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Is Child Care a Campaign Expense? States Are Divided.

In a year with an unprecedented number of female candidates, the debate is being revisited after the federal government weighed in.

Atlanta Mayor
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at an election night party with her children and husband in 2017.
(AP/David Goldman)
Connecticut resident Caitlin Clarkson Pereira has always shown a "minor" interest in politics, she says. Like many other women, though, she became more politically active after the 2016 presidential election.

Her civic engagement began with protests. She participated in the 2017 Women’s March and an airport protest in New York City against President Trump’s travel ban. By December, she decided to run for the Connecticut state House of Representatives.

While campaigning, and working a full-time job at Southern Connecticut State University, child care for her 3-year-old daughter quickly became an issue. Many state and local candidates are prohibited from using campaign funds for child care, says Richard Briffault, a government ethics expert and professor at Columbia Law School. 

But with an unprecedented number of women running for office, some are rethinking that rule.

In May, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that congressional candidates can use campaign funds for child care. Since then, Clarkson Pereira and other state and local candidates across the country, many of them running their first campaign, have been petitioning to get their child care covered.

They have received mixed responses.

Child care expenses in campaign ethics had not received much national attention prior to the FEC decision, says Briffault. To him, the reasoning behind campaign expenses and personal expenses "is pretty straightforward."

"[A campaign expense] is incurred because you are in a campaign versus an expense you would be incurring whether or not you are in a campaign," Briffault says. "If you had previously hired outside help for child care [prior to running for office], it’s not clear why you should be able to have a tax-exempt fund for this." But if a person suddenly needs to hire more outside help "because she is in a campaign, then that is a legitimate thing to do."

In the case of Jenn Gray, a candidate for the Alabama House, the state's Ethics Commission in June determined that candidates may use campaign funds for child care "if tied to a specific campaign event." Gray has a remote job that allows her to look after her 10-year-old daughter who is on the autism spectrum. But since the campaign started, she does not have the same flexibility to care for her daughter.

The decision is an important victory for all parents, she says. Alabama Ethics Commission Chair Jerry Fielding described it as a “logical request” and recalled his family’s need to provide child care during his run for circuit judge in 1982.

Catie Robinson, who is running for commissioner in Wichita County, Texas, also received positive news. The Texas Ethics Commission in June said it will allow candidates to use political contributions for campaign-related child care. The first-time candidate says she initially took up a part-time job as a Starbucks barista to help with the child care costs incurred due to her campaign. The ruling was a big relief.

“There are so many more women running for office now. … It’s matter of the law catching up hopefully,” Robinson says.

Not all candidates have received such happy news.

Last month, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board ruled against Reyma McCoy McDeid, who lost her bid for state House but incurred child care costs during her campaign.

The board thought this matter was "best left to the legislature," said Megan Tooker, the board's executive director and legal counsel, in an emailed statement. In its opinion, the board cited the Iowa code, which states that candidates "shall not use campaign funds for personal expenses or personal benefit."

In Connecticut, Clarkson Pereira also faces an uphill battle. The compliance unit of the Connecticut Elections Enforcement Commission issued an opinion on Thursday advising her against using campaign funds to cover child care.

"The Citizens' Election Program regulations provide that funds are not to be spent on items that are personal in nature, even if some use may be campaign-related," the opinion reads.

This opinion, however, is not a formal decision, says Joshua Foley, a staff attorney with the commission, and Clarkson Pereira can appeal to the commission itself for a "declaratory ruling."

Despite the setback, Clarkson Pereira says she will continue to advocate for changes that benefit working families. 

"This is exactly why we have unequal representation in Hartford," she wrote in an email. "The system precludes many residents from running. ... This opinion is certainly disappointing, but it also fuels my passion to keep pushing forward."

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