Bold. That’s how Robert Rivas, newly elected assembly member to California’s 30th district describes himself, his leadership style and his campaign. “I’m not afraid to make a decision, so long as it’s the right decision to make,” said Rivas said in his first interview after locking in a solid victory Nov. 6 in his first bid for the state Assembly.
Rivas’ story is the embodiment of the “California dream,” as he calls it. The grandson of a migrant farmworker, Rivas grew up in Paicines, a small town in southern San Benito County. After several years of living in farmworker housing, the family moved to Hollister in 1989, where Rivas attended San Benito High and got involved early in politics.
The children of a single mother, Rivas and his brother began working in their community at the urging of their grandfather, who had been a guiding voice in Rivas’ life. Before he died in 2011, Rivas’ grandfather got to see him elected to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors in 2010.
Eight years later, Rivas is headed to Sacramento, representing the 30th Assembly District. Sitting in his office nestled next to Hollister City Hall, he was surrounded by stacks of campaign signs in every corner. A piece of white printer paper was still taped to the door leading into the smaller office in the back, designated it as “the war room.”
The war might be over, but the work is just beginning. For Rivas the new mountain of work isn’t just okay, but welcomed. Throughout his political career, hard work has become a celebrated part of his legacy.
After his election as supervisor, Rivas took two more jobs to provide for his new family. He worked as a grant coordinator and later a student support manager at San Benito High School, while teaching political science at Gavilan College.
The experiences, he said, have all led him to this point, informing how he helped make policy and whom it served. Shawn Tennenbaum, superintendent of the San Benito High School District, hired Rivas to work at his alma mater. He said having Rivas work at the school has given students the opportunity to model themselves after a leader.
“Having that ability to see themselves in Robert: That’s invaluable,” Tennenbaum added.
Despite an instinctive interest in politics, Rivas said he never envisioned himself as the candidate, but rather the man behind the curtain. Early in his career he worked on local campaigns with his brother, Rick Rivas, making connections to leaders within the community and largely staying out of the spotlight.
Having overcome a childhood stutter, Rivas said he had apprehensions about being in the public eye. Ultimately, he decided that he was the person to get the work done. Friends and mentors warned Rivas that he was unlikely to win his first campaign, but he said that only motivated him more.
In his first run for office, Rivas unseated two-time incumbent Patricia Loe for the District 3 seat, winning more than 70 percent of the vote. There are no hard feelings now, Rivas said. The two have even become friends in recent years. Loe would come to endorse Rivas’ Assembly campaign. “He’s a very truthful, dedicated young man,” said Loe. “I hope to see him go far in the political arena.”
The same internal drive that pushed Rivas to run for supervisor returned when the opportunity arose for him to run for the 30th District Assembly seat.
Rivas said it was ultimately his history and family that motivated him to run. He said Dolores Huerta, labor and civil rights leader for the United Farm Workers, of which Rivas’ grandfather had been an active member, told him, “Your grandfather didn’t work in the fields for over 40 years for you to pass up an opportunity to be in the state legislature and really make a difference in the lives of millions and millions of people, let alone the people in your own district and community.”
His next political step came along a path that was paved by former 30th District representatives Simon Salinas and Anna Caballero. Rivas interned with Salinas while in college and later worked for Caballero.
Now he’ll be taking Caballero’s place in the Assembly, as she is headed to a state Senate seat she appeared last week to have won by a narrow margin.
“My view having seen him work as a supervisor is that it really matters what people think, and he’s really in touch with people,” said Caballero. “He works in a bipartisan manner.”
Caballero and Rivas cited his work to lead the fight against fracking in San Benito County as an illustration of his work ethic and ability to reach across party lines. Rivas was a major proponent of Measure J, which outlawed fracking in the county in 2014. His position made him some powerful enemies in the oil industry, which poured the kind of money typically seen in national races into an assembly primary in an unsuccessful effort to stop Rivas in his tracks.
“Fracking, in my opinion, was inconsistent, incompatible with the identity of this county,” said Rivas. “That’s why I fought very hard to ban it. It wasn’t about politics; to me it was about common sense.”
Rivas said his ultimate decision to run for assembly came from the lack of opportunities available for the residents of his new district. He said the “California dream” that had allowed him and his grandfather to succeed doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
“When I reflected on my experience, on the fact that I benefited from this great state, my grandfather was absolutely right that if I worked hard I would have opportunity,” said Rivas. However, he wasn’t sure if he could still tell his daughter the same thing.
Now, Rivas is ready to bring the California dream back to the 30th district, which stretches from Morgan Hill to King City—a swath of land Rivas traveled continuously throughout his campaign, putting 4,000 miles a month on his Prius.
He said he is ready for the work and the drive that awaits him up in Sacramento. As for Rivas’ California dream, it still feels too good to be true. “If you had told me as a kid that someday I’d be sitting next to the speaker of the Assembly or as a newly elected member of the Assembly,” he said. “I wouldn’t have believed it.”
This article originally appeared in San Jose Inside/Metro Silicon Valley’s sister publication, the Gilroy Dispatch.