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For Campaign Moms, Politics Is Child's Play

Courtesy William Moree
Martha McKenna and her daughter Nora rely on family members who live nearby to help keep their busy schedule on track.

Alixandria Lapp and Joanna Burgos spent months of time and millions of dollars battling over House seats, but they agree on one thing: Don’t bother calling them from 5:30 to 8:30 each night.

Lapp and Burgos are two of a growing band of mothers balancing the demands of the constant campaign with the desire to raise a family. And these mothers guard those precious hours before their kids go to bed more fiercely than a majority in Congress.

Whether these women are Democrats or Republicans, a few consistent themes emerge in each of their lives that allow them to play dual roles: a strong support structure, an encouraging and flexible work environment and close proximity to the office.

But first comes the decision to start a family.

The Decision

“You always put it off for one more cycle. There will always be an excuse,” said Burgos, 31, who had her daughter, Alicia, in January 2012, just as she was transitioning from deputy communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee to the independent expenditure unit.

But even though it was no secret that she “was dying to have kids,” it didn’t diminish her anxiety of how a pregnancy could affect her ability to do her job. “I’m a very career-oriented person. I felt like I owed the candidates, the members my attention,” Burgos said.

“It’s tough because someone makes an investment in you and then you get pregnant,” Lapp said about two-year election cycles. “Women struggle with it.”

But having a post-pregnancy plan can reassure the most encouraging colleagues.

Lapp, now 38, had her son Thomas days after the 2008 election, when she was working for a small boutique lobbying firm. It was an admittedly slower pace than her previous job at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But she started House Majority PAC, the go-to outside group for House Democrats, in the spring of 2011, when she was pregnant and she gave birth to her son Jackson that July.

Of course, childbirth doesn’t always fit neatly into the election calendar.

Democratic media consultant Martha McKenna was due to have a baby six months before Election Day 2012. But she had a miscarriage in the fall and McKenna and her husband had to decide when to try to start over.

“Marty and I had made a decision to start a family. It wasn’t about the election year,” McKenna said. “It was about our marriage and when we were ready to become parents.”

McKenna got pregnant again and gave birth to Nora in August, less than three months before Election Day. At the time, McKenna was working on congressional races through her burgeoning firm, McKenna Pihlaja, and directing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure effort, which spent more than $50 million on television ads.

Thanks to a generous parental leave policy, McKenna’s husband was able to take off work through Election Day, allowing her to return to work soon after the birth. After the elections were over, McKenna was able to slow down and spend more time with her daughter.

The Help

For many campaign moms, an engaged father, extended family and a nanny are critical to the professional equation.

Last year, Burgos moved over to run the NRCC’s IE effort and, when elections started to heat up, her husband stepped up.

“During the last two months, he was a single dad two to three nights a week,” Burgos said about her husband, Alex, the communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Without a re-election race and with four kids of his own, Rubio was an understanding boss. Meanwhile, Burgos managed more than $64 million in spending as Republicans held the House majority.

The Burgos family also has a “nanny share,” two families sharing one caregiver who often watches the children simultaneously, which can be a cost-effective solution. “She’s one of the most important people in my life,” Burgos said of her nanny.

Both parents in politics is more often the rule than the exception. Lapp is married to media consultant John Lapp, and Democratic pollster Margie Omero is married to media consultant Julian Mulvey.

“It makes them a little more understanding,” said Republican pollster Nicole McCleskey. “On the other hand, you are competing for space.” McCleskey and her husband, media consultant Jay, live in Albuquerque, N.M. She had her son, Dillon, when she was 34 years old.

The McCleskeys have a weekly scheduling meeting to coordinate travel and figure out when they need to call in reinforcements. “My family always comes first,” McCleskey said. “I plug in baseball games and school meetings first.”

And when the 2012 elections were taking her all over the country to conduct focus groups, she tried to never be gone more than one night at a time.

Extended families can also be part of the support structure. McKenna and her husband have a graduate student niece living with them, along with lots of family in the area, and Omero’s mother regularly comes down from New Jersey to help with Lucy.

Along with a supportive husband, Lapp has a mother-in-law in Arlington, Va., who can be called on at a moment’s notice. Last fall, her parents flew in from Oregon to stay with the kids while she was at the Democratic National Convention and John was working overtime in the editing bay cutting ads for his candidates. “I don’t know how anybody does it with demanding careers without a family network of help,” Lapp said.

Of course not everyone has someone to lean on, which virtually requires that a mother has advanced her career to the point where she can afford child care. And it’s important to remember that “there’s no one size that fits all,” according to one mother. But proximity is often key to sanity when time is the most valued commodity.

The Commute

Burgos’ home and office are separated by about 3 miles. DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward, 32, can get to the office in four minutes after she leaves her daughter, Emma, at home with the nanny. Much of Ward’s life is contained within a few blocks.

For another campaign mom, who preferred to talk on background to keep her family life private, her office and the kids’ schools are within a 10-block radius. “If I lived out in Reston, I’d probably slit my wrist,” she said about a potential commute to the outer suburbs.

Some families factor commuting into daily routines and aim to maximize efficiency.

The Lapps bought a Toyota Highlander. It fits their family of five and cut 20 minutes off Alixandria’s commute each way between their Falls Church home and her Georgetown office, because hybrids are allowed on Interstate 66 during rush hour. Lapp is dedicated to leaving the office by 5 p.m. to ensure that her commute is just half an hour.

Virtually all of these moms work from home in the evening after the kids are in bed, but many find it difficult during the day if the kids aren’t in school or there isn’t a nanny to watch them. “Working from the house is hard,” Lapp said, “particularly with two kids banging on the french doors.” And working from home can be challenging if you are managing people regularly or working for members of Congress.

At the office, it helps when co-workers and bosses foster a positive environment for families.“It’s important to work with people who respect families,” Burgos said. When she has to bring her daughter to the office, she won’t likely be alone. “She can play on the floor and no one minds,” Burgos said. “And sometimes she has playmates,” because it’s not unusual for her colleagues’ kids to be around, too.

The Myth

Schedules can be unforgiving and working for the campaign committees can be more demanding than the consulting world. But the key is to “make yourself as invaluable to a company as possible,” Lapp advised. “Then you’ll be in a better position to ask for flexibility” for a new family.

Either way, the only “my time” many of these mothers often get is early in the morning before the family is awake, and then it’s a sprint to get everyone ready and out the door. “By the time you sit down to work, it’s vacation,” McCleskey laughed. But these mothers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“As young women, we were told, ‘You can have it all.’ It’s a myth,” Lapp said. “There are limited hours in each day, it’s not just a matter of balance. There are just choices you have to make. We chose a path with flexibility and time to be the parents we want to be.”

“I probably won’t be the most prolific pollster in America, with the most clients, but that’s OK,” said McCleskey, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, one of Republicans’ largest polling firms. People told her that moving to New Mexico a decade ago was a poor professional decision, but she didn’t care. “You have to be comfortable with your choices,” she said.

“Is it hard? Yes,” said Omero, who also echoed the other mothers’ call to “be present, ” whether it’s at work or at home. “But no one gets from Point A to Point B without challenges.”

She said: “It’s the shared struggle and reward of having children and a career you love.”

Contributing writer Nathan Gonzales is an editor for the Rothenberg Political Report.

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