Has anything better illustrated the necessity of child care than the pandemic?
“This pandemic should really teach people: Child care is infrastructure,” she added. “It’s utterly critical to our economy.”
The founder of The Vote Mama Foundation, which supports mothers running for public office, Grechen Shirley has been pushing that theme since 2018. That year, she unsuccessfully challenged US Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, but became the first candidate to win the right to pay for child care with campaign funds. Ever since, both men and women who run for federal office have been allowed to pay for child care through their campaign funds — the money they raise from political contributors that supports all their campaign bills, from TV ads to brochure printing to volunteers’ pizza.
Activists argue campaigns require candidates to work long nights and weekend hours when constituents are accessible — and that expensive child care creates a barrier of entry for aspiring politicians who don’t have unlimited money to pay for care on their own.
Without changes to campaign finance law, they say, those who run for office will always be those who can afford to do so — disproportionately male, privileged, and older candidates who may not be able to relate to the home-life needs of their constituents.
“We need people who get these issues because it’s actually their lived experience,” Grechen Shirley said, noting that a majority of members of Congress are millionaires. “They don’t understand the struggles. The people that they hear from are the people who have the money to lobby them.”
Since the Federal Election Commission ruled that Grechen Shirley could use campaign funds, child-care costs have become an allowable campaign expense in 19 states, according to the Vote Mama Foundation.
But not in Massachusetts.
Here, a 2017 bill that would have expanded campaign finance law to allow for campaign-specific child-care expenses stalled. Some legislators expressed discomfort after their constituents howled: Is this a baby-sitting perk?
So the bill, which became a top priority of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women when it was reintroduced in 2019, was set aside and a Special Commission on Family Care and Childcare Services was empaneled to study the idea. The commission began meeting last winter, but its anticipated September report has been pushed back by the pandemic.
Proponents say they had to work through some details, such as where to draw the line between a campaign event and a work event or how to handle child-care payments if only half the day is spent on campaign activities.
But those pushing for the change think it is bafflingly simple. Campaign finance law already allows for some unusual expenses — including renting or buying a tuxedo or gown to wear to a campaign event. Could a candidate expense a tuxedo for a campaign gala, but not pay for the baby sitter hired for the same night?
“I don’t see where the complications are,” said Sam Hammar, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2018 when her twins were 6 years old. “If other people can do it, I’m certain we can figure it out here.”
Impatient with the pace of change, Hammar is accelerating it on her own. The cofounder of Run En Masse, a group of technology professionals and progressive activists aiming to make government more representative, she created a nonprofit care fund to pay candidates' child-care providers directly.
“These candidates and their staff should not have to pay for child and dependent care out of their own pockets,” said Hammar.
Michelle Mullet, a first-time candidate challenging longtime Republican minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. in North Reading, is the first in the general election to take advantage of it.
A stay-at-home mother, Mullet saw her fledgling campaign rocked when the pandemic shut down schools. Her children, in first and third grades, are now doing remote learning at home, where she also cares for her elderly father-in-law.
Run En Masse’s care fund is now supporting consistent child-care hours for Mullet so that she can also campaign.
“It’s made a huge difference,” said Mullet, who previously relied on her neighbor’s goodwill for occasional help.
Jones said he’s fine with child-care costs being allowable campaign expenditures, though he noted the original bill did not sort out potentially thorny particulars, such as when campaign season begins for incumbents and whether a family member can be compensated for child care.
Mullet is optimistic that campaign finance law will be changed, though she’s not sure it will happen soon.
“Honestly that’s why we need more female leadership,” said Mullet. “We’re the ones looking at life through that lens and living that reality.”