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States’ Campaign Spending Proposals Could Help Level the Playing Field for Working Parents

A May FEC decision allowing federal candidates to spend campaign funds on childcare could make running for office significantly more accessible for parents. But its impact will be limited — so candidates and lawmakers are proposing reforms at the state and local levels.

  • Shyamala Ramakrishna
August 9, 2018

In May, the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion ruled that federal candid­ates may use campaign funds to pay child­care expenses incurred while campaign­ing. That decision promp­ted comment­ary about the poten­tial bene­fits for parents, espe­cially women, who want to run for office. But as an earlier Purchas­ing Power piece noted, a federal rule alone will not help a large number of candid­ates. Pending state and local reforms that echo the FEC decision would create many more oppor­tun­it­ies for non-wealthy parents to enter elect­oral polit­ics.

At least eight such child­care spend­ing propos­als — some already success­ful — evince a grow­ing public under­stand­ing of finan­cial barri­ers to public office. These meas­ures could help turn the tide in favor of a more access­ible polit­ical system and maybe even more diverse options for voters at the ballot box.

Last year in Massachu­setts, legis­lat­ors in both houses intro­duced a bill that would mirror the FEC ruling for state legis­lat­ive candid­ates. This year, New York State Senator Linda Rosenthal sponsored a similar bill, and two New York City Coun­cil members intro­duced a proposal that would do the same for muni­cipal candid­ates.

Demands for approved child­care spend­ing have come from candid­ates them­selves. Candid­ates in Alabama, Arkan­sas, Iowa, Texas, and Wiscon­sin directly peti­tioned their state ethics boards for formal rulings or opin­ions — and all but Iowa said yes.

The partic­u­lar candid­ates behind these demands indic­ate the complex­ity of socioeco­nomic factors — lack of personal wealth, single parent­hood, member­ship in a racial minor­ity — that may discour­age a run for office. Iowa peti­tioner Reyma McCoy McDeid, then a state House candid­ate before her loss to Heather Matson in the primary, is a single mother with autism and was the only nonin­cum­bent Black candid­ate for the Iowa Legis­lature this year. She had expec­ted to spend four figures on child­care if she had made it through the primary elec­tion. Matson, also a mother, had voiced support for McDeid’s peti­tion.

The recent discourse about child­care barri­ers to running for office raises import­ant ques­tions for further study. It makes sense that current candid­ates would bene­fit from being able to pay for child­care with campaign funds. But to what degree might such reforms draw in candid­ates from under­rep­res­en­ted constitu­en­cies who never before would have considered running? Would more funda­mental reforms to reduce finan­cial barri­ers to elec­ted office — like small donor-based public finan­cing — attract still more new candid­ates and offer voters a greater diversity of choices?

Consider the recent surge in campaigns spear­headed by younger women and candid­ates of color, evid­ent in states where child­care spend­ing propos­als have become a topic of conver­sa­tion. In Iowa, where the state ethics board just denied McDeid’s peti­tion, a record 99 women have run for statewide, congres­sional, or state legis­lat­ive seats this year. Run for Some­thing, a nonprofit that enlists and trains first-time candid­ates under 35, has endorsed more than 40 state and local candid­ates in the seven states with child­care propos­als, more than half of whom are women.

A new data­base of Black women in polit­ics, main­tained by comment­ator Luvvie Ajayi, shows 153 Black women running for office in the six states where child­care spend­ing propos­als have emerged. These numbers indic­ate a groundswell of interest among women of color in running for state and local office this year. Some of the most prom­in­ent in their ranks have made finan­cial barri­ers to entry a key focus.

“One of the largest imped­i­ments for women running for office, partic­u­larly women of color, is the abil­ity to raise money,” said Stacey Abrams, the Geor­gia gubernat­orial candid­ate who speaks openly about her personal debt and other finan­cial barri­ers she had to over­come to mount her high-profile campaign.

More compre­hens­ive research and data would help reformers better under­stand how campaign finance regu­la­tions can perpetu­ate — or dismantle — finan­cial barri­ers to elec­ted office. We already have some inform­a­tion: A recent Stan­ford study links early fundrais­ing with success in primary elec­tions and shows that wealth­ier candid­ates’ profes­sional networks often provide key start-up funds. We can also name gate­keep­ers: The Reflect­ive Demo­cracy Campaign, a research arm of the Women Donors Network, reports that major polit­ical parties and outside spend­ing groups give vastly more finan­cial and logist­ical support to white male candid­ates. But we need to get to the core of gender, race, and age dispar­it­ies in elec­ted office and ask to what extent personal wealth, finan­cial networks, and family respons­ib­il­it­ies affect those numbers. We could study how finan­cial barri­ers — includ­ing lack of access to child­care for candid­ates with primary parent­ing duties — reduce candid­ates’ abil­ity to spend time court­ing constitu­ents and donors, cause them personal finan­cial hard­ship, and ulti­mately keep some of them from winning. At the least we might revisit the 2004 study by former Geor­getown polit­ical scient­ist Sue Thomas that showed that female state legis­lat­ors remained primar­ily respons­ible for child­care and house­hold duties, even after assum­ing public office.

The mech­an­ics of access and repres­ent­a­tion are tough to fix. But, as schol­ars point out, expressly draw­ing into the public discourse the dispar­it­ies of wealth and other priv­ilege that work­ing parents and others face can help break down barri­ers. These state and local child­care spend­ing propos­als could begin to change the public conver­sa­tion about women’s polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion and provide a real step over one hurdle.

Shyamala Ramakrishna is a Research & Program Asso­ci­ate at the Bren­nan Center. Under­gradu­ate intern Jaya Aiyer contrib­uted research to this piece. 

Purchas­ing Power: The Conver­sa­tion

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed comment­ary, fresh ques­tions, and new answers about the facts of money in polit­ics. Dive in to 'Purchas­ing Power: The Conver­sa­tion’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contrib­ut­ors are the authors’ own and not neces­sar­ily the views of the Bren­nan Center.