He was elected to his last term in the Assembly nearly a decade ago, but it’s hard to drive around Sacramento without seeing his name constantly. From Acura to Volvo, the Niello name can be found on license plate frames throughout the region.
Roger Niello served as an Assemblyman for three terms between 2004 and 2010. His journey into politics came through the car business: His work with the Niello Company led to frequent communications with elected officials and he gradually took an increasingly active role in lobbying.
“I’d hate to be 80 years old and wonder ‘What if?’” — Roger Niello on deciding to run for office.
He enjoyed working on a wide range of policy issues and became a rising star in the local Chamber of Commerce. In 1995, he even served briefly as president of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber.
As late as 1998, he wasn’t planning a move to politics. “It happened in a short period of time,” Niello says. “If you had asked me in January 1998 if I would run for office, I would have looked at you like you had a horn coming out of your head, but six months later I was running.”
A major factor in his decision was his friendship with Dave Cox, who was halfway through his second term on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors when he won election to the Assembly in 1998 with nearly 70% of the vote.
Talking with Dave about the open supervisorial seat, Roger was inspired.
“I’d hate to be 80 years old and wonder ‘What if?’” he said. He called his family to explain the decision and announce that he would be stepping down from many of his duties with the company. “It was a great decision” he says now about asking his brother Rick to become CEO. “We’ve benefitted tremendously over the last decade and a half.”
As a participant in the negotiations, Niello became one of a handful of Republicans to vote for the budget.
Six years later, he would follow Cox again, becoming an Assemblyman in 2004. It wasn’t an easy time to be a legislator.
The years that Niello served included some of the worst budget shortfalls in modern history. Asked if he regretted that his six years fell in lean years, as opposed to the years of plenty when it’s easier for ideas to make the jump into policy, Niello said he preferred having been there for the tough times.
“Under the normal course of things, your ability as a minority member to get things done is limited.” he said, adding that being there when difficult decisions were resulting in close votes gave “an opportunity to make policy gains that couldn’t be done during calmer times.”
As legislators struggled with the challenge of closing the budget gap, Niello was picked to take a leading role. As the vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Roger spent long hours wading through the budget and negotiating endless details. An agreement was eventually reached and, as a participant in the negotiations, Niello became one of a handful of Republicans to vote for the budget.
In 2010, as Assemblyman Niello ended his final term, State Senator Dave Cox died in office and left a vacant seat that would be filled by a special election. Niello ran in the special election, but his vote for the budget (which included a significant tax increase) was a tough sell in the conservative district. The special election ended with Niello receiving a quarter of the vote; a large number but not enough.
In 2015, Niello was approached about another temporary assignment; becoming the Director of the El Dorado County Community Development Agency.
In December 2010, his term ended and Niello became a private citizen looking for a new challenge. “It was time for me to move on to other things. I still have my one-third ownership of the auto dealership, but I had been out of the business for twelve years.” Soon after leaving office, Niello accepted a one-year position with the University of California as a Governance Fellow at the UC Center in Sacramento. Attending classes with students, he shared his experiences and how legislators make decisions. He also renewed his involvement with the Sacramento Metro Chamber.
“Around August or September, the Chamber was faced with having no CEO. A good friend approached me at an event and asked if I would become the CEO to provide stability while they searched for a permanent replacement.” Niello agreed, and would eventually run the Chamber for nearly four years.
After the new Chamber president was selected and his involvement was winding down, Niello found himself where he been in 2011 after leaving office. Luckily, another opportunity came along. He became involved in Power of Democracy, an initiative by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to promote the return of civics education to school curriculum.
In 2015, Niello was approached about another temporary assignment; becoming the Director of the El Dorado County Community Development Agency. The Agency was in the middle of a major transition and wanted to postpone hiring a permanent replacement for their outgoing Director for six months. Niello agreed and jumped into the role. During his tenure, Niello studied the agency’s economic development model, led a major reorganization and stayed until the successor was hired.
Currently between projects, Niello said that he is enjoying life with his wife Mary and their six grandchildren. He enjoys staying connected with friends and neighbors on social media, but also occasionally stirs the pot with a political post. “I’ve found Facebook to be fun.” Niello has used other sites, but enjoys the volatility of Facebook debates; “It is just fascinating to watch how the [conversation] string goes… the topic and philosophic detours of the conversation.”
What’s next for Roger Niello? We don’t know yet. But after nearly 20 years of public service, it’s unlikely to involve much sitting around the house. He still has no desire to be the 80-year-old wondering “What if?”