California lawmakers expressed outrage Tuesday that a Bay Area lawmaker was forced to soothe her fussy newborn on the floor of the state Assembly after the new mom's request to vote remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic was denied.
Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) gave birth to her daughter on July 26 and was on maternity leave as the Legislature was wrapping up its work for the year before Monday's constitutional deadline. But with critical votes pending on the final day, Wicks requested permission on Friday to vote remotely due to the risk posed by COVID-19 if she returned.
In July, the Assembly adopted a policy allowing a special voting procedure for its members who were considered high-risk for contracting the virus. Assembly members were told they could authorize a legislative leader to cast proxy votes on their behalf, a decision made after two members of the lower house tested positive for the virus over the summer.
But Wicks' request was denied by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) because maternity leave was not considered a high-risk category, a decision that drew sharp rebukes on social media and from fellow Democrats. Rendon issued an apology Tuesday night.
"It’s almost barbaric that people are so clueless or unwilling to adapt," state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said Tuesday.
A picture and video of Wicks with her swaddled infant launched a wave of praise Monday night for the new mom along with criticism of Rendon — with even Hillary Clinton weighing in.
California Assemblymember @buffywicks was told that having recently given birth wasn’t sufficient excuse to cast a vote remotely.
So she brought her newborn daughter to the floor to weigh in on an important housing bill. 💪https://t.co/elofHmIcxl pic.twitter.com/ZQf9F10qKE
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 1, 2020
"She came back in part to vote on my bill to allow new parents time to bond with their newborns and ensure their jobs are there when they come back to work," Jackson added.
Senate Bill 1383 by Jackson passed with the bare minimum of votes needed just minutes before the legislative deadline. If signed as expected by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the bill would provide millions of employees who work for smaller businesses with the same 12 weeks of job protections while taking family leave as those who work for larger companies.
"It was beyond ironic that we are passing legislation that helps moms up and down the state and we have a mom who is there with a 1-month-old," said state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who chairs the Legislative Women's Caucus.
Wicks, a former White House aide to then-President Obama who helped steer Clinton to a 2016 victory in California, was the only lawmaker who asked to vote remotely during the final days of the session.
"I want to make a full apology to Assemblymember Wicks," Rendon said in a statement Tuesday night. "My intention was never to be inconsiderate toward her, her role as a legislator, or her role as a mother. Inclusivity and electing more women in politics are core elements of our Democratic values. Nevertheless, I failed to make sure our process took into account the unique needs of our members. The Assembly needs to do better. I commit to doing better."
Leyva said that explanation fell short.
"The Legislature clearly has a lot of work to do," she said. "The women's caucus has always focused on making workplaces friendly for working moms, and that should absolutely include the Legislature."
Both houses of the Legislature grappled with the effects of the coronavirus this week as the final hours of the legislative session approached. The state Senate chose to allow members to vote remotely through videoconferencing, using the system so 10 Republican senators could weigh in while under quarantine orders after one of the lawmakers contracted COVID-19 and potentially exposed the others.
As the Legislature wrapped up its work Monday night, Wicks spoke on the Assembly floor just after 11:30 p.m., saying she had been nursing her daughter in her state Capitol office when a housing bill she had been waiting for came up, so she ran to cast her vote — with her baby in her arms.
"Please, please, please pass this bill, and I'm going to go finish feeding my daughter," Wicks said of Senate Bill 1120 as her daughter began to cry.
The bill by Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) failed when the Senate ran out of time to vote on the measure.
Atkins declined to comment on Wicks being denied a proxy vote in the Assembly but said she wasn't surprised to see the assemblywoman voting on bills late into the night, including key housing legislation.
"I will say, I am incredibly impressed and in awe of Assemblymember Buffy Wicks' dedication to the issues and to her job," Atkins said. "And certainly it was quite a sight to see her there with her daughter."
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this story.