Gavin Newsom plans to turn Schwarzenegger’s Capitol smoking tent into a kids’ playground

As Gavin Newsom’s team prepared for him to take office last fall, Ann O’Leary brought her two children with her to work. The governor’s new chief of staff put 12-year-old Violet in charge and stepped into a meeting.

Soon, Violet knocked on the door with news about her 9-year old brother.

“‘Mommy, Emmett’s sick, and he lost his retainer in the toilet,’” O’Leary recalls her daughter saying. “Luckily, everyone in the meeting was very nice about it. I did what only a mother would do and saved the retainer.”

As parents themselves, O’Leary and Newsom are taking steps to make kids a priority in the governor’s office both in their own workplace and in the policies they promote.

Last week, for example, Newsom declared he’d exempt diapers from California sales tax and promoted a revised state budget that doubles tax credits for low-income families with young children.

And, behind the scenes, his staff is turning the courtyard at the center of his Capitol office into a playground. That’s the same spot in the governor’s horseshoe-shaped office that Arnold Schwarzenegger turned into a cigar-smoking tent and Jerry Brown used for a dog run.

O’Leary said the idea came out of discussions she had with Newsom and his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

“When Arnold Schwarzenegger was here, he famously had the smoking den,” O’Leary said, gesturing to the courtyard outside her office window. “We’re going to create more of a playground space out there and opportunity for kids to feel like this is their horseshoe as well.”

O’Leary and other moms serving as senior staff sat down for an interview with The Sacramento Bee last week as Gavin Newsom promoted his revised 2019-20 budget and its funding for young families. It would increase spending on child care, family tax credits and early education programs.

He’s echoed that theme throughout the early months of his administration, describing his experience as a father of four young children to explain decisions like ending sales taxes on diapers.

“It’s an issue that, had you not had kids, perhaps you can intellectualize it,” he said. “But, boy, I can tell you no matter how well you’re doing it hits the pocketbook.”

His proposed budget also expands the state’s six week of paid family leave by two additional weeks per parent. Eventually, Newsom says he wants to extend the program to six months.

Some of the moms in his administration said they took their jobs explicitly to promote family friendly policies.

As the governor’s early childhood adviser Giannina Pérez advocated for funding home visits in the budget. That will pay for nurses to visit new parents at home, something Pérez said she didn’t understand before becoming a mom.

“I didn’t fully appreciate how tough it is to be a new mom,” she said. “If you don’t have the resources, if you don’t have the family, if it’s all very new to you and you don’t have someone there holding your hand to say it’s OK… I never would have appreciated what home visiting was before.”

Pérez joined the governor’s office after consulting part-time for an early education nonprofit. Before being offered the job, she said she didn’t think she could work full-time and still raise her 8-year-old son.

“Before that, I thought I could only work part time,” she said. “When I met the governor, I don’t even know what I said… I went around the corner and I started crying.”

Newsom’s chief deputy legal affairs secretary Ann Patterson commutes from Washington D.C. most weeks, but took a red-eye flight home last month so she didn’t miss her 9-year-old Chloe’s debut as a Who in Seussical, a musical based on Dr. Seuss books.

It’s a big change from working in a law firm, where Patterson said women are discouraged from talking about child care responsibilities.

“You’re guided to never tell a client and never tell anyone you’re working with that you’re leaving to take care of kids or family because you’ll be judged as not committed,” she said. “Coming here it’s completely transformative.”

Moms who work in the governor’s office say they’re aware that other women in California don’t enjoy the same flexibility.

“I would have been fired so many times if I was a low-wage worker,” she said, recalling times she had to take off work to care for a sick kid. “You’re given an opportunity like this and you think I have to do as much good for everyone else because of what I got.”

She pointed to money in the budget to help low-income parents afford child care. She said she pushed to include that funding after talking to a woman who said she needed to turn down a job offer because she couldn’t afford to put her kids in daycare.

Kids are leaving a mark on the Governor’s Office, too.

Maricela Rodriguez, who works in the governor’s communications office, said her 5-year-old Joe was a popular guy when she brought him to work. Her colleagues were eager to meet him and offered him snacks as they walked through the horseshoe.

She’s looking forward to the administration redesigning the space for kids, so it doesn’t feel like the type of workplace where kids have to sit in a corner and be quiet.

“Kids know when they feel welcome,” Rodriguez said. “That’s going to make a world of difference if they feel like this is their place too.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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