“My approach to public service and my leadership style is really a reflection of where I come from,” Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas said in a conversation with PPIC president and CEO Tani Cantil-Sakauye last week in Sacramento. The discussion ranged from the speaker’s leadership approach to concerns with housing and climate, especially in rural communities.
Rivas was raised among farmworkers in a rural region of coastal California: rural areas are a key part of the district he now represents. In his work, Rivas has advocated for places like San Benito County and the city of Salinas, which “are communities that have felt left behind, under-resourced, not prioritized.”
While rural areas have distinct concerns from urban areas, rural counties also face long-standing issues that bridge all regions of the state, such as housing affordability. “We have to be relentless as a legislature to make much more progress in addressing critical issues related to affordability.”
Rivas described his personal experience to underscore what can be at stake: “I lived in overcrowded housing—I experienced firsthand how challenging it was to try to focus in that environment, to do homework and get good grades.… We all play a part in the solution that housing is not a luxury item in this state … housing should be a human right; every person deserves a quality and dignified place to live.”
To that end, Rivas noted that state leaders must build on successful housing policies that have worked. Such an effort will involve “addressing impact fees, removing blight in downtown corridors” as well as “advocating on the lack of infrastructure over time … for parts of the state that have had historic rates of underinvestment; it involves working with our partners at the federal level and engaging with local stakeholders to find solutions.” But Rivas added, “A bill introduced that’s helpful for San Francisco may not be good for Bakersfield.”
Cantil-Sakauye pointed to higher education as one of the keys to economic opportunity and upward mobility, noting that “the college-going rate among students in rural areas is lower than in other parts of state.” Rivas cited investments in partnerships with UC, CSU, and community colleges that connect students with the agricultural industry or provide students with a trade, which are impacting local economies—and expressed frustration that work by institutions such as UC Merced and CSU Fresno has been underacknowledged.
Rivas also stressed that education bonds need to keep current with school infrastructure. He mentioned two community bonds that had revolutionized his former high school by funding a state-of-the art career technical education facility and offering pathways that exposed students to opportunities beyond high school. “To train the workforce of tomorrow,” Rivas said, “we need to invest.”
California also needs to invest in communities to repair infrastructure and prepare for climate change, he said—and avoid disasters like the flooding of Pajaro after its levee was breached. And while climate change affects communities across the state, Rivas emphasized that “it’s impacting our pocketbooks … our ability to secure home insurance, whether it is wildfire, drought, or too much rain.” On a bright note, he was encouraged by a meeting with a Republican colleague who indicated climate change was a high priority. “This is not a partisan issue,” Rivas said. “It’s a California issue.”
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.