A male politician carrying his baby son into constituent meetings, zoning negotiations, fundraisers, press conferences, neighborhood association gatherings, political conventions, cross-country lobbying trips and every other form of grip-and-grab required of politicos is not, even in 2018, a familiar sight.
But it has been at City Hall since last November, when Javier William Guerra was born to Christina Lokke and Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra. Since then, baby Javier and his councilman father have been a ubiquitous pair on the local political scene. They have turned heads and opened eyes. They have stretched the boundaries of gender norms in the workplace. They have caused old-timers to tease Guerra mercilessly for being a new version of Mr. Mom. But they have also moved other people who are a generation older than 39-year-old Guerra to recall wistfully moments gone by when they chose work over family and missed out on time with their kids.
"I've been shocked at how often I've heard that," said Guerra.
Guerra, the son of Mexican farmworkers, who pulled himself out of poverty by working as a janitor while attending Sacramento State and then, after earning a bachelor's degree in electrical and electronic engineering and a master's in public policy, began a career shaping policy in the state legislature. He was elected to represent District 6, which encompasses Campus Commons, Sierra Oaks, Tahoe Park and Little Saigon, in 2015.
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"I just started running into people in their 50s and 60s who said to me, 'Oh, man, I regret not taking paternity leave off,'" he said. "Time goes by so quickly, I don't want to regret that."
Before going any further, let's note that Guerra isn't doing anything that working women haven't been doing for generations, balancing family, work and child-care constraints. In fact, the only woman on the Sacramento Council — Angelique Ashby — was pregnant as vice mayor, ran a City Council meeting on May 7, 2013, and gave birth two days later to her daughter, Alia.
"Two weeks after that, I was at Cesar Chavez Plaza, with my baby, at a huge rally for the Sacramento Kings," Ashby said.
"Eric is trying to be a good dad," she said. "I don't see any difference between us except that I breastfed Alia."
Guerra's choice to incorporate his son into work life was born of necessity and of difficult memories of his childhood that he didn't want his son to experience. His wife had just started a new job with Sacramento Area Council of Governments when Javier was born Nov. 12 of last year, one month earlier than expected.
"We didn't have a name and we didn't have a car seat, the two most important things you need for a baby," Guerra said.
They also couldn't get affordable child care, were stuck on numerous waiting lists behind many other new families, an experience many parents know well.
According to Child Action Inc., a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides child-care subsidies and trains child-care professionals, among other services, more than 2,000 families are on child-care wait lists in Sacramento County. Officials fear that number is probably low. Because she had just started a new job, Lokke needed to return to work. Guerra realized that without child care, he was going to have to take Javier during the day because he had more flexibility in his job and as a councilman.
"I often ask myself, would a woman have gotten the support that I've gotten?" Guerra said. Well, not everyone has the ability to tell important people: I can meet you with you, but my son has to be there, and if you have a problem with that, then we don't need to meet.
"It was all hands on deck," Guerra said. "So I've been pretty blunt in saying, 'You meet with me and my son or not.'"
Guerra was also motivated by painful memories. He was raised in the farming town of Esparto by hard-working parents who toiled in the fields with few days off. As he is doing today with Javier, Guerra's parents took young Eric to their workplaces at local farms where they picked fruits and vegetables and irrigated crops.
"My brother and I would go with my dad, and we learned how to siphon irrigation pipes," he said. "For us, what was safer? Being on a worksite or being home alone?"
As he grew older, Guerra began to work independently from his parents on the worksites. "By high school, I don't know my dad," he said. "It wasn't that he didn't want to know us. But he and my mother were working long days to keep us all alive. We lived in squalor."
As times grew tougher and his kids grew older, Guerra said, his dad's macho attitude toward his kids hardened. "It really hurt the family," he said.
Guerra didn't want to relive that experience with his son. "I wanted to get into that habit of being with my son, and I wanted my son to know he could be active in my life."
So there was Javier at conditional permit hearings and speaking engagements. Guerra found support along the way from colleagues. And he encountered some baby-inspired hilarity common to the experience of being a new parent. On the flight back from the California Democratic convention in San Diego, Javier took the biggest poop of his young life just as the plane was about to take off. "Then he fell asleep with a smile on his face," Guerra said.
At a press conference in March, he was talking about the city stepping up to help protect undocumented residents from federal immigration authorities. With uncanny timing, Javier woke up just as his dad was about to speak before the assembled cameras. The lad apparently decided that he would voice his objections to the entire proceeding. LOUDLY.
"It was stressful," Guerra said.
Last month, Guerra and his spouse got lucky — they found day care where Javier is supervised during the day. Guerra takes his son to evening events. And along with Ashby, he's working to increase the number of child care facilities in Sacramento. Because there aren't enough, and so many families are on waiting lists, child care prices are high — an average of $12,000 annually for one infant.
"That's like another mortgage," Guerra said. "A lot of middle-class families can't afford that. "
Guerra said the child-care shortage in the city is getting even worse with the recent announcement that the Lighthouse Child Development Center on the SMUD campus will close soon.
"Some families make the decision that one parent can't go back to work because child care is too expensive," Guerra said. "Then that person's career stalls and it's an economic loss for the family, and you can argue it's an economic loss for the city."
Ashby and Guerra hope to have concrete proposals for more city child care over the summer. Meantime, being with his son has been an eye-opener for Guerra. His experience proves that more men can and should do more to raise their kids. Some of the benefits can be profound.
"There is something powerful about a baby," Guerra said. "Everybody calms down. People start thinking about what the real issues are. If there is a baby in the room, you think, 'OK. This is why I am here. '''