Moms Are Fighting To Use Campaign Funds For Child Care

Child care is a key barrier preventing women from seeking office. A fight is brewing to change that.
Congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, the first federal candidate to get permission to spend campaign funds on child care, takes a break from shooting her campaign ad to hug her son.
Congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, the first federal candidate to get permission to spend campaign funds on child care, takes a break from shooting her campaign ad to hug her son.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Josie Raymond only campaigned once with her daughter before she realized she had to hire a babysitter. She was in the thick of a competitive race for a Kentucky House seat, and she could easily spend all day canvassing suburban Louisville — but her toddler couldn’t.

“We got through 11 doors before she had to pee,” Raymond deadpanned.

Raymond wasn’t sure her family could afford more babysitting bills. So in July, she became the first-ever candidate in Kentucky to ask state election officials if she could pay for child care with campaign funds.

She wasn’t the only one asking. In May 2018, Liuba Grechen Shirley, a candidate for U.S. Congress in New York, won a groundbreaking ruling from the Federal Election Commission that allowed her to use campaign dollars for child care in specific, campaign-related cases.

Inspired by that victory, mothers running for office in at least seven states have pushed election officials to clarify what decades-old state campaign finance laws have to say about child care.

Politicians and election officials, who are mostly male, haven’t always been easy to sway. When Catie Robinson, a candidate for county commissioner in Texas, first raised the issue, her opponent said it would be akin to letting him use campaign funds to kennel a dog. In July, Iowa’s elections ethics board announced it couldn’t determine whether child care was a campaign expense or a personal one and that the legislature should decide. The Republican-led Iowa house rejected a proposal to permit child care expenditures this March.

In Louisiana, a member of the election ethics board implied that a female petitioner was putting political ambitions before her children and called the use of campaign funds for child care a “misplaced priority.”

And earlier this month, Connecticut’s all-male state election commission ruled against Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, who ran for a state House seat in 2018. Connecticut legislators are considering a bill to allow campaign funds to pay for child care while Pereira weighs a potential court challenge.

“If we want a government reflective of our society, we need to break down barriers for women, for mothers, for people of color seeking elected office.”

- Liuba Grechen Shirley, candidate for U.S. Congress in New York

In other places, though, mothers are making progress. The Louisiana candidate, Morgan Lamandre, appealed, and in February won the right to use campaign funds in specific, campaign-related cases. Robinson, whose opponent compared her child/children to a dog, eventually prevailed, too, in a June 2018 decision that applied to all state and local candidates in Texas. (Her opponent hailed the decision as a good thing.)

Lawmakers in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Utah have proposed legislation on campaign funds and child care. Elsewhere, groups like Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, and the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains Democratic candidates and campaign staff, are encouraging candidates to follow Grechen Shirley’s example and be the first test cases in their states, with the hope that they can greatly expand who has the ability to seek elected office.

“If we want a government reflective of our society, we need to break down barriers for women, for mothers, for people of color seeking elected office,” said Grechen Shirley, who won that first victory with the FEC.

Though she lost her race last November, Grechen Shirley now runs a political action committee, Vote Mama, dedicated to helping Democratic mothers seek office. If more women were elected to office, she ventured, “We wouldn’t be the only [developed] country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. We wouldn’t have representatives voting to take away health care protections for maternity coverage. We need people at the table who live those issues every day.”

All 50 states have their own campaign finance laws. But in general, the laws boil down to a prohibition on using campaign funds for personal expenses, said Amber Maltbie, a public policy attorney in Los Angeles. As that applies to child care, state ethics officials have generally interpreted the laws to allow campaign spending only on child care during campaign-related events.

The FEC’s ruling is even narrower and prohibits spending on child care that a candidate would require “irrespective” of their candidacy. If a person paid for child care during their day job, for example, they couldn’t run for office and send those identical daycare bills to the campaign.

Some states remain on the fence about the nature of child care. Raymond, who successfully ran for the Kentucky house in 2018, got what she calls a “tepid yes” from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. It approved her request but decided to keep evaluating child care costs on a case-by-case basis. The agency didn’t even publish its decision on its website. When a woman called Raymond to tell her of the decision, Raymond says, “She asked me, why don’t you just take your children with you?” on the campaign trail.

That remark made Raymond realize that donors might also balk if she used general contributions for child care — so she didn’t. (She plans to raise donations specifically for child care when she runs for reelection.) Raymond estimates that she could have spent between $3,000 and $5,000 on babysitters for late-night campaign events over the course of the race.

That’s enough money to prevent many parents from even considering a political run. Gayatri Agnew, a 2018 state House candidate who won the right to use campaign funds for child care in Arkansas, said she has a friend who had given up on holding elected office after becoming a single mother. Now, because of Agnew’s legal victory, her friend has begun going to candidate trainings.

The reverse is true in Connecticut, where Pereira has met several mothers who decided against a run for office because they couldn’t afford child care.

“Right now, we are severely limiting the types of voices we have running for office,” she said. “If we’re limiting who’s running for office, we’re limiting who’s in charge of making our laws. And we’ve seen what happens when the majority of candidates are men who come from money, and who run and who win. We are living in that reality right now.”

“We’ve seen what happens when the majority of candidates are men who come from money, and who run and who win. We are living in that reality right now.”

- Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, candidate for a Connecticut House seat in 2018

Child care is one of the main obstacles mothers contend with when considering whether to run for office, said A’shanti Gholar, the political director of Emerge America. Women who shoulder most of the child care or are single moms, she said, worry about their ability to balance family and the demands of the campaign trail. And when a mother finally decides she can make it work, she said, “It’s one of the first questions our candidates get: What about your kids, how is she going to handle child care once she’s in office?”

Grechen Shirley is mentoring several mothers who are running for local office in New York. She said local party operatives have asked every single one of them about who’s watching their children while they campaign.

It’s a double standard with fairly obvious downstream consequences, Gholar said. Men have a leg up on seeking office and a head start at climbing the ranks of leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has noted that her male colleagues were able to enter office decades before she did because she shouldered the bulk of child care; she didn’t even run for office until her youngest had started college. In the current Congress, according to Vote Mama, there are more than 100 fathers who have children younger than 18, but only 25 mothers.

2018 may have been the tipping point. Lamandre, Maltbie and Pereira all found historical examples of election officials in their states giving candidates — mostly men — permission to spend campaign funds on child care. But those precedents had all been forgotten until the women came along. (Robinson couldn’t find any prior examples in Texas, but she did notice that the state’s election commission had approved the use of campaign funds for official portraits and tuxedo rentals.)

Maltbie, the California attorney, tried as early as 2011 to persuade California lawmakers to introduce legislation making child care a permissible campaign expense. She was inspired after learning that Canada’s election law permits nominated candidates to spend campaign funds on child care and “domestic duties.” But she found no takers until 2018, after the FEC’s decision in favor of Grechen Shirley.

Grechen Shirley’s quest attracted overwhelming support from high-profile figures. Hillary Clinton and two dozen members of Congress wrote to the FEC in her favor. When she was uncertain about going forward with her campaign and her request, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called her to offer pep talks. Ultimately, her success allowed eight other candidates — seven mothers and one father — to use campaign funds to pay for child care, including newcomers like Rep. Jahana Hayes.

And she’s been key in convincing other women that the fight is worth having.

“I almost didn’t do it, because I assumed the answer would be no,” said Agnew. “But that’s a crappy thing to do. If we’re all doing that, assuming the answer is no, the answer will always be no.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Raymond was estimating how much child care during a campaign would cost, not how much she actually spent.

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