The OC Register has a nice piece on Supervisor Nguyen’s new son, Thomas. Our offices are next to each other, so I do get to hear Thomas occasionally. Thomas is a heart melter, too be sure, with a wonderful full head of hair. One of my attempts at humor at a January Board meeting is included in the feature.
Supervisor Janet Nguyen juggles leadership role, new baby
By KIMBERLY EDDS THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
On the top floor of the Hall of Administration, the discussion of the county sheriff’s audit was moving along just fine until Tommy Bonikowski III threw up on the walnut table.
"This is why Mommy keeps suits in her office now," County Supervisor Janet Nguyen said, deftly wiping the mess from the table and Tommy’s shirt.
"Just in case."
Nguyen was lucky, having managed to avoid an impromptu wardrobe change. Nguyen’s staffers seated around the conference table stifled giggles. Their pressed suits and ties had also avoided catastrophe.
His baby blue Calvin Klein t-shirt wiped dry, Tommy was quickly tucked away in his stroller. Nguyen tried to roll Tommy into dreamland in his stroller while peppering her staff with questions about why a recent health fair in Centennial Park didn’t draw a large crowd.
Being a mother isn’t easy. But neither is governing a county of three million.
Nguyen is doing both, becoming the first Orange County supervisor to have a baby while in office. A daunting schedule already overbooked with meetings, civic appearances, award ceremonies, and fundraisers now includes 2 a.m. feedings, sleepless nights, and countless pediatrician visits.
"I’m still trying to recover from the lack of sleep," Nguyen said. "He’s a night person."
The easy way hasn’t exactly been Nguyen’s way.
She was five years old when her family escaped Vietnam aboard a small wooden boat with dreams of the United States and freedom. At 30, after a contentious race that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, she became the youngest Orange County supervisor ever elected. She won by three votes. Nguyen is the first Asian-American supervisor and the first woman to represent the first district.
Nguyen spent Dec. 14 presiding over what should have been her last board meeting of the year as chair. Tommy arrived the very next day.
Twelve days later she was back at the county Hall of Administration with Tommy in tow, declaring a state of emergency after severe winter storms pummeled the county, causing $36 million in damages from flooding and mudslides.
The baby pictures would have to wait.
"You are a great example to the staff that you can work up to the last day," Supervisor John Moorlach said, congratulating her on the new addition.
"It was the long board meeting that Tuesday," Nguyen joked. "He said he’s not going to do another meeting like that again."
Nguyen’s fifth-floor corner office looks over the streets of Santa Ana. The homeless and the hopeless cart their lives around on their backs. Government workers in freshly-pressed suits shuffle past. These are the streets – and the lives – she represents.
Bald eagle statues, their wings spread wide, grip American flags tightly in their beaks inside illuminated bookcases. Photographs of Nguyen shaking hands with politicians dressed in suits and campaign smiles are scattered throughout the office. There is a framed picture of Ronald Reagan, a must-have for any respectable Republican.
Then there’s the Winnie-the-Pooh rattle with dangling honey pots and stuffed bees just begging to be grabbed by tiny drool-covered hands. A baby activity gym with yellow monkeys and a polka-dotted stuffed elephant takes over the floor next to Nguyen’s executive desk. The gym, like Tommy, makes the trek from Nguyen’s Garden Grove home to the county’s Hall of Administration five times a week.
He’s the "Baby Supervisor" at board meetings. At Orange County Transportation Authority, where Nguyen sits on the Board of Directors, he’s nicknamed "Little Director.
Tommy doesn’t vote. He hasn’t said his first word yet. He is, after all, only four months old. But his absent vocabulary doesn’t keep him from being the center of attention.
What he lacks in political skills, he makes up for in baby talk that draw coos from even the most reserved lobbyists. And his uncontrollable laughter has forced Nguyen to the sidelines of OCTA meetings – rolling Tommy back and forth in his stroller.
Governing isn’t always quick – and Board of Supervisors meetings rarely fall in step with Tommy’s hunger pains.
Nguyen slips out of meetings to run upstairs to her office to breastfeed and then back to the board room to argue over strategic financial plans for the county or banning registered sex offenders from parks.
Tommy’s already been held up as a shining example of civic duty – having received his vaccinations, including whooping cough, in a timely manner. The picture of health: age – three months.
His first parade was in his mother’s arms, held like a congratulatory bouquet of roses, while she walked down the street, waving during February’s Tet parade. Her husband Tom Bonikowski, Jr., a former Garden Grove planning commissioner, was at her side. Bonikowski, who works full-time in the food services industry, gave up his commission spot after their son was born. The lives of two politicians turned parents proved to be too much to schedule around– for now.
Baby Tommy attended his first political fundraiser – Supervisor Pat Bates’ annual St Patrick’s Day event. He was given his own nametag – just to make sure everyone knew who he was.
As if anyone could forget.
Nguyen admits she is lucky.
There is no county day care center. Other county employees have to navigate their own way to finding a safe place to leave their little ones while they are at work. Tommy goes where Nguyen goes.
It wasn’t until Nguyen was pregnant – and it was obvious – that female county employees started asking her about a county daycare center. Maybe it was something about the pregnant belly – or that these mothers knew just how much Nguyen’s world was about to change – that made her approachable about the idea.
The county public defender’s office said they were hiring talented young women only to see them leave after a few years when they had children because there was no county daycare, Nguyen said.
"I didn’t think about it before," Nguyen said. "It didn’t affect me and it didn’t even cross my mind, but now I’m living it. I understand."
Nguyen asked for a survey on the need for a county daycare center. More than 5,000 of the roughly 18,000 county employees responded. Compare that to a survey on the county’s $266 million computer upgrade- 300 responses.
Now Nguyen is drafting a proposal for a county daycare center. Parents would pay for the service, but the county would provide the facility and contract with the operator. The idea has been rejected in the past, but there wasn’t a working mother on the board to champion the idea.
"If your employees are happy, the productivity is there," Nguyen said. "We want to keep them moving up and be happy, not leaving."
Back on the Fifth Floor, Nguyen was rolling Tommy back and forth in a stroller while reviewing the latest version of a county ordinance with her staff.
"And the lobbyist ordinance is back – again," said one of Nguyen’s staffers.
Little Tommy stuck out his tongue.
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FIVE-YEAR LOOK BACKS
Sometimes you can be so close, and so loyal, (or maybe so manipulated) that you miss it. This letter writer to the Sunday edition of the OC Register got it.
What is it that Chriss Street has that commands the endorsement of O.C. Treasurer/Tax Collector John Moorlach and three current supervisors? I do not see anything in Street’s handling of the Freuhauf (sic) trailer bankruptcy that would make me want him as our next treasurer/tax collector.
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