Amy McGrath broke records with the millions of dollars she raised in her congressional bid in Kentucky. But for most of her campaign, the first-time Democratic candidate struggled to pay for one critical expense: the $15-per-hour babysitter that federal officials said she had to pay from her own pocket.
So she did what dozens of other candidates with young children do. She brought plastic cars and old puzzles to her campaign headquarters for after-school entertainment. She brought her kids to her stump speeches. And every time she was expected to attend an evening campaign event with her husband, she paid from a family budget already stretched to its limits, or she stayed at home.
All that changed for McGrath and a handful of other candidates with young children in May, when the Federal Election Commission determined for the first time ever that child care was a legitimate campaign expense — on par with polling or campaign signs.
McGrath, considered a potential future star in the Democratic Party in spite of her narrow loss to incumbent Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District, is among a handful of 2018 candidates with young children who reported child care as part of their campaign expenses.
In future years, the change is expected to increase the number of middle-class parents who take on the staggering time and financial commitments of a campaign. Because the FEC decision came just six months before Election Day, it is too early to tell if that will be the case. But the candidates who reported babysitting expenses this cycle provide the first indication of the difference it will make.
“It removes a barrier,” said Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance women’s equality and representation in American politics. “Combined with women this year putting motherhood on the front lines in a way that we haven’t seen before, this could inspire more women to run in the future.”
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McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot and mother of three, said it made a difference, even though the roughly $2,500 she spent on child care was barely a fraction of a percent of the nearly $8 million she raised.
Before launching her congressional bid, McGrath and her husband met with a financial planner and determined they could only afford to sacrifice her salary for the year and a half duration of the campaign.
“All these events that I do at night, we need a babysitter for,” she said. “That is expensive.”
The unanimous FEC decision came in response to a petition from New York Democratic candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley that had the support of Hillary Clinton and 24 members of Congress. It prompted several state ethics boards to issue similar rulings for state and local campaigns and marked one of many barriers broken in 2018 by a historically diverse and female pool of candidates, many of whom made motherhood a central part of their campaigns.
In total, nine candidates reported babysitting and child care expenses in 2018. They include Jahana Hayes, who will be sworn in next year as the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress, and Ilhan Omar,the first Somali-American and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Candidates who spoke to Roll Call about the ruling said it allowed them to attend more evening events, to bring their spouses to meet more donors, or to simply put a value on a crucial part of campaigning that often goes unrecognized and potentially level the playing field with wealthier candidates who could more readily afford to hire help.
Democrat Anita Malik, a tech executive and entrepreneur who ran in Arizona’s 6th District, said she liked bringing her two children to events. Their presence showed she had “skin in the game” and underscored her commitment to breaking stereotypes against women and young mothers, she said.
Malik delivered one of her favorite speeches holding her 3-year-old who played with her neck, but she was nevertheless grateful for more leeway to leave the kids home.
It was an additional help when her husband was hospitalized with a rare but treatable health condition that almost derailed the end of her campaign.
“I believe so firmly that if we want women to represent us, if we want moms to be up there, then we have to look at things differently,” she said.
A barrier lifted
Research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has shown child care obligations are among the biggest factors women consider when deciding whether to run for office, and voters still question whether mothers of young children can be fully committed to the job.
“It’s an example of an entrenched barrier for women,” Hunter said. “Even in the most progressive households, women tend to fall into traditional gender roles when it comes to taking care of children.”
That was the case for Grechen Shirley, a consultant specializing in women’s economic empowerment. She worked from home and took full-time care of her two children, 1 and 3, when the progressive group Square One Politics approached her about a run.
“They came and said, ‘What do you need to run right now, as you are,’” she said. “I laughed and said, ‘Child care. That is my No. 1 concern.’”
Not everyone who took advantage of the decision was a mom.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan — a leader of the House Democrats’ anti-Pelosi wing, a potential 2020 presidential candidate and father to a 4-year-old boy — was one of three male candidates on the list. An aide said Ryan needed a babysitter so he and his wife could attend campaign events together. He spent a total of $525 on three occasions.
Democrat Alan LaPolice, who ran in Kansas’ 1st District, reported child care as an in-kind contribution estimated at $2,000. That represented the time that he traveled with his wife, a Salvadoran refugee who spoke at many of his events, while his sister took care of their three children, 11, 8, and 5.
“I wanted to show the significance, the value that she brought to the campaign,” he said. “It meant a lot to me to put it on the FEC form, to show, this is my family, this is my commitment, this is what my sister did, also the cost to me of being away from my family for so long. That’s 70 hours when I wasn’t with my family.”
Of course, not every candidate who took advantage of the ruling will be going to Congress. Grechen Shirley, who petitioned for the change, was among those who lost. But she gave Republican incumbent Peter T. King his closest re-election in his Long Island district.
As she packed up her office, she filled several boxes with letters and postcards from other parents who spoke of how she had inspired them, she said. She was thrilled to hear that other candidates had followed her lead.
She hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll run again. But if she did, knowing she would be able to pay for child care would play a role.
“If you don’t have child care, you can’t run for office,” Grechen Shirley said. “It’s necessary, and it’s how you get voices at the table.”