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Gov. Newsom’s Absence Reinforces Difficult Work-Life Balance

Gavin Newsom spent two weeks out of the public eye, then explained that he had wanted to spend time with his children. Some state lawmakers lauded the decision, while others claimed it was a violation of the public trust.

(TNS) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom's brief absence from the public spotlight this month led to wild speculation about the reasons for his low profile. But his explanation Tuesday, Nov. 9, that he wanted to spend Halloween with his four young children has sparked a deeper conversation about the difficult work-life balance of elected officials.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle jumped to the governor's defense, calling the social media fervor an example of how the modern "bloodsport" of politics has created grueling expectations on public officials juggling their official duties with the responsibilities of being a parent and partner.

"Elected officials are people too, we're moms and dads," said Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, D- Oakland, who has a 15-month-old daughter and another in preschool. "For someone to want to take a step back and spend time with their family to me is totally understandable."

Newsom said he was working in his office at the state Capitol last week, though he did not hold any public events for about 12 consecutive days after he canceled his trip to a global climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Several Democratic legislators said Newsom's break was well-earned after a series of crises have often kept him away from his children, including a global pandemic, catastrophic wildfires, racial unrest, and unprecedented drought. He also faced a recall election this year.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D- San Diego, said given the challenges he's faced, Newsom's decision to focus on family instead of traveling to the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland should have been accepted at face value.

"Maybe not every minute of politics has to be bloodsport," she said in a statement. "Maybe we could pause for a moment and respect family time as a legitimate area of focus for our governor."

Speculation over the reason for Newsom's public hiatus ran rampant after he and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, abruptly canceled their trip to Scotland late last month. His office cited only unspecified "family obligations." Newsom then held no public events last week.

Unfounded rumors about the governor's health circulated on social media, and his office repeatedly declined to discuss the nature of his family obligations.

Newsom resumed public appearances this week, with a live-streamed conversation at the California Economic Summit on Tuesday and a news conference in Los Angeles County on Wednesday to promote COVID-19 booster shots.

He said he canceled the trip because his children wanted him to stay home for Halloween. He said his children, who are between ages 5 and 12, staged "an intervention" over dinner begging him to not go a few nights before the trip. After sleeping on it, he said he realized he had become too work-focused.

"They were telling me something, and that was I need to get off that treadmill and spend time with them," Newsom said Wednesday. "I'm really pleased that I took their advice and decided to stay home."

The day after Halloween, Newsom posted photos to Instagram that showed his family dressed as pirates and carving pumpkins. This week, he said they went trick-or-treating together, joking that several couldn't sleep after they ate too much candy.

Newsom said he also attended a soccer tournament with his children last weekend and brought them into work with him last week, when he worked out of his office at the state Capitol complex.

Wicks said she can relate to the governor's experience because her eldest daughter, who is 5, often insists that her mom pick her up from school and tuck her into bed every night. Wicks typically drives home from Sacramento every day lawmakers are in session, so she doesn't miss those moments.

"Those kids, they are like the world's best lobbyists to their parents when they want to be," she said. "They don't care what job you have at all. We are their world to them."

But it's a difficult juggling act, and Wicks said that's the reason there are so few lawmakers with young children at the Capitol. Most legislators have older children, or never had them.

Wicks said she rarely misses votes, but must often skip the after-hours reception circuit that many legislators frequent. Last year, Wicks drew national attention after she brought her newborn daughter to the Capitol to vote on the last day of lawmakers' session because her request for a proxy vote was denied.

She said experiences like Newsom's and hers have been a catalyst for an important discussion about respecting the work-life balance of not just public officials, but of workers more broadly.

Wicks said having more parents in elected office is crucial because they give a stronger voice to efforts like increasing funding for childcare and early-childhood education, or measures to give working parents time off when they need it.

"My hope is that it opens up a broader conversation about what do our families need across the board in terms of better work-life balance polices," she said.

Assembly Member Kevin Mullin, D- South San Francisco, who is the father of twin toddler boys, said he also identifies with the governor's tough balancing act. "When a job takes you away from home for an extended period of time, there are key milestones with your kids that you may miss and those are moments that you never get back," he said.

Even a prominent Republican who briefly challenged Newsom in the recall, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose from Sacramento, came to his defense. Ose tweeted that he was elected to Congress when his children were 4 and 6 years old, causing him to often be away from home six days a week.

"I'd give everything I have today for two weeks with my kids at that age," he wrote. "Leave Gov. Newsom alone on this. There's plenty of other issues to debate."

Still, Newsom's extended hiatus drew a vocal chorus of criticism, including complaints that his office exacerbated speculation by initially releasing a vague statement.

Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College, said many voters are rightfully skeptical because celebrating Halloween with his children didn't require Newsom to take an extended hiatus from public events.

"It's not his most brilliant move," she said. "When you enter public life, especially at this level, you know what you're getting into. You signed up for this, so sorry not sorry. Go do your job."

Several GOP legislators publicly questioned the nature of the governor's silence. Assembly Member Kevin Kiley, R- Rocklin ( Placer County), who ran against Newsom in the recall, said the governor going "AWOL" is concerning because he hasn't lifted California's COVID-related state of emergency and continues to exercise extra executive powers.

"This isn't about the governor spending time with his kids," Kiley said. "For Newsom to claim this kind of power, exercises this kind of power, and then disappear from public view without even an explanation is a violation of the public trust."


(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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