"We're all trying to figure this out in real time," Buffy Wicks says

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California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (right) reading to daughter Jojo with Elly on her chest
| Credit: The Wicks Ambler Family

On Monday night, Buffy Wicks stood before her colleagues on the floor of the California Assembly and did what she had done so many times before — advocate for a new bill up for a vote.

Her weeks-old baby, Elly, squirmed in her arms.

“I was actually in the middle of feeding my daughter when this bill came up, and I ran down on the floor today because I strongly believe we need to pass this bill,” she told the Assembly.

As she made her case, Elly let out a quick cry. Wicks laughed. "And Elly agrees."

The moment, of a mom literally juggling her child care with her work, immediately resonated: Even as Wicks drew support from figures like Hillary Clinton, her old boss, the Assembly's leader was criticized for not allowing Wicks to vote by proxy. (He soon apologized.)

Wicks, 43, tells PEOPLE that the circumstances left her little option other than a late-night in the state Capitol with her newborn.

Earlier this week, just five weeks after giving birth by cesarean section and before she was even cleared to resume exercise, Wicks was at home recovering on maternity leave as the legislative session held its final votes of the session.

She knew some of the bills could go either way, and she thought her vote could make a difference.

She asked to vote by proxy from her home in Oakland. But California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that vote was only for those at high risk during the novel coronavirus pandemic and she didn’t qualify, given how narrowly the rules had been written.

Wicks couldn’t sit it out. But she wouldn’t leave her baby.

“She feeds every two to three hours and she needs me,” she says of Elly. “She’s been with me every moment of every day since the moment she was born.”

Wicks woke up early on Monday morning, gathered Elly and all of Elly's baby paraphernalia and commuted more than an hour — "through the wildfire smoke," her husband said — to the Capitol in Sacramento for the day-and-night deliberations that would be the last of the session.

If bills didn’t get passed by midnight, they were dead.

buffy wicks
California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks
| Credit: California State Assembly

Secluding herself and the baby to prevent virus exposure, Wicks holed up in her office and watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. When it came to a housing bill that she believed would help alleviate the local crunch, she saw that the measure was in jeopardy.

She unlatched the suckling baby, covered Elly from head to toe in a baby blanket and ran down two flights of stairs to speak on the floor.

“Please, please, please pass this bill,” she told the Assembly. “And I’m going to go finish feeding my daughter, thank you,” she said before dashing out.

The bill passed the Assembly but didn’t make it to a Senate vote before the midnight deadline: "Absolutely devastated," Wicks later tweeted, adding, "But I promise you this: I will *always* show up for housing — no matter what."

Close to the deadline, however, she managed to vote on another bill to expand family medical leave, helping it pass by one vote. If the governor signs it, it could become law by Jan. 1.

Speaker Rendon, who also has a baby at home, has apologized for denying Wicks a proxy vote, saying his "intention was never to be inconsiderate toward her, her role as a legislator, or her role as a mother." But Wicks holds no ill will.

“We’re all trying to figure this out in real time,” she says, adding that it’s time to consider offering remote participation for all members on leave.

She drove home past midnight and didn’t get to bed until 3 a.m. on Tuesday. Already the video of her speaking on the Assembly floor with her newborn in her arms was spreading — her situation shared by other mothers balancing child care with their jobs, during a pandemic that closed offices and schools.

Having a child in tow is not new for Wicks, who was elected in 2018 and represents an area including Berkeley and Oakland. She is married to Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, an anti-gun violence group. Their older daughter, Jojo, now 3 ½, was just 5 months old when Wicks began campaigning for her job.

“She grew up with me speaking at events,” Wicks says. “That’s what she thinks women do: Give speeches.”

When people question her decision to serve while her kids are so young, Wicks says, “She can’t be the reason I don’t run — she’s the reason I need to be in office."

"It’s 2020," Wicks says. "I want my children seeing women taking the bull by the horn and making change.”