Democratic Assemblymember Robert Rivas (right) on the Assembly floor in 2022.
(Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / CalMatters)
Civic Life

Central Coast communities hope to benefit from Rivas’ rise to Assembly speaker. Will he deliver?

Robert Rivas, whose California Assembly District 29 stretches from the southern tip of the Salinas Valley up into Watsonville, Freedom and Corralitos, welcomed exponentially more responsibility and power onto his plate when he was sworn in Friday as Assembly speaker. Political leaders in Santa Cruz County hope Rivas’ ascension will help elevate the profile of a region that has often been overlooked and prioritize Central Coast’s varied challenges, from coastal resilience to farmworker resources.

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For Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino, watching Robert Rivas’ swearing-in as speaker of the California Assembly on Friday carried significance beyond policy: It showed people growing up in agricultural communities, in Watsonville and beyond, what is possible.

Rivas grew up in farmworker housing on a San Benito County vineyard, a prologue familiar to many people in Watsonville, Montesino said. Rivas’ steady rise through the ranks of political staffer for local legislators, to San Benito County supervisor, to one of the three most powerful politicians in the state offers inspiration for what’s possible, especially to the next generation.

“It’s awesome for my kids to see that you can make it up there,” Montesino said.

But within the bounds of politics and policy, Montesino and others across Santa Cruz County say Rivas’ newly earned power comes with tall expectations that he will deliver results for the communities of Central Coast.

“Rivas is going to be talking directly with the governor about the budget — that is just tremendous because small cities often get overlooked for cities like San Francisco,” the Watsonville mayor said. “He brings us to the table.”

Montesino said he hopes Rivas can help prioritize some state resources to help the city improve its infrastructure, including beach access for residents through additional transit lines or roads. “We’ve been in the celebration phase of all this, but now we move into the asking phase,” he said. “Are we going to be asking for things? Yes we are.”

Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Upon getting sworn in as Assembly speaker on Friday, Rivas, whose District 29 stretches from the southern tip of the Salinas Valley up into Watsonville, Freedom and Corralitos, welcomed exponentially more responsibility and power onto his plate.

One of the three highest posts in state politics, the speaker controls the flow of legislation through the Assembly, appoints committee chairs, commission seats and, most important in some minds, works directly with the governor and state Senate president pro tempore to decide how to spend the state’s $300 billion budget.

Across the region, the exhilaration among locals at having one of their own in the speaker’s chair is palpable. It has been more than a half century since the Assembly speaker hailed from the Central Coast (not counting Brian Setencich, who briefly filled in as speaker from September 1995 to January 1996). Since 1980, 10 of the 12 speakers, except Willie Brown (San Francisco) and Cruz Bustamante (Fresno), have come from Southern California.

Political leaders here say they hope Rivas’ ascension will help elevate the profile of a region that has often been overlooked between the bookended political powers of Los Angeles and San Francisco and prioritize the Central Coast’s varied challenges, from coastal resilience to farmworker resources.

Gail Pellerin during a Lookout candidate forum in 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Rivas understands the Central Coast, and understands coastal protection and sea water intrusion and coastal resiliency, forest and fire management, and agriculture and the importance of paying farmworkers a living wage and providing them housing,” said District 28 Assemblymember Gail Pellerin. “He is focused on our most vulnerable, having come from that himself. It’s different living in those shoes, and that brings a lens for policy work that will show up.”

During a sit-down interview with Lookout and one other publication from the district following his swearing in, Rivas acknowledged the local excitement and said as speaker he hopes to build upon what he and other local legislators have already been working on. He pointed to the newly formed Central Coast Caucus made up of state legislators from Ventura to Santa Cruz counties and how it has allowed local legislators to more effectively coordinate their efforts and focus on issues impacting the whole region.

“The Central Coast is my home, it’s been my home my entire life. It’s not so much a question of what can I bring as speaker. It’s just about building on what we already have been doing in our region,” Rivas said. “The work we do is about relationships and I’m certainly going to be working very closely with the local legislators to ensure we are fully representing all parts of our region.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom touring flooded Pajaro with local officials
Robert Rivas (far left) with Gov. Gavin Newsom as state officials toured Pajaro flood damage in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

However, the Central Coast will hardly be Rivas’ only concern. While a typical member of the California Assembly is known to have one constituency — the roughly 465,000 people living in their district — the Assembly speaker is said to have three: their district, the assembly’s members, and the entire state of California. All of California will depend on Rivas’ leadership to usher bills through the legislature’s 80-member lower house and chip away at the state’s ongoing issues.

Although she foresees the Central Coast receiving a boost from Rivas’ rise, Pellerin said Rivas now represents the whole state, too. “He’s not going to pull resources from elsewhere and make sure the Central Coast gets everything,” she said. “He’s not going to do carveouts just for him, and that’s the beauty of him.”

Local leaders point out that many of the Central Coast’s issues are also statewide issues, such as homelessness, housing affordability and coastal resiliency.

Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, hopes Rivas’ precarious beginnings growing up in farmworker housing in San Benito County will lead him to focus on the housing crisis. He understands the issues of the most vulnerable through lived experience, Lara said, a rarity among high-ranking politicians.

“Housing is the biggest issue in California that the state can hold leadership in,” Lara said. “Having the speaker and senate president pro tempore tackle that is going to be important. We cannot just do a stick approach. We need to do a carrot approach, too. So, as much as we’re able to prioritize that will be important.”

Central Coast communities shouldn’t assume they will get a specific level of preference now that Rivas is speaker, said District 5 Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, who served in the state senate and assembly from 1993 and 2004 and was secretary of state from 2005 to 2007.

However, McPherson added, for California’s newest Assembly speaker, the Central Coast will always be home: “Rivas knows where he is from and he won’t forget.”