In bringing her baby to vote, Buffy Wicks spotlights the mistreatment of working moms
Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) asked to be allowed to vote remotely. She was denied so brought her infant with her to Sacramento and cast votes Monday on dozens of bills.
It was a colossal Capitol screwup. One headline called it “Capitol cruelty.” But the person mistreated emerged as the big winner of this year’s California legislative session.
Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) leaped from rookie legislator to rising star literally overnight.
The unquestionable loser — the PR loser, at least — was Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).
Rendon, a likable guy, became what another headline called “California’s new laughingstock” after he denied Wicks’ request to vote on legislation by proxy. Wicks asked to vote from home because she was nursing her newborn baby. And there was the highly contagious coronavirus she was worried about for her month-old daughter.
The speaker initially told her “I don’t see why not,” he says. But later, Assembly attorneys warned him that voting by proxy might be illegal and could jeopardize all the passed bills for which Wicks voted. Judges could toss them out. Lawsuits were being threatened.
So two days before the session’s end, Rendon called Wicks back and told her she didn’t qualify under the recently adopted house rule allowing proxy voting for Assembly members considered at high risk for COVID-19.
Never mind that the state Senate had set up a remote system for debating and voting via Zoom. Democrats forced Republicans to use it when a GOP senator tested positive for COVID-19.
When Rendon told Wicks she couldn’t vote by proxy after all, she didn’t argue about it, he says. The speaker also says he didn’t ask her to come to Sacramento. And he certainly didn’t know she was going to bring the baby.
Why did Wicks bring her?
“She feeds every two hours,” Wicks told me. “She hasn’t left my side since she was born four weeks ago.”
Rendon says of his decision: “I knew it wasn’t going to be popular. But my job is to defend the house and the votes.”
It’s also to protect the house’s image and his own. He looked politically tone-deaf and insensitive to motherhood, although his wife gave birth to a daughter 11 months ago. His decision was not only unpopular, it created national outrage.
It wouldn’t have looked so bad if Wicks hadn’t followed her conscience and sense of duty by showing up in the Assembly chamber on the last night of the session to vote for bills dear to her heart — wearing a pandemic mask and clutching swaddled Elly to her chest.
A photo and video went viral. Buffy and Elly became the faces for heightened consideration of working moms and the insensitivity of male bosses.
Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — a leader in the family leave movement — both tweeted their support.
Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks was on maternity leave before Monday’s constitutional deadline. She asked to vote remotely due to COVID-19 and was denied.
Wicks, 43, does have some connections. She was an architect of Barack Obama’s heralded 2008 grassroots organization that helped get him elected president. She was a senior staffer on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns and was an Obama White House aide. In 2016, she was state director of Clinton’s winning California primary campaign.
Wicks was raised in very Republican, tiny Foresthill in the Sierra east of Sacramento. Her father was a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service; her mother, a home loan officer.
“I grew up in conservative Foresthill and somehow now represent [liberal] Berkeley,” she muses. Wicks began her political career in the early 2000s in the San Francisco Bay Area, organizing rallies against the Iraq War.
She was elected to the Assembly in 2018.
“I love being a legislator,” Wicks says. “You can hear about something on the radio that you care about and say, ‘I can do a bill.’ You can have a significant meaning in people’s lives…. Just don’t let it go to your head.”
One bill that inspired her to pack up Elly and drive 90 minutes to the Capitol expanded maternity leave so more moms can stay home longer with their newborns without being fired. Another measure would have increased housing production by making it easier to build duplexes on land zoned for single-family homes.
Wicks spent the session’s last day in her Capitol office, watching the Assembly action on TV, changing diapers and nursing her baby. As the midnight deadline approached, colleagues texted that her votes were urgently needed.
“I was nursing at the time,” she recalls. “I grabbed Elly up in my arms and ran down two flights of stairs. I knew it was a race against the clock. Everyone was looking at me standing there with my newborn.”
Wicks’ vote for the family leave bill was crucial. It allowed the measure, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), to pass with the bare minimum votes needed.
Wicks gave one brief speech — for the housing bill from Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).
“Please, please, please pass the bill — and I’m going to go finish feeding my daughter,” she said in a speech probably unlike any heard before in a California legislative chamber.
“My daughter started crying, of course,” Wicks told me. “I’m trying to keep her blanket on. My mask is coming off.… ”
The housing bill narrowly passed the Assembly just before midnight — too late for the Senate to take up and send to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Senators grumbled that Rendon “ran out the clock” on the housing legislation and other major bills so they couldn’t pass.
“That’s preposterous,” Rendon says. “Absurd.”
The next day, he publicly apologized for not letting Wicks vote at home.
“I failed to make sure our process took into account the unique needs of our members,” read the speaker’s prepared statement. “I commit to doing better.”
Actually, Rendon did Wicks a huge favor. He raised her political star, and she became a potential future candidate for speaker.
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.