The Case for Using Campaign Funds for Childcare: A Former Virginia Candidate’s Story

In 2019, I ran for Virginia’s state senate. I am a mom of two children and at the time, they were ages 10 and five. At the height of the campaign, my youngest started Kindergarten and my oldest began a new school in fifth grade. During most of the campaign, I was working full-time. Consequently, my children were in after-school care, private preschool, and summer camps that we paid for out of pocket. However, in late August, it was apparent that if I were going to have a chance at winning, I needed to take an unplanned, unpaid leave of absence from my job and work full-time on the campaign. This also meant that I could no longer afford childcare and needed to balance being a full-time mom with being a full-time candidate. 

I am one of many moms who have run for office and could have benefited greatly from using my campaign funds towards childcare expenses. Yet, in many states, this is not the law. In fact, in Virginia, one can legally use campaign funds towards many personal expenses – like buying office supplies or meeting your campaign staff at a local coffee shop – yet, it’s frowned upon to use those same funds for childcare for minor children. This unspoken expectation directly and disproportionately impacts mothers seeking political office. 

As the national Programs Director with ReflectUS, a Coalition of the nine leading women’s representation organizations, we are collectively building a movement to remove such systemic barriers that inhibit women from seeking elected office. Through our “From the Ground Up” state network, the ReflectUS Coalition is particularly focusing on the barriers to elected and appointed office facing working-class women. If being a candidate without childcare support is difficult for women candidates with economic resources and familial support, it is nearly impossible for women without those support systems. In Virginia, childcare costs are among the most expensive in the country. Additionally, families across the U.S. pay an average of $847 to $990 per month per child, depending on age. Hence, childcare is a substantial expense for most families’ budgets. Fortunately, local and state organizations are responding to this injustice.

ReflectUS has partnered with Virginia Organizing and the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Both of these organizations are advocating for systemic changes to eliminate the barriers to political participation and threats to representative democracy. As a result of these and other efforts, such as the incredible initiative of VoteMama Foundation and ongoing systemic change work of ReflectUS Coalition member RepresentWomen, among others, Virginia was poised to pass House Bill 1952 (HB1952) before the end of the 2021 session in February. The bill, which has been re-referred to a Senate committee after passing unanimously in the House of Delegates, clarifies that candidates may not use campaign funds for personal expenditures, with one exception – paying for childcare while campaigning.   

Naming childcare as an allowable campaign expense is an important part of this legislation, and a step in the right direction. One of the leading national advocates on this issue, VoteMama founder and CEO Liuba Grechen Shirley, talks often about creating a new norm of childcare as a campaign expense for parents running for office. She states: 

“I petitioned the Federal Election Commission and became the first woman in history to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on childcare. This decision paved the way for working parents to run for office.”

HB1952 ultimately failed this year. Had it passed, this legislation would have created an explicit understanding that support for childcare is an acceptable campaign expense. This bill, and acceptance that candidates need to pay for childcare to effectively run for office, would have been incredibly helpful for me as a candidate and would greatly reduce one of the barriers for women running for office. Unfortunately, only a handful of states have passed legislation allowing the use of campaign funds for childcare expenses. 

When I ran for office, it became clear to me that in order for us to move towards a representative democracy, our society must normalize motherhood. Many voters, for instance, did not want to be reminded that I was a mom of small children with real needs – they wanted the young family campaign aesthetic without the realities of parenting. I am convinced this internalized and subtle sexism is the reason paying for childcare with campaign funds is often disparaged. This reality is confirmed by the way our society has pushed women to the side during the COVID-19 crisis. As Melinda Gates notes, “Here in the U.S., one in four women has already considered downshifting her career or leaving the workforce altogether because of new caregiving responsibilities at home.”

Normalizing childcare expenditures as part of political campaigns is a good start to making elected office more accessible for more women in diverse circumstances. ReflectUS is working towards breaking down these barriers, and I’m proud to be on the forefront of this movement. 

Amanda Pohl is the Programs Director for ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.

We Can Do Hard Things

We Can Do Hard Things

In 2019, I ran for the Virginia State Senate. It was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. As a first-time candidate, I was also balancing being a mom of two elementary school-aged children, being a wife, serving as a deacon in my church, serving as the National President of Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc., and working full-time (while also teaching graduate classes part-time). Every day after work, I spent hours on the phone calling potential donors, most of whom I had never met, and every weekend, I walked the district knocking on doors of voters to talk to them about the issues. I am not sure how I would have managed this without the support of my family and friends. Looking back, it sometimes feels as if that was another woman who managed all those priorities and responsibilities. 

I ran a competitive primary, working to gain traction against a long-standing incumbent.  I succeeded in raising the profile of my district and cutting the vote spread by nearly 19 points from the previous election. Even though I did not ultimately win the race, I had a core group of people who supported my family and me. In fact, one friend constantly reminded me, “You can do hard things.” – a motto my family embraced during long canvassing days in 2019 and has carried forward into the global pandemic of 2020.

Thinking about it now, “doing hard things” feels like the central theme of 2020. In 2020, my kids are struggling to figure out virtual school and all their assignments while missing the in-person connection with friends and family. We’ve had severe illnesses and deaths in my family this year. I know it’s not just my family – families everywhere are feeling the pain, some much more than others due to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on different communities. As I consider that 2019 was a year of instability for my family as we all worked to accomplish an enormous feat, I am in absolute awe of the women who are running for office in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, and knocking it out of the park! 

Current candidates Alexsis Rodgers and Dianne Morales, for instance, are running to be the next mayors of their cities, both served as directors of nonprofit organizations. Recently both spoke to ReflectUS on what it’s like to run for office during the pandemic. Their insights are reflected in our issue brief “Lessons from Campaigning in the Time of Covid-19: Women Candidates and the Challenges They Face.”  These women see 2020 as a historic year for campaigns and are embracing campaigning amid a global pandemic as the “new” normal. ReflectUS also spoke with city council candidates Vanessa Fuentes and Esmerelda Cortez and state legislative candidates Jasmine Crockett (who recently won her campaign and is now representative-elect) and Jessica González-Rojas (who recently won her five-way primary). All the women we interviewed are emblematic of the countless women around the country on both sides of the aisle running in the era of COVID-19. They have a similar, unifying message: 

They knew they needed to step up and run for political leadership, and they are up for the challenges that COVID-19 presents because their communities need compassionate, strong leaders, now more than ever

Women candidates are “doing the hard things” in campaigning so they can change systems and policies to improve the lives of their families, friends, and communities – which some would say is the greatest challenge of all. 

The challenges I faced in running for office – finding childcare for my kids while I made calls, raising money, getting volunteers active and energized for change, managing a full team, and doing it all while continuing my “normal” work life – are amplified in the COVID-19 pandemic. There are few, if any, childcare options available right now for those women seeking public office, but even if childcare were available, many states still do not have rules or allowances for campaign fund use for these expenses. It was only through the work of Liuba Gretchen Shirley, a candidate for Congress in 2018 who now supports moms running for office through her organization VoteMama, that federal candidates can use their campaign funds for this purpose. During this time of health crisis, familial support is even more complicated.  Reliance on grandparents and other family members, for instance, can no longer be assumed as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable doing these times. Hence, the support systems I relied upon to be able to survive the “hard times”are just not there for women running in 2020. The days when I had no help, when I had to make fundraising calls while trying to keep my kids occupied and on track with their school work, were the hardest. If a candidate has kids who are in virtual school now, that’s an additional barrier – how can you parent, campaign, and fundraise all at the same time? To say it’s exhausting is an understatement.

Campaigning in 2020 is also fundamentally different. Most candidates are not knocking on doors in the community or holding large fundraising events. In 2019, if I gave a particularly moving speech at an event, it was reflected in donations from those who heard me. The more money I raised, the less time I had to be on the phones asking for money and the more time I could spend talking directly to voters. While my team valued digital organizing and it was well-integrated into the campaign, it was not the foundation of our organizing plan. In 2020, digital organizing is considered the primary way (and in some instances, the only way) to reach voters. Texting and phone call programs are more active now than ever before. 

Recently, ReflectUS had an excellent conversation with Dr. Anne Moses, ReflectUS Board member and CEO and Founder of IGNITE National during our Fireside Chat Series.  We learned that younger women are running for office up and down the ballot now more than ever before.  They are having success in the time of COVID-19 because they are experts in digital organizing. Young women have been doing digital organizing their entire lives, and know how to get people engaged. Young women are fired up this year and are leaning into their own power. Yet, they also face crushing economic instability with an unstable job market. Consequently, they’re figuring out how to navigate the political world while grappling with harsh economic realities. 

Prior to the pandemic, campaign life for women was hard. Now, the intensity has only increased. Thankfully there are organizations and groups of committed women addressing the myriad of hardships women candidates face. Consequently, we’re still seeing women run up and down the ballot – across party lines – persevering towards the goal.  The words of my friend still rings true, “[Women] can do hard things.” I’m confident that we will solve the problems of systems designed to shut out most people from government power – and build a path for others to follow. Yes, we can do hard things…but maybe it won’t always be this hard. 

Amanda Pohl is the Programs Director for ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.