The Grandson of a Farmworker Now Heads the California Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture

Robert Rivas says he’s the least likely person to have become an elected official in Sacramento. He’s also a hot commodity.

Sep 22, 2020
The California sate capitol building is seen in Sacramento. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The California sate capitol building is seen in Sacramento. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Robert Rivas was talking as fast as he could, which is really quite fast. The California Assemblyman (D-Hollister) had spent 80 percent of his day fielding calls and at 4 p.m. he was still at it.

"I'm very excited," Rivas, a statehouse freshman, gushed. "Very, very excited. We have this amazing opportunity to just do so much and there's so much to do."

Rivas, 40, was raised in farmworker housing in the Central Coast district he represents. Now, he is Sacramento's hot commodity as the new chair of the California Assembly Agriculture Committee. The position puts him in the power seat overseeing the state's $50 billion agricultural economy, an engine that powers the fifth largest economy in the world.

What happens in California does not stay in California, which grows two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts and over a third of its vegetables. It is also the number one dairy state. Not to mention it also helps feed the world. Rivas plans a statewide tour of farm country next month that will help set legislative priorities. He will need to consider the local, national and global implications of agricultural policies during one of the most challenging times in modern history given the pandemic and its ongoing lockdowns, looming recession and increasing weather disasters.

It's a big step for a Sacramento newbie with months to go in his second year in office and a giant leap for a first-generation Mexican-American raised by a single mother and maternal grandparents on the grounds of a vineyard.

"It's humbling," Rivas said. "I always say I'm the least likely person to have become an official in Sacramento."

Rivas, who is skating toward his first reelection, was appointed committee chair by California's Assembly Speaker, Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), in part because he knows farm country so well. Rendon noted Rivas's background and passion for championing farm workers—and farmers—as a decisive factor in his appointment. 

"Assemblymember Rivas has a track record of fighting for farmworkers and working closely with their employers," Rendon said. "From his youth in farmworker housing to the present, he has been prepared to be chair of this committee."

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive early in the morning to begin harvesting on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive early in the morning to begin harvesting on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Rivas spent his childhood in worker housing for Almaden Vineyards (the state's first winery), in unincorporated Paicines, with his brother and others. His grandfather supported up to nine or 10 people at any given time in a two-bedroom house on a farmworker's salary.

One of Rivas's grandfather's paycheck stubs hangs on his office wall. He says it's to remind himself of his beginnings. In the 1980s, his grandfather, a leader in the United Farm Workers union, was making $6.33 an hour.

"We grew up in poverty," Rivas said of himself and his brother, Rick. "We just didn't know it at the time."

If poverty wasn't enough of a stumbling block to future success, Rivas had what he calls a "debilitating disability."

"I stuttered really bad," he said. The impediment left him unable to talk at times and took years of speech therapy to overcome. He can joke and say he is in good company now that Joe Biden mentions his own struggles with the affliction on the Democratic Presidential campaign trail.

Rivas, who has a master's degree in public administration from San Jose State University, worked his way up the political ladder the old-fashioned way, as a political aide, and then as a supervisor for eight years in San Benito County, which abuts Silicon Valley. He has also worked as an EMT and firefighter, as a high school dean and a history instructor at Gavilan College, a two-year college in unincorporated Santa Clara county. He is married and is raising a 4-year-old daughter. 

He hit the ground running when he joined the statehouse representing the 30th Assembly District, which includes the Salinas Valley, one of the richest agricultural regions in the country.

"We introduced over 20 bills," he said. "We had all this momentum and then..." he trailed before uttering the phrase of the year, "the pandemic hit."

Rivas said the biggest challenge in Sacramento is the financial crisis the pandemic has caused, which created a deficit of up to $52 million that will force hard cuts in the coming year 

His most high-profile legislation was inspired by his first-hand knowledge of the farmworkers' life. Rivas and two colleagues, Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who chairs the Latino Legislative Caucus, and Eduardo Garica (D-Coachella) authored what they say is first-of-its-kind legislation, "The Farmorker Covid-19 Relief Package." Its three bills would ensure farm workers receive adequate work protections against Covid-19, including sick leave and pay. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom in July announced some protections for farmworkers similar to the set of bills proposed by Rivas and his colleagues in April. Their legislation, which passed last month with wide bipartisan support, is awaiting the governor's signature.

One of his toughest losses was a climate bill. A.B. 2954 would have required the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and other state agencies to set a goal for carbon and greenhouse gas emission reductions from natural and working lands—and identify possible practice and policies to reach the goal—by Jan. 1, 2023.

Applauded by climate groups, it was opposed by Republicans and even fellow Democrats for being too broad and having a carbon sequestration goal too big for the resources board —which would give too much regulatory power to one agency. 

Rivas seems undeterred. The climate crisis is a major issue, he said. "We've got our work cut out to fix it."

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