This week, it got a bit easier for working parents—and working mothers especially—to run for federal office.
On Thursday, the Federal Election Commission ruled that M. J. Hegar, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, can spend campaign funds on child care for her two kids while she’s running for office. The ruling builds on the FEC’s determination last year that Liuba Grechen Shirley, who at the time was running for a House seat in New York, could do the same.
The reason these two women sought the FEC’s blessing is that campaign-finance laws prohibit candidates from drawing from their own political stockpiles for “personal use,” and legally, it wasn’t clear whether child-care expenses associated with campaigning fell under that category. Now, whether candidates have to take on child-care costs in order to run (as Grechen Shirley did) or keep paying for child care as they already had been (as is the case with Hegar), they can cover those expenses knowing that they aren’t running afoul of federal regulations.
In the context of campaign budgets that can run into the millions of dollars, child care may seem like a small cost. But these FEC decisions can provide serious financial relief to candidates who aren’t independently wealthy.
“I would not have been able to continue my campaign without that ruling,” Grechen Shirley, who now runs Vote Mama, a political-action committee that supports female candidates with young kids, told me. She said that during her campaign, when she and her husband were living on only his salary, they wouldn’t have been able to afford a babysitter on top of her student-loan payments, a mortgage, and monthly bills.
Grechen Shirley said she knows of candidates who covered their expenses by withdrawing from their retirement accounts or taking out second mortgages. “Being able to use your campaign funds on child care is one huge structural change that really made a difference and that broke down barriers for working parents to run,” she said.
Elise Chor, a professor of political science at Temple University, said that the FEC’s ruling on Grechen Shirley’s request last year represented a “big step forward,” but also reflected the uneven distribution of child-care responsibilities. “The fact that male candidates do not generally request to use campaign funds to cover child-care expenses reflects the fact that they have not traditionally served as their children’s primary caregivers,” she wrote to me in an email. “It is only now that more women are running that this issue emerged.”
Still, the job of campaigning remains extremely family-unfriendly, FEC rulings or not. In terms of work-life balance, “the candidate’s always going to be struggling, because they need to be out there—they’re the person,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “They need to be at the night events and the morning breakfasts and all of that.”
Grechen Shirley laid out the harrowing schedule she adhered to while running for office: On a typical day, she’d cold-call potential donors—a joyless, unending activity she refers to as “call time”—from 9 a.m. till 2 p.m., take a roughly 90-minute break with her kids, and then resume work into the night, putting in more call time and making appearances at schools, churches, civic associations, and the like. Some days, she said she’d be lucky to get four or five hours of sleep. “For the average working person to take a year or a year and a half off of their life, and not take a salary but work pretty much 24/7, it’s fairly impossible,” she said.
These FEC rulings make life less stressful for candidates such as Grechen Shirley and Hegar, but publicizing the grind of being a working parent can be politically advantageous too. “What this allows these women candidates to do,” Dittmar said, “is give another example of how they may have pushed the boundary when it comes to gender equity or, in this case, equity more broadly, for parents of young children … You’ve proven that this is one system in which you’ve made that change, and you could do similar things if you got into Congress.”