I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Mr. Rivera goes to Washington
Ray Rivera is an Albuquerque native who recently turned 30.
Following two years on Barack Obama’s grueling but ultimately triumphant presidential campaign, Rivera promptly moved to Washington, D.C., and is now arguably New Mexico’s highest ranking presidential appointee.
Rivera is the Interior Department’s new director of external and intra-governmental affairs — admittedly, not the sexiest of titles — but as such he’s a member of senior staff to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and reports directly to the ex-Colorado senator.
“I’m the liaison between a lot of organizations and the secretary,” Rivera explains in a recent phone interview. He ticks off external organizations he works with, like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Alliance, Exxon, Chevron and American Petroleum. He says he also coordinates with governors and mayors all across the country.
“So basically, I try to leverage partnerships or build relationships with external organizations and electeds to help further the secretary’s priorities and the Interior’s priorities.” Rivera says. “And right now the secretary is focused heavily on how the Interior and its lands fit into mitigating climate change and how we develop more renewable energy.”
Besides leveraging for a member of the president’s cabinet, Rivera is the epitome of the dyed-in-the-wool Obama man. He says he’s still every bit determined to help “change the country and change the world,” summoning the then-candidate’s inspirational vow.
But like all good stories, Rivera’s journey to the nation’s capital began years earlier. Specifically, 13 years earlier.
How do I know? Because I was there.
A noisy, 11th floor copy room
In the summer of 1996, Rivera, then a student at Manzano High School, began an internship with Mayor Martin Chavez the day after I started as an intern. At the time, I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico.
Rivera was a student government activist agitating against “closed” high school campuses (the indignity of not being able to leave school grounds for lunch) when he caught the eye of Mayor Chavez at a public meeting. Impressed, the then-first-term mayor offered Rivera an 11th floor City Hall summer job.
That’s when Rivera says he caught the politics bug and singled me out as an influence.
“I ran into you in the mayor’s office,” he says with a laugh, “and I’d ask, ‘What makes Mayor Chavez go this way or that way?’ and ‘What’s the difference between a Democrat versus a Republican?’ I remember talking with you a lot. And I’m not just saying this because I’m doing an interview with you,” Rivera recalls.
A summer and then the following year found the two of us cramped in noisy copy room just off the mayor’s office reception area, consumed mostly by researching constituent questions and complaints.
The best parts of the job were the frequent outings with a mayor who clearly cared about involving his two youngest staffers in a wide range of city business and meetings, both formal and informal.
Rivera would go on to UNM where he ran for student body president, falling just short of winning. As a student, he continued to work for Mayor Chavez and later Mayor Jim Baca.
Also as an undergrad, he got a taste of campaign organizing and field work on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign in New Mexico. Following that extended campaign came the bitter taste of another loss.
But the eager, personable Rivera was undaunted.
Pivoting off of relationships built during that 2000 campaign, Rivera went to work for the state’s biggest, most influential public employees union – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He worked out of AFSCME Council 18’s political office in Albuquerque and later moved to AFSCME’s Colorado local in Denver.
“Union political experience really solidified my love for the progressive movement,” Rivera says.
In early 2007, Rivera had worked for AFSCME in Denver for nearly four years when the looming presidential campaign beckoned. Torn between an opportunity to work on Gov. Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign and Obama’s, Rivera picked the latter.
By this time, Rivera was a veteran field and data campaign specialist, and he worked stints in the campaign as a traveling national field coordinator and later was tapped to be Obama’s Colorado state director.
The Colorado Independent’s Wendy Norris interviewed Rivera then about how he was working to turn a previously deep red Colorado blue for Obama.
This was when Rivera first got to know then-U.S. Sen. Salazar.
“I didn’t really know him personally until the campaign,” he says. “Once we were in the general (election) and he was on board and from day one he called me in the office, I sat with him and his senior staff and he said, ‘How can I help make this happen?’ And from that day on” — in June of 2008 — “we talked every single day.”
Rivera adds that his bond with Salazar was solidified during a subsequent campaign road trip through rural Colorado —“literally, driving an RV over the Rocky Mountains.”
Washington, D.C., bound
It would appear that Rivera hasn’t slowed down since. The election triumph was immediately followed by a busy transition period and the work of organizing a new federal government. Rivera quickly settled in with Salazar at Interior, home to numerous agencies with significant impact on New Mexico.
And Rivera was far from the only New Mexican to join the new crew at the department that oversees national parks and monuments, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as water and science policy, among many others.
The new Democratic crew, Rivera points out, is dramatically different from the previous Republican one.
“There was no doubt more interaction between the previous crew and the oil and gas industry, and there wasn’t a focus on developing the renewable side. It was conventional fuels and conventional resource development,” he explains. “So we kind of dusted off a lot the renewable energy plans when we walked in the door and said, ‘Now, OK, let’s get this rolling.”
Rivera notes that Interior manages a third of the lands in the country – and a much larger percentage in New Mexico – as well as billions of acres off shore, all of which, he says, will figure prominently in the development and transmission of renewable energy going forward.
If Rivera has a pet project on his new job, it’s youth outreach. That was clearly part of his portfolio during the campaign, especially on the night Obama formally accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, as Rivera exhorted a packed Invesco Field in Denver – and millions watching on television — to get involved in the campaign’s home stretch – via text messaging.
Nowadays, he and his boss want young people to get outdoors.
“Young people aren’t doing anything outdoors anymore. They just play video games on their computers,” he says with another laugh. Turning more serious, he adds, “We’re not developing future land stewards, geological surveyors, water scientists or refuge managers.”
‘Not looking for rest’
Rivera emphasizes that land use issues play a special role in his home state.
“I think the unique connection New Mexico always has to the Interior is that because of all the public lands there, and the fact that land is such part of who the people are in New Mexico — the land grants, the ranchers, the connection to how valuable water is,” he says. “This is the West. People live off the land. So there’s a respect and a deep understanding of natural resources in states like New Mexico and also Colorado.”
Although Rivera got his start in politics in New Mexico, it was that lopsided victory in the contest for Colorado’s electoral college votes last year that seems to have made a lasting impression.
“I got to grow up in politics as the West became the political epicenter, as these Western swing states came into focus for the presidential election and the emerging Hispanic vote,” he says, adding that Obama won Colorado by a 10.5 percent margin over Republican John McCain.
“I mean, that was unheard of,” he says, his voice rising with excitement. “You’re talking about a pretty solidly red presidential state that Obama won by double digits!”
With that double-digit win in the rear view mirror, Rivera is determined to make the most of the opportunity it helped create.
Looking down the road, it seems he’s ignoring the brakes in favor of the (renewable energy) gas pedal instead.
“I’m not burnt out. I’m not looking for rest,” he adds. “And I can’t come home anytime soon because we have a responsibility here to get the work done.”