How one Iowa candidate with small kids could make a big difference

Running for office is time-consuming and expensive. Even a local race involves so many tasks, only some of which can be delegated to staff or volunteers. Some political junkies aren’t cut out for knocking thousands of doors, asking supporters for money, and attending community events several nights a week. Others have strong skills, work ethic, and the desire to serve, but can’t see a way to juggle the demands of a campaign with family responsibilities.

Some Iowa candidate has an opportunity to make running for office a more realistic option for them.

The Federal Election Commission ruled unanimously on May 10 that New York Congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley may spend campaign funds on child care. Danielle Kurtzleben reported for National Public Radio,

Campaign finance law says that candidates can’t use campaign funds for “personal use.” The FEC determines what “personal use” is by using the “irrespective test” — the idea is that campaigns can’t spend money on things that “would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder.” So, for example, campaign money couldn’t go to a candidate’s groceries or mortgage.

Grechen Shirley, who had worked from home as a consultant before running for Congress, had argued that she should be allowed to use campaign funds, as she would not have needed the child care had she not been a candidate.

In a draft opinion issued on May 3, the FEC agreed with that rationale.

Iowa Code 68A.302 states that candidates and their committees “shall not use campaign funds for personal expenses or personal benefit.” The same section prohibits the use of campaign funds for “Personal services, including the services of attorneys, accountants, physicians, and other professional persons,” but allows “payment for personal services directly related to campaign activities.”

Would child care needs arising from campaign activities be an allowable expenditure for state or local candidates? Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board executive director Megan Tooker told me on May 11 she’d never been asked.

If a candidate posed this question to me with these facts, I would tell him or her they would need to ask for an advisory opinion. I honestly have no idea how the Ethics Board would come out on this issue, which is a very interesting one.

Requesting an opinion from the ethics board is easy. A candidate can mail a letter to Tooker at 510 E 12th St, Ste 1A, Des Moines, Iowa 50319, or submit the request electronically to megan.tooker@iowa.gov.

The request must include your name, address, a description of the activity that you are presently undertaking or wish to undertake, and any factual issues surrounding the activity. […]

The Board’s attorney researches the applicable laws and rules and prepares a proposed opinion. At the next Board meeting the Board will review the proposed opinion. After making any changes, the Board adopts the opinion […]

The ethics board may not be ready to act at its next meeting in June, but even if an opinion comes too late for this year’s candidates, a favorable ruling could help others as they consider whether to seek a local office in 2019 or a state office in 2020.

Maridith Morris was the Democratic candidate in Iowa House district 39 during the last election cycle. She was pleased to learn about the FEC’s ruling, she told me on May 13.

When I ran in 2016, I had three children. The youngest was 1 for most of my campaign. My husband is a hospitalist physician and at that time worked an evening shift. Nearly all campaign and networking events, as well as prime door knocking hours take place in the evening. Having reliable and stable childcare is an absolute necessity for a candidate with young children. Although I did utilize friends and volunteers to help get extra door knocking hours, they couldn’t replace having a designated childcare person. Running for office is a big challenge for a family and my kids needed the stability of one person.

We were incredibly privileged to be able to hire a nanny without a replacement income […]. That’s obviously not the case for many families. If my spouse was another kind of shift worker, a nurse like me, a police officer, or factory worker, there is no way our family could have done it. We need representation from working people, especially working people who are providing for children. I feel like this is one less barrier towards running for office. I especially hope this will benefit women, as women are still disproportionately bearing the burden of childcare within individual families.

No doubt, the FEC’s ruling should particularly help women. In fact, 24 members of Congress cited the “record number of women” running for office this year in their letter urging the commission to allow Grechen Shirley’s expense, as a way to be “fair to candidates of all backgrounds.” Hillary Clinton’s attorney wrote in a public comment on her behalf, “For young mothers like [Grechen Shirley], the ability to seek office hinges on access to child care.”

Child-rearing isn’t the only or most important reason women are less likely to run for office than are men with similar talent and experience. But in a comprehensive study of “seven factors that contribute to the gender gap” in political ambition, Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox noted that “Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.”

At the same time, this question isn’t just about leveling the field for mothers. Fathers who are heavily involved in raising young children would face similar challenges as they weighed a political race.

Michael Kiernan was primary caregiver for his toddler Michael Francis during his bid for a Des Moines City Council seat last year. Responding to my inquiry on May 12, he praised the FEC’s action.

Too often today, working class people are barred from running from public office and bringing that voice to government. This decision encourages single parents and those on a fixed income income to pursue public service.

While campaign finance reform is the ultimate barrier for working class people seeking office, this is a positive step in the right direction.

Most working folks can not afford childcare during a normal work day. Seeking public office is not a normal work day. To be successful, it requires a candidate to be at a Rotary breakfast at 7 a.m. and end the day at a county party dinner at 10 p.m.

Kiernan added that many candidates give up all or part of their income as they cut back on work hours to meet campaign obligations. Those extra financial burdens would be even greater for a single parent, or for a parent whose partner worked nights.

Diversity in political representation comes in many forms: race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or varied life experiences. Just as our perspective may be shaped by having grown up in large or small communities, served in the military, run a small business, or worked in a caring profession, people from multiple generations will bring more to the table than a government body dominated by empty nesters.

I hope one or more candidates will seize the chance to get the Iowa ethics board on record soon regarding the use of campaign funds for child care.

UPDATE: Reyma McCoy McDeid, one of the Democratic candidates in Iowa House district 38, contacted Tooker on May 14 to request an advisory opinion on this issue. Tooker responded that the board will address the issue at its next meeting.

We’ve never had this type of request before so I honestly don’t have any idea how the Board will likely come down on this issue. However, I would encourage you to keep track of any child care expenses that are related to your campaign. If the Board issues an advisory opinion in your favor, then you could reimburse yourself from your campaign for expenses that occurred prior to the opinion.

Top image: Maridith Morris, Democratic candidate for Iowa House district 39 in 2016, with her three children.

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