Assembly member Buffy Wicks had been fielding calls from her colleagues for weeks.
“We need your vote,” they told her, again and again. “Can you come?”
After giving birth on July 26, Wicks was home with her newborn in Oakland, Calif., 90 minutes from the state Capitol building in Sacramento. Many of the most important votes would come up on the final night of the session: Aug. 31. The House would vote on affordable housing and a key family leave policy.
Wicks could be the deciding vote, her colleagues told her.
She would “figure out a way,” she promised.
If she went to the Capitol, Wicks knew she would have to bring her baby, she said. Her daughter, Elly, was born with jaundice: The most important thing, Wicks remembers the doctor saying, was to keep her nourished at all times. Wicks had been breastfeeding, sometimes waking Elly up to make sure she was fed exactly on schedule, every few hours. Since birth, Wicks said, Elly had felt like an extension of her own body. She couldn’t imagine leaving her for a full day.
The week before the vote, a state Senator came down with the coronavirus, making Wicks more aware of the risks associated with coming to the Capitol. She was determined to vote — but it didn’t feel safe to bring her daughter to the House floor, she said, where they would both be exposed, indoors, to 80 other legislators and their staff.
Wicks asked House Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) if she could utilize the new policy for remote voting: Members who were considered “high-risk” for the coronavirus were allowed to vote from home.
Rendon denied her request.
“My daughter’s immune system is basically nonexistent,” said Wicks. “But I was told that maternity leave didn’t qualify for in-proxy voting.”
The accommodation is “very specific,” and is only applied sparingly to members with health concerns, Rendon’s press secretary Katie Talbot said in a statement to the Hill.
“The Speaker understands that Members are committed to performing their legislative duties, while still trying to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure. The House Resolution pertaining to proxy voting is very specific, in that only Members at a higher risk from covid-19 will be considered eligible for proxy voting,” the statement continued. (Rendon’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Rendon has since publicly apologized to Wicks. “My intention was never to be inconsiderate to her, her role as a legislator, or her role as a mother.”
Wicks drove to Sacramento with Elly for the last day of the session, leaving her other daughter, 3, at home with her husband. Once they were at the Capitol, Wicks took every possible precaution, she said, staying in her office with only one staff member until she had to go to the floor to vote. They watched the debate on a live stream, waiting for the moment when the Speaker called for a vote.
When the housing bill came up, Wicks said, she was in the middle of breastfeeding Elly. She pulled her daughter off her chest, wrapped her in a blanket, and ran down to the House floor, Wicks said. She stepped up to speak with Elly in her arms, trying to soothe her as she explained why this housing bill — which would allow single-family homes to be converted into duplexes — was so important.
“I ran down on the floor today because I strongly believe that we need to pass this bill. We are 3.5 million homes shy of where we need to be right now,” she paused, as Elly cried. “And Elly agrees.”
Wicks knew she would face criticism. When she was campaigning for her seat, she said, several people warned her never to take her kids on the House floor: People might say she was putting work over family. She didn’t want to think about the comments she might get now, for exposing her baby to a deadly virus.
“I felt compelled to speak, but also I was thinking, ‘Am I going to be judged as a mother right now?’”
The session lasted until 1 a.m., Wicks said. She didn’t look at social media until she finally got to bed, back in Oakland, around 3 a.m. That night and the next day, the positive response was overwhelming, she said, with high-profile politicians like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) tweeting their support.
Wicks believes her story “touched a nerve” because of the child care crisis that many working parents are experiencing during the coronavirus.
“Covid has exposed our lack of support for working families.” Parents, and especially mothers, are trying to simultaneously work and parent full time, with kids home from school or day care, contending with employers that often fail to provide the necessary flexibility, she said. “Women across the country see themselves in this.”
Wicks knows she made the right call by going to the Capitol, she says. The family leave bill, which would require far more businesses to provide paid parental leave, needed 41 votes to clear the House.
“I cast that vote with my daughter in my arms,” Wicks said.
The bill passed. Wicks was the 41st vote.