When Caitlin Clarkson Pereira was running for state representative in Connecticut last year, she says she became known for knocking on constituents’ doors with her 3-year-old daughter Parker in tow.
“She was actually my biggest cheerleader,” Pereira, who ran in Connecticut’s 132nd District, which includes the town of Fairfield, told Vox. “She would ask me every day if we were going to go knocking doors.”
But there were some events, like multi-hour meetings with her campaign manager, where Pereira couldn’t bring her daughter along. Parker’s father works full time at a job involving travel, and Pereira had to hire a babysitter. The bills started adding up.
So last July, Pereira became one of a growing number of candidates around the country to ask state election officials for permission to use campaign funds, used for such expenses as travel to campaign events, for child care. The issue gained attention at the federal level last year when Liuba Grechen Shirley, a congressional candidate from New York, successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow her to use campaign money to pay a babysitter. Officials in Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, and elsewhere have made similar decisions.
At first, state officials in Connecticut denied Pereira’s request, saying child care was a “personal” expense, comparable to paying to replace the tires on a car. But Pereira, who didn’t win her election in 2018 but plans to run again, appealed, and now Connecticut’s election commission is reconsidering her request.
For Pereira and other candidates who have made similar cases, the issue is bigger than their campaigns. Having access to child care funding “is not only about moms, or single moms, or dads; it’s also about families, it’s about the working class,” Pereira said.
Meanwhile, the issue of who cares for a candidate’s kids became part of the conversation around the 2020 presidential race last week, when candidate Beto O’Rourke was criticized for joking that he “sometimes” helps raise his three children. The remark was a reminder that some male candidates can rely on a primary-caregiver spouse in a way that many female candidates can’t. But candidates and others like Pereira hope their efforts lead to more mothers and other working parents in government. “We need different voices around the table,” Pereira said.
Around the country, candidates are winning the right to use campaign funds for child care
The issue first got national attention last May, when Shirley became the first female candidate to get permission from the Federal Election Commission to use campaign funds for child care. Twenty-four members of Congress, as well as Hillary Clinton, wrote to the FEC in support of Shirley’s request.
But the FEC ruling didn’t apply to state races. Soon, a number of state-level candidates reached out to their state election commissions to ask about child care. Pereira wrote to the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission last July. “As my husband has weeklong business trips coming up in August and the campaign will require more hours as it gets closer to the election, I am writing to inquire if it is allowable to submit receipts for the time I am paying for a sitter, if the hours are strictly tied to the campaign?” she wrote.
In August, the commission denied her request. In an opinion, a lawyer for the commission wrote that campaign funds could only be used for expenses that “directly further the candidate’s nomination for election or election to the specified office.” Child care expenses didn’t qualify, the opinion stated.
Pereira appealed, and in February, the state commission issued a draft ruling allowing privately raised campaign funds, but not public funds from Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program, to be used for child care. A number of Connecticut residents and others, including Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, submitted comments to the commission arguing that candidates should be able to use public funds for the purpose.
On Wednesday, the commission announced it would table its ruling for two weeks to discuss the issue further.
Meanwhile, other candidates around the country have won the right to use campaign money to pay for their children’s care.
Morgan Lamandre, a candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives and the mother of two young sons, made a request to her state ethics board after hearing about the FEC decision in Shirley’s case. But Lamandre told Vox she was shocked when a hearing on her case last November seemed to turn into a referendum on whether mothers should run for office at all.
“Life is full of choices,” said one male board member, according to CNN. “Nobody forces you to run for public office. But you have a child, and that is your primary responsibility, to provide for that child.”
“It just didn’t make sense,” Lamandre said.
Louisiana became one of about eight states to definitively allow the use of campaign funds for child care, according to Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. A number of other states, including California and New Jersey, are considering legislation on the issue.
The extra expense of child care during campaign events is “one of those things that make it harder for people to jump into politics,” Sinzdak said. Being able to use campaign funds for the purpose has the potential to help women and men, but it’s especially helpful to female candidates because “they disproportionately carry the burden for child care,” she explained. “It helps level the playing field.”
Changing child care rules could encourage more women to run for office
Beto O’Rourke unintentionally highlighted the gender disparity around child care last week when he told a crowd that his wife Amy was raising their three kids, “sometimes with my help.”
O’Rourke’s comment was a reminder that women often take on a disproportionate share of child care responsibilities because “that’s what society expects us to do,” Lamandre said.
But as more jurisdictions make it easier to pay child care expenses, Lamandre hopes Americans will see more kinds of candidates running.
“It allows more working parents, people who are not independently wealthy, to run for office,” she said, “and that helps us to have a reflective democracy.”
Pereira, too, is looking to the future. “If I still put my feet on the ground every morning and am excited about representing the people of Fairfield,” she said, “I will definitely be running for office again.
And her daughter is still interested in campaigning.
“I brought up one of the presidential candidates to her a couple weeks ago, and she asked if we could go to her headquarters,” Pereira said. “That made me really happy as a mom.”