San Benito County Farm Bureau President Donald Wirz, left, talks with new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, right, while farmer Pat Wirz looks on during a June 30 gathering in Sacramento. Rivas, also from San Benito County, chaired the chamber’s agriculture committee before becoming speaker. (Photo by Caleb Hampton/Ag Alert)

By Caleb Hampton, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation

For the first time in a generation, the California State Assembly is led by a lawmaker from a rural district who grew up in an unincorporated farm community and whose family has a background in agriculture. 

New Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, who until last month chaired the Committee on Agriculture, was sworn in June 30. 

“My family and I, we grew up in farmworker housing, and today I stand before you as a speaker of the California State Assembly,” Rivas said at the swearing-in ceremony. “That is the California Dream.” 

During the event, a group of farmworkers cheered from the Assembly floor. Growers from his Central Coast district also traveled to Sacramento to congratulate Rivas, expressing hope that his background will translate into sensible legislation around farming and adjacent issues. 

“To have someone who has a working knowledge and lived experience (of agriculture) in that position gives me hope that agriculture and the state legislature will have a positive relationship,” said Donald Wirz, president of the San Benito County Farm Bureau, who has known Rivas since both were in high school together. “I’m hoping that he brings a pragmatic touch.” 

In the 1960s, Rivas’ grandfather immigrated to California’s Central Coast from Mexico and began working as a grape picker for Almaden Vineyards, later becoming a mechanic for the company. 

As a child, Rivas lived with his mother, brother, grandfather and several other family members in a grower-provided duplex in Paicines, an unincorporated community in San Benito County. 

When he was around 8 years old, his family bought a house and moved to the nearby town of Hollister. Although Rivas struggled in his youth with a stutter, which he overcame through speech therapy, people who know Rivas describe him as outgoing yet humble. 

“I’ve known him to be an incredibly hardworking and disciplined and friendly person, from the time that we were 14 years old on the high school track team,” Wirz said. 

After graduating from high school as class president, Rivas enrolled at Butte College in Oroville. He later earned degrees in government from Sacramento State University and in public administration from San Jose State University. 

Rivas got his introduction to state politics from two pioneering Latino Democrats from the Central Coast, working as a field representative for former Assembly Member Simon Salinas and as a campaign staffer for state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas. 

After being sworn in as speaker, Rivas credited both as mentors who paved the way for him. “I’m not anyone special,” he said. “I stand on the shoulders of those that came before me.” 

Rivas was elected at 31 to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, where he served two terms. In 2018, he moved on to the state Assembly, representing a district that stretches from Gilroy to King City, including much of the Salinas Valley and its multibillion dollar agricultural sector. 

As an Assemblymember, Rivas, now 43, has worked to secure funding for farmers employing sustainable agricultural practices, for farmworker housing and aid, and for research on crop diseases. While serving as agriculture committee chair, he participated in farm tours across the state. 

“The challenges we face, we know the speaker is aware of them,” California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said at a reception held for Rivas after he was sworn in. Johansson later told him, “We look forward to working with you. We look forward to challenging you, because we know your role changes as speaker.” 

As speaker of California’s 80-member Assembly, Rivas wields more power than any lawmaker in Sacramento outside the governor’s office. The speaker appoints committee chairs, controls the flow of legislation by scheduling hearings and votes, and negotiates the state budget with the governor. 

After winning over a majority of his colleagues during a monthslong power struggle, Rivas took the speaker’s gavel from Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, who presided over the chamber for seven years. 

“This is a really important inflection point for California agriculture,” said Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis. “I absolutely have faith that he will help bridge the divides that exist, and we will get to the point where California will truly celebrate what we are as the nut basket, as the fruit basket, as the row crops basket feeding the country and feeding the world.” 

Rivas, whose grandfather organized on behalf of farmworkers alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, met with leaders from the United Farm Workers and California Farm Bureau on the day he became speaker. 

California Farm Bureau Administrator Jim Houston spoke about the importance of “authentic relationships that allow collaboration and allow the growth and problem-solving that is necessary.” 

Past and present lawmakers also praised Rivas’ ability to bridge divides and overcome differences. “There are some issues that really divide us in our community,” Caballero said. “Everybody has confidence that he is going to be able to be collaborative, to bring people together and to help us to solve some of the issues.” 

With lawmakers eligible to serve up to 12 years in the Legislature, Rivas may have a unique chance to drive state policy for years to come. 

“He’s got the opportunity to be in that position for quite some time and to influence California politics,” said Wirz, the San Benito County Farm Bureau president. “Hopefully, the way that he influences politics is in a way that is friendly towards agriculture and all the parts of the state that ag touches.” 

Those areas include labor issues, water rights and infrastructure, and environmental policies, said Wirz, who is a winemaker for Delicato Family Wines and whose family grows winegrapes and raises beef cattle in San Benito County. 

“I’m hoping that his perspective makes it so that legislation that comes through specifically for things like water and for labor have got a pragmatic bent to it,” Wirz said. “A lot of times legislators may have great intentions in these areas, but when it comes to writing legislation, that lack of experience makes it so that they think that they’re doing something positive, but there are unintended consequences.” 

Wirz added, “I would like to think that someone that has Robert’s life experience and his legislative experience at the county and state level would be able to say, ‘That sounds great, but will this work?’” 

Addressing a gathering of agricultural leaders, Rivas said his approach will be informed not only by his own experience but by the experiences of his constituents and by Californians of all stripes. 

“The best results in the work we do is when we get buy-in from every group—all the stakeholders—and I know that’s challenging in this hyper-partisan environment, but that’s the role we have to do, bringing people together and stretching and trying to build and find that consensus,” he said. “I appreciate the Farm Bureau. I appreciate all the work you guys do and look forward to engaging with you moving forward.” 

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