A Boost for Moms Running for Office

Councilmembers Keith Powers and Laurie Cumbo at a June 19 hearing on their bill to allow City Council candidates to use campaign funds for childcare expenses. | Photo courstesy of Council.nyc.gov

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | A Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision to allow a congressional candidate to use campaign funds to pay for childcare services has inspired some city councilmembers to make that decision a reality in New York City elections. Upper East Side Councilmember Keith Powers and Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo of Brooklyn have introduced legislation that would authorize Council candidates to employ campaign funds to pay for such care.

But after a hearing on June 19, Cumbo fears the idea could become just another feel-good initiative unless there is proper implementation.

“It’s a great hashtag,” Cumbo said at last week’s hearing. “It makes the news media. But that devil in the details is where this could just be a sound bite. We’re trying to make it better for women to run for office.”

One of Cumbo’s key concerns is whether the campaign funds used for childcare would count toward a candidate’s spending cap — which for the next election cycle would be $190,000 each for the primary and the general elections, according to the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB). Last week’s hearing was an opportunity for her colleagues on the Women’s and Governmental Operations Committees to probe what elements should be in a final legislative approach.

As a mother, Cumbo recalled that she had to give up her full-time job ahead of her initial 2013 campaign and weeks before her 2017 primary she gave birth to her son. Childcare costs in Cumbo’s Fort Greene/ Clinton Hill district range from $2,000 to $3,000 per month, she said. During a campaign when volunteers stay up late canvassing to get a candidate elected, if childcare costs were applied toward the spending cap tough calls would have to be made between paying for volunteers’ food and transportation and using funds for childcare.

“You have this option, but if you’re really an intelligent woman running for office you won’t take it,” said Cumbo, explaining the careful spending decision-making that goes into running a lengthy, competitive campaign. The spending cap requirement, she said, would keep candidates from using funds for childcare that would preclude that amount going toward other campaign needs.

“It would be disingenuous to pass this bill if we didn’t have the ability for it not to count against the cap in a meaningful way,” she said.

The CFB’s executive director, Amy Loprest, has recommended that the legislation only allow candidates to apply campaign funds to childcare during an election year. Cumbo said that to run a competitive campaign it requires more than one year to make sure voters know your name. For her, the year ahead of the election and the year of the election should count.

Candidates would also have to file paperwork to receive approval from the board. Councilmember Kalman Yeger of Brooklyn detailed the cumbersome hurdles the extra back-and-forth between candidates and the CFB could impose.

“You don’t have to say ‘yes’ or get to say ‘no,’” he said about what authority the CFB should have over using campaign funds in this way. “In the very, very rare case where a candidate has lied under oath, and you so discover, you refer them to the appropriate prosecutor.”

Despite concerns members of the two committees in last week’s hearing voiced, the change-up, if passed and implemented well, could help cure the drastically low representation women currently have on the Council. In the past four election cycles, the percentage of women on the Council has dropped from about 35 percent at the end of 2001 to just 22 percent now. Currently, only 11 of the 51 councilmembers are women.

“We are in a moment where we are talking about representation on the City Council,” Powers said. With just four of the 11 women on the Council eligible to seek reelection in 2021, he added, “It’s even more important we start talking immediately about factors that would drive somebody’s decision to run for office and run for City Council.”

The Powers-Cumbo bill was inspired by an FEC decision in favor of Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is challenging 25-year Republican incumbent Peter King in the second congressional district on Long Island. Shirley had previously worked from home as a consultant while raising her children. In early May, as the June 26 primary loomed closer, she asked the FEC if she could apply campaign funds to pay for childcare services she wouldn’t otherwise have if she weren’t running for office. The FEC said yes, and Shirley won her June 26 primary.

The FEC decision made national news, and a few weeks later Powers and Cumbo introduced their bill in the hopes it would increase women’s representation on the City Council.

“For too long, childcare has been dismissed as an afterthought, rather than a necessity,” said Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the Committee on Women. “As a mother who knows firsthand the magnitude of time and resources required to raise one’s young children, it is obvious to me that childcare is as vital to the smooth function of a primary caregiver’s election campaign as any other expenditure.”

Since women are more often than not the primary caregiver of a couple’s children, the legislation would be most likely to free up time for mothers hoping to run for office.

“As I was running, I would consider all of these different factors as things that would impact both my willingness to run and my ability to run,” said Powers, who was first elected to the Council last year. “I think if you look at me versus some other folks who might run, [childcare] was not a factor I had to take into account.”

He added, “After seeing this issue at the federal level, I thought it was something that the city should address as an additional benefit for running for office for the first time or as a first-time parent.”

As written, the bill would allow candidates who are primary caregivers to use campaign contributions for childcare costs for children aged 13 and under. Asked whether they would be open to amending the legislation to include children older than 13 who need extra care due to disabilities, both Cumbo and Powers said yes. At the committee hearing, that specific issue wasn’t raised.

The bill arrives at a critical moment in the national discussion about representation. The number of women running for the US House and Senate races has increased by 67 percent since 2016, Bloomberg News reported in early May. Concerns about adequate representation by women even exist in progressive locales like New York City. Last summer, a movement to elect 21 women to the Council by 2021 — called 21 in 21 — was launched by former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem, former Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, and Effective New York, a statewide public policy think tank.

In 2021, roughly three dozen councilmembers won’t be able to run for office again due to term limits. With a large number of open seats, the hope is that this bill will remove barriers some women might otherwise face in running for office.

“It’s going to certainly be an opportunity to help all women across the board,” Cumbo said. “But it’s certainly going to be a huge leg-up and opportunity for single mothers.”

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