A powerful Democrat emerges from rural California after bitter leadership fight

A powerful Democrat emerges from rural California after bitter leadership fight

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Robert Rivas set out last year to become one of California’s most powerful Democrats. But the fast-rising, second-term state assemblymember from the Central Valley had a problem: The man who was in the post wasn’t ready to step aside.

The caustic power struggle that ensued between the two former allies, much of which played out behind the scenes and involved mudslinging by proxies, was the most bitter leadership fight in recent memory. Even now, as Rivas prepares to take over as Assembly speaker in the coming weeks from Speaker Anthony Rendon, the intraparty standoff is poisoning the atmosphere in Sacramento.

“The caucus needs the temperature brought down so they can focus on their work,” said former Assemblymember Autumn Burke, a Los Angeles County Democrat who left office last year and became a political consultant.

Gov. Gavin Newsom sucks up a lot of the oxygen in Sacramento, and he’s far and away the most recognizable political figure in California to the national audience he often courts. But the Assembly speaker is one of the most influential politicians in the state — a role once filled by towering figures like Willie Brown, “the ayatollah of the Assembly,” and Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh. Speakers can elevate colleagues to influential committees, sideline others, and play an outsize role in which bills make it to the governor’s desk. They also command a multimillion-dollar campaign operation.

Now, with Newsom claiming a national Democratic leadership mantle, 43-year-old Rivas will shape the progressive agenda in one of America’s most influential blue states — if he can unify his party.

Rivas, who grew up in farmworker housing, a world away from California’s wealthy tech and entertainment hubs, overcame formidable obstacles to get here. Now he faces another one: holding a huge and fractious Democratic caucus together after a fight that may have undermined his influence and ability to get things done.

He and Rendon hold similar political views and were on good terms before Rivas — working to get ahead of a rumored run by another assemblymember — launched his bid. Rendon even once speculated to members that the up-and-coming Democrat could be the next leader. But Rendon, who has served as speaker since 2016 and doesn’t leave office until after next year, took the move by Rivas personally, resisting the transition and ultimately delaying the vote. A succession deal reached in November did not end the acrimony.

In an interview this month, Rendon said that what happened, which he saw as a hostile takeover, still “doesn’t sit well with me.”

“I think it certainly makes it impossible to leave here with a kumbaya, like a collective hug with 80 people on the floor,” he said.

Democrats have never been more powerful in California, holding three-quarters of the seats in both houses. But to remain in power, Rivas will need a majority of Assembly Democrats in his corner at any given moment, said former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

“The math works the same — every day when you’re speaker, you have to have 41 votes to support your speakership,” Nuñez said, “no matter whether you have 70 Democrats or 40 Democrats.”

The speaker-in-waiting, who assumes the new role June 30, insists the power struggle is in the past. Some of the lawmakers he must soon lead see things differently. They fear animosity will continue to plague the caucus. They note a quick-fizzling speakership bid that followed the succession deal, seeding yet more uncertainty. They wonder whether Rivas’s brother, who has guided Rivas’ campaigns and worked for influential Sacramento interest groups, will wield outsize influence in the chamber.

Rivas will take power as California grapples with a $31.5 billion budget deficit largely driven by top earners’ revenue shriveling as the stock market plunged.

“Just becoming speaker and assuming that responsibility and that role is kind of a job unto itself,” said Jim DeBoo, who worked for multiple speakers and as Newsom’s chief of staff, “and he’s coming in possibly having to deal with the back end of the budget, dealing with a year when there’s going to be significant financial constraints, and then pivoting to a campaign cycle.”

Back to the beginning

Drive south through the Bay Area, past Silicon Valley suburbs that include technology companies’ headquarters and a Tesla manufacturing plant, and the sprawl gives way to a landscape of fields emerald with lettuce, orchards with trees ranged in neat rows, and undulating green hills strung with grape vines.

This is where the soon-to-be-speaker spent his early years. Behind a general store that beckons visitors with a “Welcome to Downtown Paicines” sign and a tiny post office, fields formerly belonging to Almaden Vineyards rise to the hills. Water tanks stand in place of the two-bedroom house where he grew up, but Rivas said during a recent visit that little had changed since his idyllic childhood.

“I didn’t know I was poor,” Rivas said during an interview in his district, but “I don’t think many people can say they shared a bed with their mom, their brother, sometimes their great-grandmother.”

Rivas’s grandfather Servando Flores was a towering presence in his life. He was the patriarch in place of Rivas’s absent father, and his work organizing fellow farmworkers functions as a policy compass for Rivas. Legendary United Farmworkers leader Dolores Huerta, who delivered a eulogy at Flores’ funeral, recalled the vigor with which he set up a local organizing unit.

“We really didn’t have to do very much because they did so much by themselves, and of course Servando was the main mover,” said Huerta, who is now close to both Rivas brothers.

A framed photo of Flores in the fields and his $6.33-an-hour pay stub hang in Rivas’s office. Following his grandfather’s example, Rivas has carried bills to protect agricultural workers from public health hazards and build them housing.

Rick, his junior by a year, has long been his most trusted adviser. “My grandfather always said we needed to stick together and support each other, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t find success,” Rivas said. The brothers began working in politics in their 20’s, making an early mark by managing then-Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero’s successful Assembly campaign.

When he ran for the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, Rick managed the campaign, helping his brother unseat an incumbent to become the only Democratic supervisor in a historically conservative area dominated by agricultural interests. His victory paralleled the rising fortunes of a new generation of California Democrats, many of them the children of immigrants, farmworkers, and others who had been locked out of influence.

“We were able to solidify the Democrat base here and certainly a Latino base,” said former Assemblymember Simon Salinas, who represented the area and employed Robert as a legislative aide.

That evolution created the conditions for Rivas’s push to ban hydraulic fracturing in San Benito County. He prevailed over formidable business opposition and then backed a similar campaign in neighboring Monterey County, with Rick playing a role in both efforts. It was a reputation-defining moment that helped propel him to Sacramento.

“I think that Robert both was willing to take a bold step on this issue, but that also it was a smart step,” said Andy Hsia-Coron, a local activist who championed the fracking ban.

One of the more striking aspects of Rivas’ rise in the statehouse is the district he represents. California’s rural areas tend to be overshadowed by the urban centers around Los Angeles and San Francisco that send the most members to Sacramento. In the leadup to his bid to succeed Rendon, Rivas stitched together a bloc that encompassed those areas and spanned the ideological spectrum from progressives to business-friendly Democrats.

“I think part of why he was able to ascend to the speakership is he could get people from different parts of the state and wings of the caucus,” said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, a close ally.

Power struggle

A leadership transition was inevitable, with Rendon leaving office at the end of 2024, but ambitious Democrats weren’t waiting for him to step down.

Assemblymember Evan Low made a failed play for the speakership in late 2021, and then swung his support to Rivas a few months later. After a long night of vote-counting, Rivas announced in May of last year that he had the votes to be the next speaker and asked Rendon to work out a timeline.

What he got was a scorched-earth counteroffensive. Rendon and his backers spent the weekend working to peel off votes and forestall a handoff. Members returned to a wrenching caucus meeting that ground on for hours, spilled onto the Assembly floor, and left Democrats bitterly divided.

The standoff smoldered for half a year. Rivas’s camp accused Rendon of shattering the caucus for a few more months in power, while Rendon’s faction saw Rivas trying to force Rendon out prematurely. In the runup to the November elections, the Rivas bloc worked to elect Democratic allies to the Assembly in defiance of the traditional speaker-led campaign model.

Finally, after another six-hour caucus meeting full of shouting and recriminations, members emerged with a plan for Rivas to succeed Rendon at the end of June.

Rivas and his allies are eager to put the leadership struggle behind them and project unity. They note there’s little appetite for protracted conflict in a large class of first-year members who are still getting acclimated to Sacramento.

“I think we are ready to move on,” said Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), another Rivas ally. Rivas dismissed suggestions that “our caucus isn’t unified,” calling them “inaccurate.”

But doubts persist. Many members heard a thinly-veiled jab in Rendon’s session-opening speech in December, when he cautioned that “if you’re trying to become a leader to get power, you should not be a leader.”

Rivas also has been forced to answer uncomfortable questions from fellow lawmakers and others about the influence his brother, who advised him during the speakership battle, will wield behind the scenes, and the overlap between their work. Rick has worked for an array of powerful interest groups and is now employed by the American Beverage Association. He regularly mingles with Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento, and concerns about his sway over elected officials became a sticking point during the closed-door caucus that led to a handoff agreement.

Robert reiterated in an interview that he has always drawn a line between his work and Rick’s.

“He’s one of my closest advisers. He’s always been, and that’s never going to change,” Robert said. But, he added, “I have always known those ethical and legal lines that must be maintained. And that is never going to change.”

His allies believe Rivas’ family has been unfairly dragged into the speakership fight. They noted how quickly reporters surfaced anti-abortion tweets from his wife, who is open about her conservative views. Huerta said the vitriol shows that “it’s not easy for people to give up power once they have it.”

“I was really disappointed to see all of the negative things said about Rob Rivas, who happens to be a very decent person,” Huerta said. “It was like a slander campaign going against Rob and also against Rick.”

One prominent Rivas ally said Rendon was largely to blame for the messy transition.

“The leadership vacuum of the last six months is something that has caused dysfunction in the caucus, and we’re looking for leadership,” said Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Rivas supporter. “Things that have kind of exacerbated tension unnecessarily were done by the current speaker.”

For his part, Rivas has studiously avoided laying out his priorities, revealing when he will dole out all-important committee chairmanships — a key lever for rewarding loyalists — or saying if he’ll break with Rendon’s hands-off approach to committee leaders. He does not have an extensive relationship with Newsom.

Bryan acknowledged that a fraught handoff has been beset by questions. But he said Rivas — and the inner circle that helped put him in power — have answered them.

“For the people still wondering is this actually happening — it was always happening,” Bryan said. “People are recognizing Rob is the guy and there’s a need to support his leadership if you care at all about California.”

Lara Korte contributed to this report. 

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