The 2018 election was deemed the “Year of the Woman.” But it could have easily been called the Year of the Mom.
At the same time, a growing number of states are passing laws that explicitly allow candidates with kids to use campaign funds to pay for childcare while they run their races.
“Today we are stepping forward … by saying, ‘Welcome, young parents, into the world of elections and our civic life,” New York state Sen. Shelley Mayer said in May, after the chamber passed the Democrat’s bill allowing the practice.
So far, four states have passed these laws, while bills are pending in three other states, according to a database maintained by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. In seven other states, authorities that govern campaign finance regulations have given the green light to this type of spending on a case-by-case basis.
Pennsylvania doesn’t fall into either category. Like most states, the commonwealth’s campaign finance laws don’t specifically address the issue. The state also lacks a body that can offer candidates an official opinion.
But as more female candidates run for office, “it’s coming up more and more,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of CAWP.
Sinzdak began tracking the issue after the Federal Election Commission in May 2018 told New York congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley she could use campaign funds to pay a part-time babysitter to watch her toddlers. The FEC gave a similar green light to MJ Hegar, a U.S. Senate candidate from Texas, when she sought guidance on the same issue in 2019.
Those opinions are helpful for candidates running for federal office. But state races are another issue.
Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws are notoriously lax, with expenditures defined loosely as spending money to influence an election. State law lists examples of allowable expenditures, including office rent, legal counsel, and the payment of “stenographers.” But according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, it’s not an “exclusive list.”
If a candidate has a question about an expenditure, they can’t go to the government for help.
The Department of State “does not have the authority to issue advisory opinions” on campaign finance matters, a spokesperson said by email. State law empowers a county’s district attorney and the state attorney general to enforce campaign finance laws. Repeated requests for comment from the Attorney General’s Office went unreturned.
The State Ethics Commission can offer opinions to candidates on filing statements of financial interest as required by the Ethics Act. But it “does not have jurisdiction over campaign finance-related matters and as such, cannot issue advice on such issues,” Executive Director Robert Caruso said by email.
In a follow-up call, Caruso said the commission refers candidates with questions to the Department of State.
With no official body to go to, candidates may instead turn to private election lawyers like Adam Bonin.
Bonin, a Philadelphia-based attorney who has worked with Democrats, said he would tell clients it’s OK to use campaign funds for election-related personal childcare, while “being careful to document” exactly how the money was used.
“What the law is worried about is personal use,” he said — the prohibited practice of diverting campaign funds to things like a candidate’s home mortgage or for a fancy suit for political events.
The FEC has now twice ruled that childcare expenses, when incurred because of a campaign, don’t run afoul of the prohibition on personal use. And for the most part, Pennsylvania “has never been more restrictive than the FEC,” Bonin said.
While Bonin said the practice is kosher as far as he’s concerned, a state law that made that explicit, or the creation of an official channel for opinions, certainly couldn’t hurt.
“This stuff only gets enforced on the extremes,” he said. (See: California U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter.) “And yet there’s no process in place to give a blessing to these laudable goals.”
One is the loneliest number
The use of donated dollars for campaign-related childcare needs is exceptionally rare in Pennsylvania, a Capital-Star analysis of online Department of State records from 2000 to the present show.
Over the past 19 years, a handful of candidates have listed childcare for campaign events as expenditures.
During the 2018 election, two candidates — including state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia — used a few hundred dollars in campaign funds each to pay for childcare for volunteers or staff.
“I believe everyone should be able to participate in electoral campaigns and in building our government,” Fiedler, whose children were 3 years old and 3 months old during her race, said via text. “Childcare can be expensive, so we were very committed to making sure that everyone could participate in our campaign without that additional expense.”
But to find a candidate who definitively used campaign money for the care of his own children, you’d have to go back to 2004. That’s when then-Attorney General candidate Bruce Castor filed just under $400 in expenditures for “childcare services while attending political function.” (The Republican lost the primary to future Gov. Tom Corbett in a contentious race.)
“Gosh, I can hardly remember,” Castor, a former Montgomery County district attorney who served as acting AG during Kathleen Kane’s perjury trial, said by email when contacted by the Capital-Star.
He explained that, if his wife traveled with him for a political event and he got a receipt, his treasurer would allow babysitting for his children as an expenditure. His wife was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and they couldn’t have afforded the expense otherwise. (He noted, “this was before the DA got a big pay raise the year AFTER I left”.)
“Childcare was an expense the same as gas, parking, or buying tickets to events,” he said. “Plus, sometimes, I was too tired to drive, and my wife would drive me or she would tell me what I could have said better or who I should make special effort to follow-up with.”
He concluded, “I do not recommend statewide politics for anyone, but especially not for people with below high school-age children.”
“For a lot of women in the past, it may have been hard for them to be the one to ask,” Sinzdak said. “It just makes you a target. … They still face this bias or double standard. So I think it’s easier for men to ask because nobody ever questions, you know, if they need to hire a babysitter so they can bring their wife or their partner to a campaign event.”
But guidance on the issue is critically important, especially as more young women step up to run for office.
“Childcare, as we all know, is enormously expensive,” Sinzdak said. “The cost is one of those … institutional barriers to people with young children getting into campaigns and running for office. … And if you have to pay for childcare while you are campaigning, it could be very, very expensive. And it’s prohibitive for a lot of people.”