This week was marked by Equal Pay Day, which acknowledges that women still only make about 80 percent of what men for the same work. Quality, affordable child care is one way to make a difference.
There is simply no denying that if we have more women in office – in Augusta and in Washington – we would have better public policy that would level the playing field and make our government a better reflection of our population.
If we want to solve the pay gap, we have to elect more women. And if we want to elect more women, we have to break down the barriers that discourage qualified women from running for office – and keep them out of the work place, including making child care more accessible.
This year is shaping up to be a banner year for women candidates all across the country, and in Maine we have strong women running as Democratic, Republican and unenrolled candidates. The Democratic slate for the State House is about 50 percent women, an amazing number.
Programs like the Maine Clean Election Act help women and first-time candidates, who might not have traditional fundraising bases to draw from. But there are still significant barriers that keep women from running for public office and from serving.
Liuba Grechen Shirley is running for Congress in New York’s 2nd District. She’s a progressive activist and the mother of two young children. Earlier this week, she published an OpEd in the Washington Post calling for a reform of campaign finance rules for congressional candidates.
Last week, she filed a request with the Federal Elections Commission seeking a ruling that would allow candidates to use campaign funds to pay for child care.
“If we want more mothers with young children and working Americans to run for office — and win — then we need to remove the institutional barriers that are holding us back,” Shirley wrote. “And the first barrier is paying for child care.”
At first, I had a negative reaction to the idea, but the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. Candidates hire campaign managers, pollsters, media consultants, field organizers, schedulers and a whole lot of other people to support their runs for office.
But the most important asset on any campaign isn’t money or endorsements or polls or staff. It’s the candidate themselves and their time.
Regardless of whether you’re running for state representative or president, the days only have 24 hours and come Election Day, there’s no more time to be had.
I checked with campaign finance experts and other political pros around the state. For candidates who are running traditionally financed state and county campaigns in Maine, there’ no strict prohibition against using campaign funds for child care. In general, there are very few constraints on how campaigns spend their money.
For candidates running under the Maine Clean Election Act public financing option, the rules are stricter and prohibit personal use of campaign dollars.
But the real risk – women and men agreed – was the potential for public backlash for any candidate who tried to pay for child care from campaign funds and the attacks from opponents.
One highly skilled female operative was clear: It might be a good idea systematically, but she’d never advise a candidate to try it. The risks are too great.
Candidates don’t get paid to run for office, but it’s a full-time job. Running takes a tremendous sacrifice and that requirement helps to skew the types of people who are able to seek office and who can ultimately serve.
There are things that we can do to have a more representative government.
Earlier this year, the State House, through the work of Speaker Sara Gideon and Majority Leader Erin Herbig added dedicated space for mothers who work at the State House.
“When Erin and I were elected to leadership, we committed to working on policies that empower women and working families,” Gideon said. “So when we found out that the State House lacked a private space for nursing mothers, we were beyond appalled and determined to fix the issue.”
“As of this past January, the Maine State House finally has a private lactation room for staffers, lobbyists and the public. Workplaces that support a mother in her return to work by bringing her back with ease always win and our State House should be no different.”
It took working mothers to identify the problem and solve it. And if we want mothers – particularly mothers with younger children serving – there are real policies we can enact to make that possible.
Quality, affordable child care is a real and significant issue for working families all over Maine. That’s no less true for the people who are running for office.
Campaigns are about choices, including how to spend the money that’s available. If a candidate believes that making sure that their children have quality child care gives them a better chance to win than a TV ad or direct mail, they should be able to make that decision.
The reason it’s not allowed: Men have been writing the rules and child care was too often somebody else’s problem.