• Thu. Oct 29th, 2020

Buffy Wicks Voted on the Floor With a Newborn in Her Arms

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Credit…California State Assembly, via Associated Press

It was an image that seemed destined to go viral: a masked mother holding a crying infant, while delivering an impassioned speech on the legislative floor.

It was as if, for a single moment in the California State Capitol, the near-impossibility of the demands of new motherhood and work and pandemic living had converged in a swaddle in Buffy Wicks’s arms.

Ms. Wicks, a veteran of the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, said she had never expected to become a symbol when she took her month-old child with her to vote on several crucial bills on Monday, the last day of the legislative session. Ms. Wicks lives in Oakland, just over an hour southwest of the capital, Sacramento. Since she was elected to the State Assembly in 2018, she has managed to make it home nearly every night before her older daughter’s bedtime. In other words: Juggling isn’t new.

We’ve been here before, talking about a lawmaking mother. And Ms. Wicks knows she has it far easier than many mothers who don’t have the kinds of support she does.

Here’s a conversation I had with Ms. Wicks this morning — as always, it’s been edited and condensed.

First, congratulations on your newborn daughter — how are you both doing?

Well, this week has been total insanity, but the good news is that I’ve now gotten her to sleep for four consecutive hours in a row, which means I get six or seven hours of sleep over 12 hours or something. I wake up and feel like that’s a huge accomplishment, like now I can do anything.

That is a fantastic accomplishment in the eyes of many mothers of newborns! Obviously, at least part of the chaos this week was your experience on the Assembly floor. Can you tell me more about how and why you made the decision to go to Sacramento with a month-old baby?

Well, our session ended Aug. 31. There were a lot of tough bills coming up, and it was clear it would be until midnight the last night. I started getting texts from colleagues asking if I would be there.

I asked the speaker directly if I could vote by proxy. He was really trying to make it work, but the legal interpretation he was advised was that it would leave us open to litigation if there was a close vote. So my husband and I talked a lot about it: Do I stay home even though I could be a deciding vote on bills about single-use plastics and housing and family leave? I felt compelled to go and decided to bring my daughter because we’re feeding every two or three hours — most of the time she’s literally on me. So I loaded the stroller, the BabyBjorn and all the accouterments in the car.

What was it like when you arrived?

I wanted to mitigate exposure when I got there, and there are a hundred people walking around the Assembly at any given time, so I spent the vast majority of time in my office alone. Then around 11:30 p.m. or so I was feeding my daughter on a couch in my office, looking up at the screen with the votes. I knew they were going to need my help and it was going to go fast. So I basically detached her from me, ran down to the floor and went up to the podium, to speak.

The clock was ticking, and she was hungry and wasn’t having it. I felt the moment of everyone paying attention to me and what I was saying. As I say my two cents, my mask is falling off, the blanket is falling off, she’s crying. And I blurted out, “OK, I’ve got to finish feeding my daughter.” I still had to drive an hour and 15 minutes, and it had been a long day. It’s a long day with a newborn anyway.

When you spoke to the speaker, who later apologized, how much did you push back?

He basically said that maternity leave doesn’t fall within the parameters of the bill that passed to set up voting by proxy. I took him at his word. I honestly think that he wanted to make it work — he’s a compassionate person who cares; his career was about early childhood. He was concerned about the legality of proxy voting. I don’t want to paint this as his fault.

I do think many institutions are trying to figure out this issue of working remotely, of parents. Coming out of this, we’re looking at this policy: Can we provide parameters for members who care for parents, who have spouses who are cancer survivors or are undergoing treatment? How can we provide flexibility that’s still legally sound?

People have called you a hero for working mothers, and your image went viral (thanks in part to your former boss Hillary Clinton) and made the news in Peru. Why do you think it resonated?

Almost every woman has been in some version of that situation. Obviously it is even worse for low-income families who don’t have paid leave. Particularly during Covid, what do you do when you’re a frontline worker? That pain is being felt acutely across the country. What are the social safety nets that we are providing for working families? It’s clear this is a racial equity issue and that poor communities are the least likely to have leave.

One of the bills where your vote was crucial expands family leave to more workers. In a legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats and known for being progressive, why was passing a bill like this difficult?

Part of it is there was a lot of lobbying by the business community. We are clearly in a moment of deep economic uncertainty, and businesses are hurting. Some in the business community said this is not going to be good for business; this is not going to be good for jobs. And we have a lot of Democrats who have close relationships with the business community.

Five legislators, including several women, declined to vote on the floor but added themselves on after the bill had passed. What do you make of that?

It’s a pretty common practice, but it’s a good question. I’ve never understood the theory about it, and I don’t do it. I am either in or I am out. But I come from a very different district; I have a very progressive district. This wasn’t a question for me.

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People often reference Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment — a remark she made at a campaign fund-raiser to distinguish “racist, sexist” Trump supporters from those motivated by seemingly less malicious concerns — as one of the costliest comments she made as a 2016 presidential candidate.

Arguably, a comment just as costly, repeated so much that it became a refrain, was the insistence by Mrs. Clinton and some of her surrogates that “America is already great.” It was, of course, a response to Donald Trump’s merchandise-ready, Reagan-inspired slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

The trouble with the Clinton camp’s self-satisfied retort is that for the majority of Americans who do not have a college degree, American life has become more challenging and less rewarding for decades. Social mobility has all but disappeared for many.

An opinion essay published this week wrestles with this disconnect. Titled “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice,” it’s written by Michael J. Sandel, the author of the forthcoming “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”

Mr. Sandel writes: “By telling workers that their inadequate education is the reason for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism — an insidious prejudice against those who do not have college degrees.”

For Mr. Sandel, this is a sin of which both parties’ elites are guilty, and the result has been increased support from working- and lower-middle-class Americans for Mr. Trump — whether Mr. Trump’s project is a good-faith mission or a bad-faith bait and switch.

“If the rhetoric of rising and the reign of technocratic merit have led us astray, how might we recast the terms of moral and political aspiration?” Mr. Sandel asks in the essay.

He answers with the idea that Americans “should focus less on arming people for a meritocratic race and more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make important contributions to our society — through the work they do, the families they raise and the communities they serve.”

— Talmon Joseph Smith

The bears are back in Lake Tahoe. And they may be a little too comfortable.

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