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New York Congressional Candidate Wants To Use Campaign Funds To Pay For Child Care


It's a big year for political moms. Illinois Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth just became the first senator to give birth while holding office. Political candidates are breastfeeding their children in TV ads, and now a congressional candidate is using campaign funds to pay for child care while she's running for office. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Liuba Grechen Shirley has a son who's almost 2 and a daughter who's almost 4. And until recently, the stay-at-home mom and freelance consultant had her child care routine down.

LIUBA GRECHEN SHIRLEY: The bulk of the child care during the day was up to me. And my mother is a teacher. She comes home at 3:30 every afternoon, and she would watch my children from 3:30 on. And that's when I would start consulting.

KURTZLEBEN: But then last year, Grechen Shirley started thinking she might want to run for Congress as a Democrat in New York's 2nd District. She says that presented a problem.

GRECHEN SHIRLEY: You know, I had thought about it for much of last year. But I decided, with two small children, I wouldn't be able to do that. There are so many barriers, and one of those barriers was child care.

KURTZLEBEN: Grechen Shirley did decide to run, and she is using campaign funds to pay for child care. And now she's asking the Federal Election Commission to rule whether that's allowed. Brett Kappel is an attorney and campaign finance specialist.

BRETT KAPPEL: Campaign funds cannot be used for personal use, and the FEC's regulations define personal use as any expenditure that would exist irrespective of your status as a candidate.

KURTZLEBEN: So for example, a candidate can't spend campaign funds on her mortgage or groceries - things she was spending on before she ran for office. But since Grechen Shirley says she wasn't paying for child care before she ran, Kappel's opinion is that the FEC's decision should be simple.

KAPPEL: So in this case, the FEC should allow her to use campaign funds to pay for child care expenses she is incurring only because she's now a candidate.

KURTZLEBEN: In 1995, the FEC ruled that a candidate could spend campaign funds on child care to allow his wife to occasionally attend events with him. But according to Kappel, this is the first time the FEC will issue an opinion on a campaign paying for child care on an ongoing basis. Grechen Shirley's primary opponent, DuWayne Gregory, argues that using campaign funds would make her less understanding of voters' financial pressures. Here's his spokesman Doug Forand (ph).

DOUG FORAND: We understand. Child care is a very real concern for lots and lots of families, but all those other families find a way to pay for child care. And they certainly don't do it with political donations.

KURTZLEBEN: Peter King, the Republican incumbent, recently told Newsday, quote, "it's up to the FEC, but I certainly have no problem if it goes ahead." This question is coming up at a time when a record number of women are running for the House. Women generally do more child care and housework than men, even in dual income families. If the FEC sides with Grechen Shirley, it would be a narrow precedent applicable to candidates in her same situation, according to Kappel - those who weren't paying for child care before they ran for office. That said...

KAPPEL: Oh, I think it's a very important decision to make. First of all, I think that the result is permissible under the law. And it would also be good public policy to encourage more and varied candidates to run for public office.

KURTZLEBEN: But then the biggest hurdles - to running for office for women - come long before candidates look for child care. They're just far less likely than men to consider running in the first place, according to Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't make a difference.

JENNIFER LAWLESS: That's one additional thing that they don't have to think about or reconcile when they're meeting voters and preparing for debates and raising money and doing everything else that a candidate needs to do.

KURTZLEBEN: For now, Grechen Shirley will continue paying for child care from her campaign funds. If the FEC rules against her, she will have to pay all that money back. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Washington.


Danielle Kurtzleben is a political reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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