Local Politics

Monday, Jun 17 2013 06:22 PM

From ‘curly-haired Willie’ to councilman-elect

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Willie Rivera, 22, has just been elected to represent Ward 1 on the Bakersfield City Council.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Then-newly elected Ward 1 City Councilman Willie Rivera helps Patricia Warner, a Ward 1 constituent, with a problem in her front yard with standing water in the gutter.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    New Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera, 22, looks at a standing water problem in the front yard area of constituent Patricia Warner. Rivera probably won't be sworn in until the council's July meeting.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

It was 2 p.m., the hottest part of the day, when the subject of Ward 1 Councilman-elect Willie Rivera’s tender, young age arose. He made the mistake of trying to guess the location of the Valero gas station where constituent Patricia Warner worked, and what was there before it was built, and she let him have it.

“You weren’t even born when that store went in,” said Warner, whose neat house, southeast of South H Street and Calcutta Drive, has had a problem with water pooling in the gutter outside for 20 years. “How old are you?”

His age is seemingly the eternal question for Rivera — for at least a few more years — and it can lead to other, more direct lines of questioning about his experience; and why, despite providing his personal cell phone number on campaign fliers this spring to prove his accessibility, he has lived in Ward 1 only since January.

The mercury was in the 90s on the Friday Rivera visited Warner — and the puddle, which she says turns green and breeds mosquitos in the summer, looked inviting. Rivera was quick to cool things off.

“I’m 22,” he said — and then came the stroke of genius. He said exactly what Warner might have said herself, precisely defusing the situation: “I know, I know, just a baby.”

Warner was mollified. It was a good answer, well-delivered: stock-in-trade for Rivera, whose acumen and speedy tongue bely his boyish visage. You’d think he’s been working at this for maybe a year — or else that he was born lucky, with a silver tongue to match the silver, northwest Bakersfield spoon in his mouth.

You’d be wrong.

‘RATS WERE RUNNING AROUND’

Rivera, who will graduate this summer from Cal State Sacramento with a bachelor’s degree in political science, comes from a background of education and service — not wealth.

The fourth of five siblings, he was born in Puerto Rico in 1990. His parents say they think an early life there sparked his endless drive, ceaseless curiosity and a desire to help those in the most need.

Hurricane Georges, which arrived in 1998, less than two months before Rivera’s eighth birthday, washed any Norman Rockwell sheen off their existence, along with the roof of their house.

“We had to live in the little side area we had, and rats were running around,” said his father, Peter Rivera, 61, a New York native who returned twice to his native Puerto Rico. He’s now director of the Career Beginnings program at Cal State Bakersfield.

“We learned how to live with basically nothing, and being a family, and taking care of each other,” said his mother, Linda Markham, 61, a supervisor of social services at Kern Medical Center. “We were under a Federal Emergency Management Agency tarp for months. People from town would come and bring us milk because there were no refrigerators.”

“Being without power, there were cockroaches and rats in the little space where we lived,” Willie Rivera said soberly. And then, his sunny disposition began to shine.

“It was a tough time, but you know what?” asked the man whom his mother describes as the family’s caretaker and peacemaker. “We were very close, and I love my family a great deal, and fortunately, we got through it and we’re closer now.”

The family chose Bakersfield as its new home in 1990. His parents divorced when he was 13 or 14, Rivera said, but mom and dad were at his side on election night.

BROAD SHOULDERS REQUIRED

“Close” is an adjective that describes Rivera’s current political stature. He is close to being sworn in as the new Ward 1 councilman; this should happen at the July 17 Bakersfield City Council meeting. And he is close to being Bakersfield’s youngest council representative ever.

The Bakersfield City Clerk’s office has never officially tracked the age of its council representatives. City Clerk Roberta Gafford said Rivera is probably the youngest ever, but it’s not 100 percent certain.

Youth may have its rewards. Rivera told Californian Editorial Page Editor Robert Price that he hopes Bakersfield could one day rival Silicon Valley — a lofty goal. It also comes with a steep learning curve, according to one former official who stepped into the midst of controversy when he was elected at age 23.

“It was a tough time. We had the (consultant Gretchen) Belli scandal, we had a city manager get replaced. Those were tough things and I was put in a position where I was a swing vote. I had to make some tough decisions pretty quick,” said former Taft Councilman Les Clark III, now 38. “You’ve got to have broad shoulders. But it was a good experience, too. The old saying — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Clark advises Rivera to listen to constituents and educate himself — but then Rivera has been furthering his education since moving here with his parents in 2000, the year he turned 10.

“I had history class in junior high at Stockdale Christian School with him, and every day he would get in arguments with the history teacher. Just whatever we were talking about, he’d go off on it and more or less surprise the teacher to where she didn’t know what to say,” said Sean Green, general manager at Bakersfield Musical Theatre, where he hired Rivera to run the lighting board in 2007. It was the last non-political job Rivera had before interning for former state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, at age 15.

“It’s funny to see him where he is now, because he was already there in a way,” Green said. “He was definitely one of those people whom people connect to. I think his hair does it a lot of times. I haven’t seen him lately, but he used to have this huge red afro. I think that’s what brought out his personality. He was curly-haired Willie.”

“Yeah, I weighed about 100 pounds more than I weigh now, and I had a big head of hair on me,” Rivera said, remembering how hot it was underneath those wavy locks. “At the time, those were the things that a 15-year-old in high school did. But it obviously wasn’t helping my case in trying to be involved in the community.”

SERVING WARD 1

During the special council election that just wrapped up, his opponents pointed out that Rivera, who remains a district coordinator for the 16th Senate District, had only moved to Ward 1 in January. But politicos who know him say his heart has long been where his address is now.

“It has always been in Willie’s heart to serve the areas of east Bakersfield and southeast Bakersfield,” said 5th District Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez.

Rivera helped walk neighborhoods during Perez’s campaign for supervisor, and her volunteers in the recent 16th District race returned the favor in Ward 1.

“That is where he spent all his time in politics, was in serving the poorest communities of Kern County. I think he was very drawn to the possibility that out of one office, one local office, you could have such dramatic change to a community.”

Recalling his history class prompts a little introspection from the councilman-elect.

“I get a great amount of pleasure out of being helpful to other people. In high school, I used to use a quote a lot about ‘A life lived for others is the only life worthwhile,’ and I think that drives a lot of how I feel now,” Rivera said, repeating a phrase attributed to Albert Einstein. “There’s no other way I’d be content in living my life if I weren’t devoting as much of my time as possible to helping others.”

If you think that sounds inspirational, you’re not alone.

“Absolutely. That’s why we supported him. He’s very talented, very young and he’s in an area where we don’t have a lot of young people” go into politics, said attorney Milt Younger, chairman of the Center for Kern Political Education, a Bakersfield College foundation designed to teach students about politics and public service. “You give up a lot when you do that. You give up the opportunity to work in private industry and have more money, have advancement.”

As councilman, a part-time position, Rivera will earn $100 per month, plus an extra $20 for each city budget meeting he attends. (The city council devotes two to three meetings per year to considering the budget). There’s a monthly mileage allowance, optional medical benefits, which also include dental and vision, and if he needs a computer for city business (Rivera probably doesn’t; his campaign office had an iMac), the city will provide him one. He’ll give it back when the term he’s serving out — that of Rudy Salas — expires next year. Salas resigned in November after winning election to the state Assembly.

The fact that Rivera will have to file papers to run for re-election this summer has some questioning whether he will seek another term — or promptly move on to do something else, like Salas did.

Rivera says he will run for re-election, and that he’ll welcome another chance to get outdoors and connect with Ward 1 residents. But to at least one constituent — Warner, whose drainage problem Rivera pledged to investigate — he’s already made a difference in Ward 1.

“The Bible says, a new generation comes in and does things,” Warner said, patting her brow in the heat. “And he’s the new generation.”

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