Jenn Gray always knew that summer would be tough. As a candidate for the Alabama state House, she wouldn’t be able to take her 10-year-old daughter to campaign events, or out canvassing, or to meetings with government officials.
“I can’t just leave her in the car with a YouTube video while I run in and talk to a mayor,” said Gray, whose daughter is on the autism spectrum. “During school, I was still able to go to the luncheons and go talk to mayors and go knock on doors and make phone calls. But I knew summer was coming up.”
In May, Liuba Grechen Shirley, who’s running for New York’s 2nd Congressional District, successfully convinced the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to allow her to use campaign funds to cover her child care expenses. Shirley hailed the move as a “game changer,” and it was — for candidates seeking federal office. The ruling didn’t apply to the thousands of women, like Gray, who’ve filed to run this year for state or local offices.
Those women must still convince their own state ethics boards, legislatures, or other governing bodies to let them use campaign funds to pay for child care expenses. And in the months since Shirley’s decision, they’ve tried.
Women in Arkansas, Texas, and Wisconsin have successfully petitioned state ethics commissions to let them use campaign funds to cover child care expenses. But it’s a long, uphill battle. Similar efforts in Iowa and Connecticut have so far failed. Two more bills that would’ve changed the laws for candidates in New York City and Massachusetts remain tabled, if not dead.
“As soon as I saw that the FEC had created a window, by creating that precedent, I pushed for it as hard as I could,” Gray, 46, said. She submitted her own request to the Alabama Ethics Commission soon after the FEC handed down its decision in Shirley’s case. In early June, she drove two hours to appear in front of the commission and plead her case; Gray’s husband took the day off from work to watch their daughter.
"I would not have these two months of the summer [to campaign] if I did not get this decision. There was a week of time in between when summer started and getting the decision, and it was terrible,” Gray recalled. “I couldn’t get anything done.”
These decisions might apply to any parent who wants to run for office, regardless of gender, and advocates point out that they could help out middle-class and lower-income candidates. But women do shoulder the bulk of parenting and of work around the home. In 2016, working mothers told the Pew Research Center that they spent about 14 hours a week on child care and 18 on housework, while working fathers said they spent about 8 hours and 10 hours on each, respectively.
“Women traditionally, when they’ve run for political office, tend to wait until their kids are out of high school and their kids are grown up, precisely because of this child care issue,” explained Nichole Bauer, a Louisiana State University assistant professor of political communication.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, once told a reporter to shave 14 years off her age because she spent those years raising her children at home — and, yes, she only arrived at Congress when her youngest child was a senior in high school.
“I knew that my male colleagues had come when they were 30. They had a jump on me because they didn't have children,” Pelosi, 78, explained. “I was blessed to have that opportunity to sequentially raise my family and then come to Congress, but I wanted women to be here in greater numbers at an earlier age, so that their seniority would start to count much sooner.”
Pelosi’s wish is now coming true: More women than ever are running for office in 2018, especially young women. Statistically speaking, they’re more likely to have younger children and, thus, be worried about child care. That recent wave partially explains why the issue of campaign funds for child care is only now being addressed, nearly 100 years after women gained the right to vote and started running for office.
But it’s not the only likely reason. After the Women’s March, the rise of the #MeToo movement, and the growing emphasis on so-called “identity politics,” female politicians are increasingly, unapologetically up-front about what it means to be a woman — and often, a mom — in 2018.
“Instead of trying to fit themselves into a template of what a politician should look like, women are running as themselves,” explained Amanda Hunter, communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies women politicians.
“When women ran for office then, a lot of times women presented themselves in a way that could compete in a male-dominated arena. You can think of Hillary Clinton and wearing pantsuits,” added Gayle Alberda, a Fairfield University assistant professor of politics and public administration. “If you look at the movements post-2016, and the Women’s March, it’s basically like, ‘We’re done. We are fed up, and it’s time for a change.’”
Now, instead of playing by the old rules around campaigning, women are perhaps more willing to change them.
"I can go and knock on doors, or go to an event and speak without having to worry about having children in tow."
Catie Robinson had no idea that Shirley had petitioned the FEC when she asked the Texas Ethics Commission to let her to use money from her campaign for day care for her two children. Robinson, a former stay-at-home mom who’s running for Wichita County Commissioner Precinct 4, had started picking up shifts at Starbucks to help offset her $150-a-week child care bill. It wasn’t enough.
“I just didn’t feel like it was a personal use, when it’s something that is obviously campaign-related,” Robinson, 30, explained. “And I wouldn’t be able to campaign properly without my kids in day care.”
Texas voted in June to let Robinson tap into her campaign coffers, but not everyone thinks that candidates should be able to. Before the decision came down, Robinson’s opponent, Republican incumbent Jeff Watts, questioned why Robinson needed the money. “Let’s say I didn’t have children, and I just had a dog, and I felt like I needed to go on a campaign trip,” he told the Times Record News. “And I put my dog in a kennel for a few days. Should I use campaign funds to pay for that, or should I pay for it out of my own pocket?”
When Reyma McCoy McDeid, who heads the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living and ran for a seat in the Iowa state House, heard about Shirley’s FEC decision, she decided to petition the Iowa Ethics Campaign & Disclosure Board about the issue.
“When I submitted my request, I was cautiously optimistic that the outcome would be favorable,” said McCoy McDeid, who’s also a single mom. Still, she knew that some Iowans were skeptical: “‘Why can’t you just hire a nanny?’ I heard more often than not from people, ‘What’s the big deal?’” she recalled.
The Iowa ethics board didn’t rule on McCoy McDeid’s request until July, long after she’d lost her June 5 primary. By that point, she’d already spent about $1,200 on child care that she wouldn’t have otherwise spent. (For single moms, the barriers to running for office can be even higher than those facing their partnered counterparts.)
When the Iowa board members did consider McCoy McDeid’s request, they decided her question was better answered by the state Legislature — which is out of session. “It is not unusual for candidates to make financial sacrifices in order to run for office,” the Iowa ruling reads. “Some candidates quit their jobs or reduce their work hours in order to campaign or serve in office.”
McMoy McDeid said she’d now partnered up with a few state lawmakers to push a bill to change the law.
State ethics boards are likely concerned about how and where to draw the line between personal and campaign expenses, according to Alberda, the assistant professor at Fairfield University. If a candidate drives her own car to canvass, should the campaign reimburse her for wear and tear? “What kind of care then is needed because you’re running for office?” Alberda asked.
In some respects, the fact that the United States is only now dealing with this child care issue isn’t surprising at all. “We have no such thing as paid family leave for women who have children,” Bauer, the Louisiana State University assistant professor, pointed out. “There’s no sort of subsidized child care system. Women have been left on their own to deal with these issues.”
Without campaign-funded child care, some candidates had to get creative. Mary Wynne Kling, a 36-year-old candidate for an Alabama state House seat, originally budgeted about $600 a month for child care. She set up a Facebook group comprised of moms who’d volunteered to watch her three daughters. She agreed to sometimes share a babysitter with a friend who’s also running for office.
Even with the extra help, Kling anxiously awaited the Alabama Ethics Commission’s decision in Gray’s case. The day Gray won, Kling was in a meeting with her. “I may have jumped up and hugged her during the meeting because I was so grateful,” Kling said.
“I can go and knock on doors, or go to an event and speak without having to worry about having children in tow,” she went on, ”about my 7-year-old deciding that it’s time to go play freeze tag in the middle of Mommy trying to speak to a group of concerned voters.”
Cover image: Left: Reyma McCoy McDeid, with her daughter in Iowa (Photo by Ako Abdul-Samad); Center bottom: Catie Robinson of Texas with her family. (Photo by S. Ainsworth Photography); Center top: Jenn Gray. (Photo by Elizabeth Shannon); Right: Mary Wynne Kling with her daughters in Alabama (Photo by Bedarius Bell Jr.)