Robert Rivas speaks at a press conference following his swearing-in as speaker of the California Assembly on Friday.
Robert Rivas speaks at a press conference following his swearing-in as speaker of the California Assembly on Friday, June 30, 2023.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County leaders gather in Sacramento as Rivas sworn in as Assembly speaker after bitter battle

Robert Rivas, whose district includes stretches into Watsonville, Freedom and Corralitos, drew a powerhouse lineup to his swearing in, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, along with a host of Santa Cruz County political leaders such as District 28’s Gail Pellerin, Supervisors Bruce McPherson and Zach Friend and Sen. John Laird.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

Assemblymember Robert Rivas, the son of San Benito County farm workers whose district stretches from the southern tip of the Salinas Valley up into Watsonville, Freedom and Corralitos, formally became one of the three most powerful politicians in the state Friday after he was sworn in as Speaker of the California Assembly.

Rivas spoke in Sacramento to a packed Assembly chamber that included a powerhouse lineup of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Zoe Lofgren, labor leader Dolores Huerta, Attorney General Rob Bonta, Senate President Pro-Tem Toni Atkins and a roster of former Assembly speakers such as Cruz Bustamante. Rivas said his ascension to the speakership evinced California’s promise as a place of opportunity. However, it’s a promise that is already waning and could disappear, he warned, without action from the legislature on issues such as housing, education, homelessness, and the environment.

“If we in this room do not act, and act with greater urgency, it will get more and more difficult to build a good life here,” Rivas said. “I feel — and I know that you all do, too — a great sense of responsibility. Responsibility because we are the ones who can keep the door open for the next generation. We are responsible for protecting the building blocks of Californians’ everyday lives.”

Inside those chambers with Pelosi, Newsom, Huerta and others that, for many in Santa Cruz County, exist only on television screens and news articles, were faces that locals might see at the grocery store.

Before joining District 28 Assemblymember Gail Pellerin on the assembly floor, Santa Cruz County Supervisor and former state legislator Bruce McPherson chatted with Supervisor Zach Friend and Barbara Palmer from the county’s association of realtors; Sen. John Laird spoke with local press; Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brookes moved through the Capitol rotunda, passing Andrew Goldenkranz, head of the county’s Democratic Party and Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. UC Santa Cruz student Joe Thompson, who helped organize the workers at the Ocean Street Starbucks (the state’s first Starbucks union) and will run for Santa Cruz City Council this year, watched from the balcony.

“This means a lot for the Central Coast,” McPherson said of Rivas’ ascension to the role of speaker. “It’s a strong voice in politics and policy, among the strongest ones we have here in California. He knows where he’s from, and he won’t forget.”

Friend and Lara talked about Rivas’s story and what Friend described as his “incredible” ascent from poverty to power.

“It’s important to have someone like that in office,” Lara said. “Rivas used to live in farmworker housing, his grandfather was a farmer. Many people understand farmworker and labor issues academically. But he really understands it.”

Robert Rivas sits in attendance as he awaits his swearing-in as Assembly speaker at the state Capitol in Sacramento.
Robert Rivas sits in attendance as he awaits his swearing-in as Assembly speaker at the state Capitol in Sacramento.

A son of Mexican immigrants, Rivas spent the first eight years of his life growing up in farmworker housing at Almaden Vineyards in San Benito County. His grandfather, Servando Flores, worked with Huerta, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America to organize vineyard workers and fight for improved working conditions. His family — mom, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — eventually pooled their savings and bought a house in San Benito for $140,000. The house made the future appear less precarious, and provided stability.

Now, as assembly speaker, he joins the governor and the senate’s president pro-tempore as California’s hallowed political triumvirate. The new seat affords him the extraordinary power to single-handedly control the flow of legislation by deciding which bills make it to the assembly floor for a vote. He will dictate the priorities of a state budget of more than $300 billion, make committee and statewide commission appointments, and have a seat on the UC Board of Regents. The decisions Rivas makes will affect the story of California for years to come.

“The trajectory was only possible for us because the California my grandparents immigrated to made it possible,” Rivas said in his speech Friday. “The opportunities here, at the time, were greater than anywhere else. But, to be candid, I often wonder, as many, many of our residents and constituents [do], I wonder if our story would still be possible today.”

This kind of power is not simply handed over. Rivas, who has a reputation as a listener and bridge-builder, had to take it, and that taking happened in dramatic and highly public fashion. In late May 2022, Rivas worked his alliances in the assembly to secure enough commitments from other members to oust his once-mentor, Anthony Rendon, from the speaker’s seat. Rendon, who represents southern Los Angeles County and was among the longest tenured assembly speakers in the legislature’s history, was furious. He refused to accept his fate and temporarily declined to acknowledge the mutiny (evidence of the sort of power held by the speaker).

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Rivas published a press release the same day announcing he had the votes to unseat Rendon. The move signaled a leadership crisis in an increasingly fractured Democratic caucus, leading to a joint statement from Rendon and Rivas a few days later: Rendon acknowledged Rivas had the support (for the moment) and Rivas agreed the sitting speaker should remain in his post until the end of the session on Aug. 31. The question over the speakership remained an open battle for support until November, when the assembly’s Democratic caucus formally voted Rivas to lead them.

Answering questions from a media scrum outside the assembly chambers Friday, now-speaker Rivas said he believed many of the bruises inflicted by that process had healed.

“I believe we are unified, and contrary to all the back and forth, Speaker Rendon and I are maintaining a working relationship,” Rivas said. “I appreciate the work he’s done. He has established a legacy of accomplishment and I look to build on that.”

However, Pellerin, who supported Rivas, told Lookout that some of those wounds appear still open. She said she tried to congratulate him on his six-year run as speaker, but he was cold and brushed past her.

“I tried to give Rendon a hug on the way out and he pushed me away,” Pellerin said. “That kind of hurt [my feelings].”