Sawyer Stanley hasn’t turned 4 yet, but he has already turned in his first appearance before the Rhode Island Board of Elections.
On Tuesday, he sat beside his mother, Smithfield Town Council President Suzy Alba, as she urged the board to adopt regulations allowing candidates and elected officials to use campaign funds for child-care expenses related to gaining or holding office.
“Our local communities and our state, I believe, are better off when we remove barriers to running for public office,” Alba said.
She said she and her husband have spent thousands of dollars on child care so that she could campaign and, once elected, attend meetings and handle her elected duties. While campaign funds can be used for food, advertising, and other purposes, she emphasized: “Child care is a basic need.”
Alba joined Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, state Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat, and others to say candidates should be allowed to tap campaign funds for child-care expenses tied to campaigning or holding office. No one spoke in opposition. The board plans to accept public comments through the end of January and vote at its next meeting.
The change can be made by regulation and need not await action by the General Assembly, according to the board’s legal counsel, Raymond A. Marcaccio.
Last year the state Senate passed legislation that would have allowed campaign funds for child care, but the bill never passed the House.
Last week, during the Globe’s “Rhode Map Live” event in Providence, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, said the House would consider the bill if it’s introduced again this year. But, he said, “You start opening up the scope of what people can use campaign money on, and it could be a slippery slope and subject to abuse. We’ve already had too many elected officials get in trouble with misappropriating campaign funds.”
Goldin spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting and afterward addressed Mattiello’s concerns.
“If you can use campaign funds at the Capital Grille and not be on a slippery slope, then I don’t see how it can be a slippery slope to pay for child-care expenses to run for office,” she said.
Goldin said she introduced the child-care bill last year “because I believe that our democracy is stronger when the people who represent their constituents reflect the diversity of our state.”
Women have never accounted for a majority of the General Assembly, and while the Senate is 42 percent women, “that has been a very long road since Rhode Island ratified the 19th Amendment 100 years ago,” she said.
Even if the Board of Elections adopts the regulation, Goldin said she plans to submit the bill again because she wants to ensure that “there is no ambiguity of intent and that the change is permanent.”
Gorbea underscored the urgency of board action, saying, “The 2020 election cycle is already here. People are deciding right now if they’ll run for office.”
She said the Federal Election Commission and a growing number of states have taken steps to allow campaign funds to be used for child care.
“As a mother of three, I am particularly sensitive to the issues that many women face when running for office,” Gorbea said. “This is particularly important as increasing numbers of women, who are more often responsible for the care of their children, consider running for, and are elected to, office."
She cited a Brookings Institution study that found women were 15 times more likely to shoulder the majority of child-care responsibilities.
Board members noted the proposed regulation would allow both male and female candidates to use campaign funds for child care.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, spoke in support of the regulation, saying candidates can already use campaign funds for travel, food, beverages — even graduation and wedding gifts.
“Certainly, child care is something that should be covered by this, as well," he said.