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Mass. political candidates can expense a tuxedo, but not child care. That needs to change

As a single mom running for office, Lee Erica Palmer racked up thousands of dollars in baby sitter bills, but she could not tap any campaign funds to defray the cost.

She probably would have been fine with that except for the absurdity of state campaign finance rules that would sooner allow a candidate to expense a tuxedo for an inauguration than help a working parent pay for child care while campaigning.

Palmer won her race for Somerville School Committee in 2015 and vowed to work to change the law.

“It just made me think. That’s not fair. Parents can’t participate in democracy,” Palmer said.


Turns out she was ahead of her time: In May, the Federal Election Commission ruled that a congressional candidate in New York could use campaign funds to pay for child care.

But Palmer got going in 2017, persuading state Senator Pat Jehlen and state Representatives Mike Connolly and Joan Meschino to cosponsor a bill that would allow a candidate for state or local office to list child care as a campaign expense.

As Beacon Hill drags its feet, other states, including Texas and Wisconsin, have already made such changes in their regulations.

What’s the holdup here? Maybe lawmakers don’t want to encourage would-be competitors, especially women. Maybe they think child care would be only a female candidate’s problem. Maybe they don’t know Massachusetts has among the highest costs for child care in the country.

This is what I think: Not passing the bill is yet another structural bias against working mothers. We all know that women — even primary breadwinners — get stuck with the bulk of the child care and household responsibilities.

The status quo means a system that favors male candidates and those with the financial resources to forgo working while campaigning. Just look at current and past slates of gubernatorial candidates, a veritable field of wealthy men: Bill Weld, Mitt Romney, Christy Mihos, Deval Patrick, Charlie Baker, Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick, Bob Massie.


And when women do run, a double standard about gender roles persists, according to research done by the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which helps female candidates navigate the political landscape. Women are often asked: “Who’s taking care of the kids? Can a single mom juggle being a parent and elected official?” Those questions are hardly ever lobbed at men.

Lucky for us in Massachusetts we have politicians who are working mothers and role models on how women can get it done. And yes, they would support changing the campaign finance law to cover child care expenses. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about taxpayers footing the bill. This is about allowing candidates who incurred a child care expense while campaigning to pay that bill from funds they have raised.

“Parenting is a crazy juggling act, no matter what field you are in,” City Councilor Michelle Wu said. “Once you add in the unpredictability and hours of politics, it takes you to a new level of humility.”Globe staff/File 2015

“Having the option changes the possibilities,” said Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. “Parenting is a crazy juggling act, no matter what field you are in. Once you add in the unpredictability and hours of politics, it takes you to a new level of humility.”

Wu has made a point to bring her children — Blaise, 3, and Cass, 1 — to meetings and events, to fight against the “strong societal stereotype that parenting publically isn’t professional.” The rule change would be unlikely to affect her because she has family to help with child care, but she has met plenty of people who would benefit.


“There are so many potential candidates I meet who are working parents and who can’t make it work because of the cost of child care and the all-consuming nature of campaigns,” she said.

The Boston City Council’s president, Andrea Campbell, who became a mother in August with the birth of her son, Alexander, also wants the state to update its campaign finance regulations.

City Council President Andrea Campbell wants the state to update its campaign finance regulations.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2018

“Passage of this bill could remove a barrier to any working person, female or male, who wants to run for office, but would especially allow for more women and women of color, who are often the primary care-giver, to run competitive campaigns, which is essential to increasing diversity in our elected bodies,” she said in a statement.

Mary Olberding, the register of deeds in Hampshire County, was a stay-at-home mother of three before she ran for office. She ended up bringing her kids — then 10, 8, and 5 — on the campaign trail for a year. In the six weeks leading up to her September 2012 primary, she splurged on a part-time sitter. Olberding said she would have preferred being able to hire more child care and to make it a campaign expense.

“I would have raised more money to do it,” she said.

Now let me help dispel the notion that this bill would only benefit women.

Aaron Agulnek, a nonprofit advocate, contemplated running for a state Senate seat about two years ago. He and his wife both work full time with two kids, then 4 and 1. Had he run, Agulnek figured he would have needed to take a 15-month leave of absence from work. Faced with the prospect of no income while footing the high cost of child care, he decided against seeking office.


Agulnek understands becoming a politician involves some sacrifice, but not this much. “It was a sacrifice we were willing to make, but not at the risk of financial ruin,” Agulnek said.

For Jehlen, it was a no-brainer to get behind Palmer’s effort to change the campaign finance law. Jehlen knew firsthand the juggling act of being a mother and a candidate.

“I personally would not be in politics at all if I didn’t have a friend who took care of my 2-year-old and my 4-year-old,” recalled Jehlen of the time she ran for Somerville School Committee in 1975 and won. “Who now has friends and neighbors who have extra time to take care of kids?”

Potential candidates wouldn’t have to count on friends and family for child care if Beacon Hill would just change the law.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.