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The woman aiming to unseat Rep. Peter King had to win a fight over child care first

Liuba Grechen Shirley blazed a trail for moms running for office. Can she beat a 25-year incumbent?

Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is running for Congress against Rep. Pete King, with her son on July 24, 2018.
Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is running for Congress against Rep. Pete King, with her son on July 24, 2018.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Two years ago, Liuba Grechen Shirley had no plans to run for office. Now she’s challenging Rep. Peter King (R-NY) — and making election history as the first woman to get Federal Election Commission approval to use campaign funds for child care expenses.

King, a 25-year incumbent in New York’s second district, hasn’t faced a serious challenge in years. But as Lisa Foderaro noted in the New York Times, this year, “nothing in politics is sacred, and anything is theoretically possible — especially in New York.” Three election forecasters recently bumped up Shirley’s chances of winning the Long Island district, with FiveThirtyEight giving her 2 in 7 odds, and she picked up an endorsement from the New York Times editorial board.

Shirley, a former consultant specializing on women’s economic empowerment, went from liberal activist to congressional candidate after leading a protest against King’s support of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Today she’s running on a platform of Medicare-for-all, gun safety, and a $15 federal minimum wage — and she hopes to become one of relatively few parents of young children in Congress.

Earlier this year, she gained national attention when the FEC granted her permission to use campaign funds to pay a babysitter to care for her children, ages 2 and 4, while she worked on her campaign. (Her husband also works full-time.) Shirley spoke with Vox about what the FEC’s decision meant for her family and for other parents running for office, about her unconventional path to the candidacy, and about the wave of candidates she’s excited to be part of this year.

Anna North

How did you decide to run for Congress?

Liuba Grechen Shirley

Running for office is not something I thought I was going to do. After the election, I reached out to my local Democratic Party, and a lot of local elected officials, and I wanted to know what I could do. Nobody got back to me.

I ended up starting an Indivisible group. The group grew to 3,000 people across the district, and then Peter King came out in support of the Muslim ban. When I asked if he would hold a town hall, he told me no, that a town hall would diminish democracy. I ended up organizing a town hall — hundreds of people showed up and King didn’t. I have a 6-foot cardboard cutout of Peter King in my attic from that town hall now.

He’s been in office since I was 12, and has consistently voted to hurt people in this district, and I’ve just had enough.

Anna North

You got national attention earlier this year for winning the right to use campaign funds for child care. Why was that so important for your family?

Liuba Grechen Shirley

It’s really, really difficult to take a year off of your life with no salary and somehow manage to pay your school loans and your mortgage and your taxes. That’s the very real reason why we have so many millionaires in Congress. Almost half of our representatives are millionaires. Only one in 10 of them even owe school loans. We need to make sure that we have a government that’s actually reflective of our society.

I wasn’t able to pay for child care on top of everything else. For the first six months of our campaign, I had my children with me every day until 3:30. My mom is a public school teacher; she’d come home at 3:30 and take them then, but I would literally be making phone calls, I’d be at meetings with a baby strapped to my chest.

Anna North

What are the implications of the FEC’s decision for female candidates in general?

Liuba Grechen Shirley

It’ll change the way that people run for office. We’ve already seen women in seven different states put in similar requests with their state election commissions, and in many cases it’s been approved.

The only way to have a more equitable society is to have more voices at the table. We need more voices of women, we need to have people of color, we need to have people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. We have a lot of wealthy, old, white men making decisions for the rest of us without understanding what it’s like to worry about paying for child care. When we start to have more parents in office — parents of young children, both moms and dads — you’ll start to have the conversation about having quality affordable child care for everyone. You’ll start to have the conversation about how to to get paid family leave.

One in four women will go back to work 10 days after giving birth. That’s a public health crisis, it’s a human rights crisis, but it’s also an economic crisis. If we had similar labor force participation rates to countries like Canada or Germany that have paid family leave and quality affordable child care, we would have almost $500 billion more in the US economy.

Anna North

We’re hearing a lot about 2018 being a second “year of the woman.” Do you think we’ll see a wave of women candidates winning their elections on Tuesday?

Liuba Grechen Shirley

I do, and I think it’s not just that there so many female candidates, it’s that there are so many working Americans who are running for office this year — so many people who don’t come from political families, don’t come from wealthy families, haven’t run for office before.

We’ve got so many veterans, so many teachers and nurses and doctors. People have finally said, I’ve had enough of career politicians, I’m going to run for office and I’m going to make a difference. Everybody keeps talking about this blue wave and this pink wave — that’s the wave I’m excited to be part of.

Anna North

If you win next week, what’s the first thing you’ll do when you take office?

Liuba Grechen Shirley

Fight for improved and expanded Medicare-for-all. We’re the wealthiest nation in the world and we should not have people who are dying because they can’t pay for their medicine and can’t afford to see a doctor.

Anna North

And if you don’t win, what’s the first thing you’ll do on November 7?

Liuba Grechen Shirley

Take a nap, and spend a lot of time with my children.

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