Life on the Campaign Trail, with Kids
When Patricia Jehlen first ran for school committee in Somerville, Massachusetts in the mid-1970s, she got lucky. She had a friend who ran a daycare out of her house, who offered to look after Jehlen’s two small children while she campaigned. Her husband worked full-time, and she needed to knock on thousands of doors to secure her seat, making child care a necessity.
Without the help of her friend, Jehlen says she would not have been able to run — a catalyst that sparked her half-a-century long career in Massachusetts politics.
“I certainly didn’t have extra money to spend on child care,” the Democratic state senator tells Women Rule.
Today, women running for office in the Bay State are still in the same position as Jehlen was over 50 years ago. Without the option to use campaign funds for child care, they’re still leaning on their friends and family to look after their kids as they set out on the campaign trail.
But over the past few years, that’s been slowly changing — as individual states legalize the use of campaign funds for child care expenses. It’s currently approved in 30 states, and many of the states that haven’t approved it, like Massachusetts, have introduced legislation to that effect. It’s an effort mainly sparked by Democratic women on the state level, but it’s seen bipartisan support in almost all the states that have passed the legislation — and a few women Republican state officials have made a point of speaking out about the issue, too.
In 2023, the initiative, largely spearheaded by the advocacy organization Vote Mama, caught fire in some conservative-leaning states, like Oklahoma and South Carolina. But in nearly half of the country, candidates are struggling to make-do without dipping into their campaign funds to cover child care costs.
That’s not always easy. Ask Tizzy Lockman, a Democratic Delaware state senator, who pushed her newborn around in a stroller while door-to-door canvassing: “He was not super into it. Political energy is not his favorite thing,” she tells Women Rule.
Elizabeth Beck, a Democrat on the Fort Worth, Texas, city council and a single mom, says she dragged her two kids — who were 11 and 13, at the time — “up and down the campaign trail” with her.
“Some days it was great because they were excited to help mom. Some days they pouted in the corner on their phones,” she tells Women Rule. “I had to strike a balance between bringing them along and letting them have anonymity.”
Emily Cherniack, whose organization New Politics works to recruit veterans and people from underserved communities to run for office, says she thinks more child care options during the campaign could change the demographics of elected officials — at least to some extent.
Men are still starkly overrepresented in U.S. politics — while moms with minor kids make up just 7 percent of Congress, Vote Mama Foundation estimated in 2022. Demographic information on the wealth of politicians is hard to find, but according to a 2020 report from Open Secrets, more than half of the members of Congress were millionaires.
Cherniack says that, in her experience with potential candidates, the biggest barriers to getting into politics for women and low-income people has to do with paying for care for their young children while they’re away from home — whether that’s on the campaign trail, once they’re sworn in, or both.
“Having those conversations over and over again with women candidates, I realized ‘Wow, this is a really big issue,’” Cherniack says.
It was a big factor for Democrat Josey Garcia, who worked with New Politics when she decided to run for Texas state representative. She has eight children.
She also says that the issue spans outside of the campaign, too, and that once you win an election, “you’re at the mercy of the call of the governor.”
Garcia would often struggle to find care for her children whenever her schedule changed at the last minute — which in politics, is a given.
“Being a state representative isn’t designed for mothers. It’s not designed for single parents. It’s designed for people who have means, for people who have wealth,” she tells Women Rule.
Garcia knew that running a campaign and serving in office would be a challenge to balance with her caregiving responsibilities. But she felt called to run so that people like her could have representation in the state government.
“When we’re advocating, we’re advocating for people like us — for single parents, for parents who have numerous children, for parents who don’t have the support system.”
Even in states where candidates can dip into their campaign funds to cover child care, they’re sometimes met with backlash.