A male politician carrying his baby son into constituent meetings, zoning negotiations, fundraisers, news conferences, neighborhood associations, 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, 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 moments gone by when they chose work over family and missed out on time with their children. “I’ve been shocked at how often I’ve heard that,” said Guerra.
Guerra, the son of Mexican farmworkers, pulled himself out of poverty by working as a janitor while attending Sacramento State. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering and a masters in public policy, he began a career shaping policy in the Legislature.
“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.”
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 breast-fed 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 a 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 and were stuck on numerous waiting lists, 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.
“I often ask myself, would a woman have gotten the support that I’ve gotten?” Guerra said. “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 hardworking 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 work places 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 work site or being home alone?”
As he grew older, Guerra began to work independently from his parents. “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.”
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.
“Some families make the decision that one parent can’t go back to work because child care is too expensive,” he 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 proposals for more city child care. In the meantime, being with his son has been an eye-opener. His experience proves that more men can and should do more to raise their children. “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.’ ”