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Let’s make representatives more representative of us

If we truly want a legislature that looks like us, we have to make it easier for more mothers and working people to run for office.

Massachusetts State House in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Here’s an easy way to make sure our legislators look more like the people they represent: Let candidates use campaign funds to cover child care expenses.

We allow people running for office in this state to use the money they’ve raised to pay staffers to go door-to door for them. But they can’t use that same money to pay somebody to look after their kids when they themselves go door knocking.

That prohibition helps keep some excellent candidates from seeking public office. And it’s embarrassing, especially in a state like Massachusetts, where we like to think of ourselves as progressive. On this particular point, we are behind Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, Montana, and some 20 other states, all of which allow candidates to claim child care costs as campaign expenditures.


We appear to be stuck in 1975. Back then, when Pat Jehlen first ran for Somerville School Committee, the senator had a friend take care of her children while she knocked on doors – otherwise she could never have gone into politics. And child care has only gotten harder to get – and more expensive – since then.

“It’s a structural barrier for women,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to elect more women. She cited statistics showing that fully 85 percent of women are mothers by the time they reach 45, but mothers with kids under 18 made up only 4 percent of the Massachusetts Legislature in 2022.

In Congress, 7 percent are mothers with school age children.

“We have more millionaires in Congress than we have moms of minor children,” said Liuba Grechen Shirley, a former New York congressional candidate who now leads the Vote Mama Foundation, which works to lower barriers for mothers in politics.

When Grechen Shirley ran in 2018, she succeeded in getting the Federal Election Commission to approve child care as a campaign expense. Though she didn’t win her race, her candidacy was a game-changer for congressional candidates.


For six years, Jehlen and others have been pushing legislation to allow more average parents to run for local office here, too.

“This will make it easier for women, and particularly younger women, to enter politics,” said the Somerville Democrat. She and other co-sponsors were prompted to act by Lee Erica Palmer, who ran for Somerville School Committee 40 years after Jehlen first did, and whose struggles with child care strained her family’s finances.

“You can legally expense a tuxedo or gown rental for a political event, so why couldn’t I pay for safe child care for my son while I’m attending campaign events,” asked Palmer, who eventually served two terms. “This really seems like a no-brainer.”

It sure does. Jehlen says she’s feeling optimistic that legislation to close the gap will finally pass this time.

But it’s not enough just to catch up. Massachusetts should be leading the nation. So, let’s talk about another huge barrier to ordinary people running for office: income.

Too many working people forgo runs for office because they can’t afford them. Winning just about any office is a full-time job, especially for first-time candidates. So, too often that route is open only to those affluent enough to survive for a year or two without a salary. Or to those whose family members can support them. Or those willing to go into debt.


That excludes all kinds of people we desperately need more of on Beacon Hill and beyond: single people, those on lower incomes, renters, those who understand what it’s like to live without a cushion.

“You shouldn’t have to go into debt to run to serve your community,” said Grechen Shirley.

Here, as with child care expenses, the federal picture is a bit healthier than our state’s: Congressional candidates are allowed to draw a salary from their campaign accounts, within limits, once they make a primary. Even so, few candidates take advantage of the rule, because the optics of using campaign funds to pay the gas bill are suboptimal.

Unless we get over that, and we push for rules in this state to allow more candidates to run without risking financial ruin, we’re never going to get the legislature we deserve.

Changing the campaign rule for child care is a start. But let’s not stop there.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.