WeToo: Parenting, parity and progress in running for the California Legislature

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This is the second in a series looking at efforts to reach gender parity in the California Legislature. Today we offer a closer look at one of the biggest challenges female candidates and officeholders face – parenting. Read Part I here.

Running for office was one of the scariest experiences of Pilar Schiavo’s life.

There were of course all the usual challenges. Schiavo had been around politics for years as a community organizer, union activist and nurse advocate with the California Nurses Association, but she had never run for office. Not city council, not the school board, not dog catcher, nothing.

She had been involved in various campaigns, but not in the startup phase and certainly not in fundraising. And while she had some savings and a little vacation and sick time she could cash out from a previous job, her cash nest egg was not what anyone would call substantial. Money was definitely going to be an issue.

But all of those very legitimate reasons to be hesitant paled next to the true elephant in the room: she would be taking on this enormous, costly, and time-consuming challenge as a single mom of a child in grade school. Her margin of error – as a candidate and a parent – was small to nonexistent.

“I kept asking people I trusted, ‘Is this crazy? Should I do it?’ I kept waiting for someone to say, ‘No, you should definitely not do that.’ And no one did.”

The answer in fact consistently came back an emphatic yes, so crazy or not she went for it. And then things got really hard.

“I actually had to quit my job to run, and I had not planned for that,” she says. “I planned for maybe the last five months, but not a year and a half. That was really, really scary.”

But all of those very legitimate reasons to be hesitant paled next to the true elephant in the room: she would be taking on this enormous, costly, and time-consuming challenge as a single mom of a child in grade school.

It was a defining moment. The job she would be leaving was a good one, with a pension and a better health care plan than what she could expect in the Legislature. Leaving it would be the ultimate crossing of the Rubicon. But there was just no way to keep running a campaign, being present as a mom and still working full-time. She had a choice to make: in or out, period.

She chose to stay in.

“I remember writing the email to resign and my finger just hovering over that send button. I finally sent it and I was like, ‘Okay, there’s no going back now.’”

To help make ends meet, she started a small consulting business. At the 10-12 hours a week she could spare it was meager income at best, but it kept her going. Schiavo, a Democrat, ultimately went on to upset Republican incumbent Suzette Martinez in the 2022 Assembly District 40 race, winning by less than 600 votes.

When her savings ran out a few months before the election, she says she made it through the end of the campaign and her first month or so in office living on credit cards.

“My credit rating has dropped 100 points from all this,” she says, her tone matter of fact. “All for a job I might not have in a year and a half.”

And what a year and a half it will be. She and daughter Sofia fly into Sacramento on Sundays and back out again to Southern California on Thursday evenings. Schiavo has family in Sacramento, so there are family dinners and time to connect with cousins for Sofia while they are in town. But this kind of schedule makes it impossible for Sofia to have a normal school life. Case in point, during this interview Sofia sits quietly doing her school work in the corner of her mom’s swing space office, deftly ignoring the conversation going on just a few feet away.

It’s a different kind of education experience for a grade school kid, trying to learn math and history while mom’s meetings with lobbyists, staffers and reporters swirl all around her. It seems to be working, but Schiavo knows it has been a big ask.

“She’s made a lot of sacrifices,” Schiavo says. “Our first month was really rocky and very hard. I know she misses home and she misses her friends, so it’s a very, very hard sacrifice for her to make, and it’s hard for her because she doesn’t see why it’s worth it.”

“A man shows up with their baby and everyone is ‘Oh my God, it’s a dad with a baby!’ But when a woman does it, she’s a bad mom.”

Schiavo is hardly the first candidate to have taken a huge risk to seek public office. But longtime Democratic campaign strategist Katie Merrill says that experiences like Schiavo’s illustrate how female candidates almost always face hurdles to success – or even just getting into the game – that most men do not.

“The same barriers that existed 20 or 30 years ago for women still exist today when it comes to running for office,” she says. “It’s everything from the ability to raise the money to the demands of the job away from family, and particularly in the Legislature. If you are in Southern California or the Central Valley and you will have to be in Sacramento for three or four days a week, you have a decision to make. Do you move your family to Sacramento? Do you leave your kids for those three or four days a week?”

Questions, she says, that are rarely asked of men seeking office.

Former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who had two sons under age five when she first ran for Oakland City Council in 2010, knows that scenario firsthand.

“I talk to women leaders all the time who get criticized for not going to enough nighttime receptions or other events with the business community,” says Schaaf, now the interim director at Emerge California, which recruits and trains progressive women candidates to run for office, including Schaff herself. “I heard it too, and I thought, ‘Dude, I have little kids at home.’ I didn’t stop being a mom just because I’m holding elective office. And nor should I have to stop being a mom to be in office.”

It is a story Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, an East Bay Democrat, also knows well. During her first campaign, Wicks would often bring her daughter, then less than a year old, to local fundraisers. At one event, another woman asked her why, if Wicks cared so much about early childhood issues, was she running for office and not at home with her child.

“All I could think was, wow, hello 1953,” she says.

At another Democratic Club event, she says a member of Club leadership – another woman – told her to never bring her child again, saying it was a bad visual that would hurt her politically.

“I thought, are we in the modern era or what?” she says. “A man shows up with their baby and everyone is ‘Oh my God, it’s a dad with a baby!’ But when a woman does it, she’s a bad mom.”

Former Assemblymember Kristin Olsen, a Modesto Republican, also faced that dichotomy in her first primary in 2010. There were six candidates in the race, including a man who had kids similar in age to hers.

“I remember several times being in candidate forums where I would get asked ‘How are you going to be a mom and take care of your kids and also serve in legislature in Sacramento?’ And he never received that question, not one time,” she says.

It was off-putting for sure, she says, but she decided early on to just take it as another challenge to be overcome in an already-taxing campaign.

“What I quickly learned was I could either whine and complain and say it’s unfair or I could accept the fact that those are the questions in their minds, appropriate or not, and I need to be able to respond in a way that satisfies that voter or I’m not going to win the race,” she says. “I opted to respond with an accurate, calm, fair answer instead of calling them out for the unfairness of the question. That was in my best interest from a campaign strategy, but it certainly was frustrating.”

Olsen, now a partner with California Strategies, also took to heart some advice given to her by another female Council member: When you’re out on the campaign trail, never apologize for your kids.

“Had she not told me that, I think I would have definitely thought that I couldn’t bring them,” she says. “But that made such an impression on me that on the contrary, it was rare that I didn’t bring my kids to an event with me and train them to sit in meetings with me. And it’s something they complain about now in their teens and 20s, but at the time, they were just part of an extension of me and my role. And I found that constituents and other community leaders responded very well to that.”

She also received a lot of help with child care throughout the campaign from her family, which she says helped alleviate the “the constant mom guilt” so many women in her situation feel.

In an environment known for its hyperpartisanship, that fear of being a bad mom is one of the few truly nonpartisan issues.

Sen. Janet Nguyen, an Orange County Republican, came to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was five years old. With her parents often working, she took on a lot of the duties of caring for her younger brother. Because her parents didn’t speak English, this included at a very young age acting as a surrogate parent to her younger brother at school conferences.

“I would go in and some of his classmates who didn’t know me would say ‘Oh my God, your mom is so young.’ And his friends would say, ‘Dude, that’s his sister.’”

“What I quickly learned was I could either whine and complain and say it’s unfair or I could accept the fact that those are the questions in their minds, appropriate or not, and I need to be able to respond in a way that satisfies that voter or I’m not going to win the race.”

Nguyen says experiences like that drive her to ensure her kids have a better pathway forward than she did. And she has been fortunate in her career to not have dealt with too much of the kind of criticism so many other female candidates regularly face. If anything, she says, she has enjoyed a lot of support from family during her many years in local and now state government. But she too is very aware of the impact her being away has on her husband and kids.

“I have a 10- and a 12-year old. It’s not always fun to come up to Sacramento every week. My husband’s a single dad when I’m not there. But it’s worth doing it because the next generation needs it more than us,” she says, wiping away a tear as she speaks.

But the parenting role is not something she can let go of even when she is gone.

“Every week, when I get home on Thursday, I take out the food that needs to be defrosted and I put it in the refrigerator,” she says. “And then Sunday, I get up at 5:00 or 6:00 o’clock in the morning and I’ll cook all the meals for my husband and my family for the week.”

Which she does in spite of the fact her husband Tom is an actual trained professional chef.

“I’m just a sous-chef,” she says, laughing. “But if I can take some burden away from him and give them a good meal instead of having to rush, it’s worth it. Because my boys are in baseball, travel ball, jiu-jitsu, you name it. So I want to play my part. And it’s also fun for me.”

It also gives her something to talk with them about when she calls in the evening.

“I get to call them up and ask ‘Did you like that recipe? Is it a keeper or a downer?’”

It’s all an effort to stay involved on a daily basis with her family, she says. But work is never far away, even on the weekends. She says she still makes a point of getting to her sons’ sporting events, though rarely for the whole game.

“A lot of time I am only there for the last 15 or 20 minutes,” she says. “I show up in my suit and people look at me all weird on the Saturday, ‘Why is she in a suit?’ But I’m there.”

While they are all very different, a common thread with all of these very accomplished and disparate women could be summed up thus: If not me, then who? If not now, when?

“I always figured I would run for office someday, but I thought maybe I needed more experience, more connections,” Schaaf says. “And I thought my kids needed to be older. But Emerge gave me the confidence to say, ‘What am I waiting for?’ And that’s good because it’s important that someone like me changes some of the rules so that women don’t feel like they have to wait until their kids are older to take on leadership roles.”

And perhaps to be the role models many of them wish they had when they were young?

“Every day,” Schiavo says. “Every day.”


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