, with farmworker housing and labor battles. He often relayed stories of his childhood experiences living in employer-supplied housing. His grandfather, a Mexican immigrant, labored in a vineyard and organized for United Farm Workers alongside Dolores Huerta.

With labor icon’s backing, Rivas proposed in 2019, his freshman year in the Assembly, to streamline farmworker housing permits. Farm groups immediately raised alarms over provisions that would exclude H-2A guestworkers and cede control of the property to a third party. Stressing the program would be voluntary, Rivas advanced the bill through the Legislature and eventually gathered the governor’s signature.

He balanced the ambitious legislation with a bill that gained broad agricultural support.

“In rural California, we need reason to believe that we're not getting left behind. That's because that's what it feels like," said Rivas, in presenting the measure. “Many of our communities often lack access to the resources, the capital, the technical assistance that would help move our agricultural economies forward.”

The measure would have equipped CDFA with an economist to study the impacts of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) on crop production, land values and employment. Newsom vetoed the measure but later added the position to his budget proposal.

In 2020 Rivas recalibrated his focus on farmworker protections in response to a global emergency.

“My grandfather, who raised me, was a farmworker,” said Rivas. "I saw how hard he worked for 50 years of his life as a farmworker. He did this work day-in and day-out.”

Rivas’ farmworker background was similar to that of former Asm. Simon Salinas. When Rivas showed up to volunteer for Salinas in his election bid in 2000, he carried a humble and quiet demeanor along with a drive to serve the farmworker population. Salinas taught him the value of bringing parties together and listening to both sides.

“If we want ag to be competitive on a national and international basis, we have to work together,” Salinas told Agri-Pulse in an interview. “If agriculture succeeded, then so should the farmworker succeed in getting better pay, better benefits. But together, they could get Sacramento to listen to them.”

In boosting the Latino voter base, Rivas helped Salinas flip the district after the Republican assemblymember left the seat. Rivas then served as a field representative for Salinas out of the San Benito County office, working alongside Jim Houston, who is now administrator of the California Farm Bureau.

“I'm a huge fan of Rob's,” Houston told Agri-Pulse, adding that the two were wide-eyed young 20-somethings fresh out of college and getting their starts in Sacramento politics. “He too didn't have a bucolic upbringing. When you go through that, you have to learn to rely on yourself. You get a little bit of real politic imbued in you.”

Houston said Rivas carried the real-life struggles and lessons learned from a hard-working, tight-knit family and a hard-working community throughout his work. After Salinas, Rivas was a staffer for then-Asm. Anna Caballero when she took over the district and, with her encouragement, he ran for county supervisor, serving two terms before moving to the Legislature.

Rivas has been a practical progressive, believing government can better the lives of people through pragmatic policies, according to Houston.

Rivas in a policy hearingAsm. Robert Rivas, D-Salinas

Arguing the state has “a moral responsibility, a moral duty to protect the vulnerable,” Rivas hoped to set COVID-19 rules for agricultural employers amid the pandemic and boost Cal/OSHA’s regulatory authority to enforce universal disease prevention standards statewide, regardless of local ordinances. He later took significant amendments to instead direct the workplace safety agency to perform more outreach on illness prevention, dropping all agricultural opposition to advance the measure to Newsom and then into law.

Rivas again stood at odds with business and agriculture groups over a measure to set goals for sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the natural and working lands sector. Fellow Democrats were skeptical over expanding the authority of the Air Resources Board, and the bill quietly died in an appropriations committee. He hit the same roadblock a year later with a follow-up attempt.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon then appointed Rivas to chair the Agriculture Committee. He embarked on multiple listening tours of the state’s production regions. It left a strong impression on Asm. Jim Woods of Santa Rosa, since no other committee chairs had visited the district.

As the executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, Norm Groot was excited to have a representative who could articulate the agricultural issues.

“We forged a good alliance in the beginning and realized we're not going to agree on everything 100% of the time, as it is with all politicians,” Groot told Agri-Pulse. “But we did develop a good relationship over the years, and he has certainly been there when we needed him on issues.”

In May Groot testified to the committee on the $1 billion in losses to flooding agriculture has suffered in the county.

Like Groot, Asm. Dawn Addis, who shares two counties with Rivas and is a close colleague, applauded him for stepping up to respond to the flooding, particularly when a levee rupture inundated the farmworker town of Pajaro.

“He really showed who he is as a human being,” said Addis. “He really leads with his actions.”

She described him as incredibly smart, a workhorse in policymaking, a collaborative leader and a calm, thoughtful listener.

“I have a history of working with all sides,” Rivas told Agri-Pulse in 2020. “My goal has always been, and will remain, to create legislation that works for everyone.”

That year Rivas shifted his attention to pandemic recovery and coalition building. He pushed Newsom to ensure agricultural workers were prioritized in the initial vaccine distribution and applauded the subsequent uptick in inoculation rates.

“Certainly, the success we're seeing now is absolutely the work of the industry, the work of local elected officials and local stakeholders that have worked together,” said Rivas.

Almond, dairy and winegrape farmers began testifying in a series of informational hearings the Agriculture Committee hosted to address wildfire impacts, sustainable farming incentives and equity policies for small and underrepresented farmers. The California Farm Bureau and the California Cattlemen’s Association topped the list, along with Kat Taylor, a billionaire hedge fund manager with close ties to the first partner and a passion for regenerative agriculture. The topics branched into pandemic impacts on county fairs, scientific overviews on plant diseases and port congestion. Rivas’ chairmanship spanned one of the most devastating droughts to hit California agriculture, while his final informational hearing detailed the impacts of flooding from a deluge of winter storms.

He continued to champion legislation with and against agricultural groups. He sought to establish a California version of the Clean Water Act, procure N95 masks to protect farmworkers from wildfire smoke, curb illegal dumping in rural areas, repurpose farmland fallowed under SGMA or drought, and boost environmental justice advocacy at state and regional water boards. He has worked with a Coachella Valley lawmaker on a measure to protect California farmers by holding out-of-state products to the same environmental, food safety and labor standards.

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He worked with several moderate and progressive Democrats on a $3.1 billion food and agriculture bond to support farmworkers and disadvantaged farmers while promoting climate-resilient farming practices. The measure aimed to couple lessons learned from the pandemic with policies to build resilience in the supply chain and to prepare the state for the next natural disaster. The bond earned praise from the former president of the California Cattlemen’s Association. Yet the economic forecast for the state budget flipped from a potential pandemic-induced recession to a massive $76 billion surplus, and he tabled the bond.

Amid the deficit this year, he revived many of the provisions in a new $3.4 billion bond proposal, while adding support for SGMA planning and pest management. The measure has passed out of the Assembly along party lines.

According to Dennis Albiani, vice president of the lobbying firm California Advocates, Rivas has been very accessible and willing to talk, though the two don’t always agree on the legislation.

“He is trying to dig down into issues, whether it's housing, pesticide use, trade—all these issues that are challenging for us,” said Albiani.

Dennis AlbianiDennis Albiani, California Advocates

Having a speaker who understands the production process, supply chain issues and the importance of water is a positive opportunity for telling agriculture’s story, he explained, though he acknowledged that Rivas still must keep many urban lawmakers happy as well. The “significant feat” of rising to the speakership as a modest, rural representative “shows his talent and approach is well received.”

Albiani pointed to difficult budget decisions ahead, since Rendon, along with Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins and Newsom, avoided difficult cuts in the budget agreement for the next cycle. With the tax filing deadline pushed to October in nearly all counties, the reality of the revenue shortfall will remain unclear until the 2024 session.

Groot is hopeful that agriculture will have stronger representation in Sacramento, after years of feeling drowned out. While the progressive politics of Monterey County have led to a culture of compromise on agricultural issues, Groot lamented that Sacramento has grown more partisan in recent years as urban lawmakers increasingly dominate the policy priorities.

Houston explained that managing a caucus of such great cultural and geographic diversity is less about calling the shots and more about service, sacrifice and ensuring all voices are heard and treated fairly.

The timing was right for the rise of Rivas. Following the turmoil of the pandemic and with the uncertainty of the budget, lawmakers have been looking to gravitate around an authentic figure who is known for keeping his word, according to Houston.

“Rob's the same person now that he was 22 years ago,” he said. “That gave them a sense of predictability.”

Last week Rivas closed out his final Agriculture hearing and described the role as a tremendous honor. Republican Asm. Heath Flora of Ripon remarked that if Rivas is as good a speaker as he was a chair, “we're in good hands.” Rivas drew further accolades for visiting urban farming operations in Los Angeles and spending a day in Ventura County as “one of many, many stops,” according to Asm. Jacqui Irwin.

“You really took this assignment very seriously,” said Irwin. “And I know that as speaker you are going to do the same.”

More applause rang out on the Assembly floor this week for Anthony Rendon, who served the state’s second longest term as speaker. During his tenure, the Legislature enacted landmark progressive legislation—setting the nation’s first $15 minimum wage rate, establishing aggressive climate targets and approving overtime pay for farmworkers.

“This is not an easy task,” said Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes of Colton. “Being a leader among leaders is one of the most difficult tasks one can take.”

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