May 2019 Bar Bulletin
My Conversation with Seattle Mariners’
Executive Vice President and General Counsel Fred Rivera
(First of Two Parts)
Fred Rivera is a King County lawyer. Among his other accomplishments are serving as the Seattle office managing partner of the region’s largest law firm, Perkins Coie; five years as a senior trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division; recipient of the U.S. Attorney General’s Special Achievement Award for his work prosecuting violations of fair housing and fair lending laws; a two-year appointment as Fannie Mae’s vice president in charge of internal investigations; 16 years as an attorney in private practice; named as one of the nation’s most influential minority attorneys; and contributions of his time to a host of charitable, civic and professional organizations too long to list.
Before becoming a lawyer, Fred was a baseball player of considerable distinction. He played competitively in high school where he was a budding all-league prospect garnering attention from college scouts. He pitched in college. He later coached youth teams, including high school players in Los Angeles and a Seattle team that traveled to Cooperstown and placed fifth among 120 teams. He is a minority owner of the AAA Tacoma Rainiers.
For the past two years, Fred has been the Seattle Mariners’ executive vice president and general counsel, a position he describes as his “dream job.” His boss, Mariners’ chairman and managing partner of The Baseball Club of Seattle, John Stanton, says the feeling is mutual:
Fred joined the Mariners in 2017 and immediately became indispensable. He has taken on the responsibility for each of our important “off-the-field” projects including our lease, our broadcast agreements, and our naming rights agreement for the stadium. In each case Fred has improved our position.
Last year Fred took on additional responsibilities for our community programs and he has now put his signature on the HOME Base project, a collaborative program with United Way of King County and the King County Bar Association which we announced in December. Fred is unique in that he plays a key leadership role in all three of the HOME Base partner organizations. His compassion and commitment will profoundly help thousands of people in this community overcome homelessness and poverty.
Recently, I sat down with Fred to talk about life, law and his love of baseball.
Q. True or false? You once worked as a valet at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion near Beverly Hills, parking the cars of visiting celebrities and other guests?
A. True. Next question.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born in Santa Monica and lived the first decade of my life in the West Los Angeles/Culver City area.
Q. Your parents later decided to leave West L.A. and moved the family out to Canyon Country in the Santa Clarita Valley, north of L.A. You were 10 years old. What do you remember about how that community differed from life in L.A.?
A. It was a huge change, even though it was only 30 miles northeast of Los Angeles. But it provided stability. My folks were extremely young when I was born — 18 and 19-years old — and I know they struggled for many years. We moved to several different rentals in West L.A., and even lived with my grandparents for a time. I attended four or five different schools by the third grade.
Santa Clarita was considered a “cowtown” when we moved there in late 1977. But it offered very affordable housing. My parents were able to buy a small house, where we stayed until I finished high school. I missed living in L.A., but I am very thankful that I was able to spend a lot of time with my grandparents near Culver City, which helped.
Q. Your family has roots in Mexico and your mother, Vangie Rivera, is first-generation Mexican-American. What influence did your mother and your father, Ron Rivera, have on you as a youngster that shaped you as an adult?
A. My mom’s father was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and her mother was from New Mexico, with family roots that pre-date the Treaty of Guadalupe, which extended the U.S. border into parts of New Mexico, Texas and other southwest states. My dad’s father also had ancestral roots in New Mexico and Texas, while his mother was from Missouri.
Our Mexican heritage was always present in my life. My grandparents spoke Spanish, English and “Spanglish” in the house. My parents worked very hard under difficult circumstances. I was born not long after my father finished high school and my mother went back to complete her high school education after I was born. I can’t imagine the challenges they faced at the time.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up. My maternal grandfather was a gardener. I frequently accompanied him on his routes to help him mow and edge lawns. He left Mexico with his family in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution destroyed his town.
Both he and my grandmother were agricultural “pickers” in California during the 1940s. They followed the crops before settling in a Mexican neighborhood in Santa Monica, which the I-10 freeway now runs over. My grandfather never received legal status, despite his best efforts following the 1986 immigration reform bill that granted amnesty to any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982.
I remember him taking the bus to downtown L.A. for appointments at government offices and he would come back frustrated that he didn’t have the right paperwork. He eventually gave up and never obtained legal status. It was very sad for me to see, and I felt bad that I was unable to help.
Q. As a young boy, your grandmother took you to Chavez Ravine, the site of iconic Dodger Stadium, to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play. Tell me about that.
A. She was a huge baseball fan and a passionate Dodgers fan. She followed the Dodgers for decades, starting when they were in Brooklyn. I asked her why she followed the Brooklyn Dodgers even though she was from New Mexico and lived in L.A. Her answer was simple: Jackie Robinson. My grandmother, in her own quiet way, was very socially conscious. I later learned even more about that when we attended Jesse Jackson presidential rallies together, but that’s another story.
My grandmother didn’t drive, so we would take the bus to the game — the RTD #2 down Venice Boulevard, and transfer to the “Dodgers Bus” on Figueroa in downtown L.A. Those rides are vivid in my memory. She told me stories about the Dodgers from the 1950s and 1960s. She, along with my mother and my uncles, attended the first Dodgers home game in California at the L.A. Coliseum.
She loved Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, thought Walter Alston was the best manager ever, and despised the “___damn Giants.” We sat in general admission, now known as the “Top Deck,” at the top of the ballpark. She always carried a transistor radio so we could listen to Vin Scully call the game.
When we were once able to sit behind home plate, I thought we had the best seats in the world. Even now when I sit in “fancy” field level or suite seats, I still believe those Top Deck seats high above home plate next to my grandmother were the best in the world. I learned a lot about baseball, my family and life during those trips to the game.
Q. I’ve heard that, as a child, Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela was your favorite player. Why?
A. I wasn’t the only one. If you were a kid in L.A. in the early 1980s and liked baseball, Fernando was likely your favorite. “Fernandomania” was incredible. He burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 1981. He was an incredible pitcher, and he captured the imagination of the entire city. It didn’t hurt that the Dodgers won the World Series in 1981. I was a pudgy 13-year-old, a pitcher, and Mexican-American. Fernando represented all that I wanted to be. He was a true hero. It was an exciting time.
Q. When did the Dodgers become your second favorite Major League Baseball team?
A. March 17, 2017. That was my last day at Perkins Coie, a Friday. I left the office and drove to the airport to get on a plane to Arizona to join the Mariners front office in Spring Training. I’ve always considered myself a baseball fan first, and a Dodgers and now a Mariners fan second. Even before moving to Seattle, I watched the team from afar. In fact, I remember precisely where I was when Edgar Martinez hit “The Double” in 1995. I was watching the game at a Chili’s restaurant in Northern Virginia.
Q. My sources tell me that you, perhaps, were not the most serious student before you went to college. True?
A. You have reliable sources. I was not a good student. I didn’t study, and I had no motivation to do well. I did not like school. There were no mentors at my high school who encouraged me, no counselors who showed me the way. I did not know what an SAT test was until a few college teams recruiting me for baseball asked me about my score. I had no clue what they were asking.
Q. What happened in college to flip that switch, to cause you to become not only a serious student, but one who later graduated magna cum laude from law school?
A. I went to Santa Monica Junior College to play baseball — and take classes. I never really thought about my future until then. My entire focus was on baseball. Late in my freshman year I had an injury to my pitching arm that effectively ended my playing days. I had to decide what was next. I transferred my intense focus on baseball to school. I also had a few professors and counselors at SMC who showed an interest in me and gave me direction. Cs and Ds quickly became As and Bs.
Q. You’ve succeeded in private practice, in government service, and as general counsel of a highly visible business. I will ask you the same question I asked Bill Ruckelshaus several months ago. What would you say to our young lawyers in King County who might choose among private practice, corporate positions and government service?
A. There is no wrong decision. There are pros and cons with all three practice areas. The choice should be based on what drives passion. The decision must be genuine and not based on what other people say is the best option, but rather on what your heart says is the best path. But, I must note that, for some, there is no choice of options.
My only path after law school was government service. No law firm (including Perkins Coie) offered to hire me out of law school, but the U.S. Department of Justice offered me a position as a trial attorney in its Honor’s Program. Historically, government practice has offered more opportunities for lawyers of color, which was certainly the case for me. It was only after I had proven myself at the Justice Department that other options emerged. In hindsight, starting my career with the Department of Justice was perfect. I would not trade that experience for any other opportunity.
Harry H. Schneider, Jr., is president of the King County Bar Association and a litigation partner at Perkins Coie. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 206-359-8508.