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Ideas

The mother of all election challenges

If you think running for office is hard, try doing it with a baby.

By Delia Cabe

On a muggy Saturday afternoon last summer, Jackie Katz rang a doorbell on a suburban street west of Boston. A tall, grey-haired woman opened the door, her eyes shifting from Katz — who was pushing a stroller filled with bottles, diapers, wipes, and campaign flyers — to the 7-month-old baby in her arms. His name was Jorah, and he gnawed on a pen as Katz introduced herself as a candidate for Massachusetts state Senate, gently rocking and bobbing to help her son stay calm.

“You’re cheating,” said Greta Stone, 64. “I’m a sucker for babies.”

Kissing a baby on the campaign trail is the classic candidate’s photo op. But the picture is different when the baby belongs to the candidate. This is an implicit goal of the many groups supporting women in politics. If you want more women to achieve electoral success, more of them have to start younger — like their male counterparts. If they start younger, more of them are likely to have young children.

But studies show that mothers running for office have long been viewed differently than men by potential voters. Women candidates report anecdotally that they are more likely to be asked who’s home minding the kids and how they will juggle the responsibility of parenting with legislating. And while going through the electoral motions with a young child might be a sweet campaign-trail icebreaker, it definitely isn’t easy. To truly change the gender balance in politics, it might make sense to start with the challenge of campaigning itself.

Before this past election cycle, Katz, 35, a public school history teacher, had never considered a political career. She decided to run for office after participating in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration — joining a “pink wave” of women nationwide who have explored candidacies, at every level of government, after the 2016 election. In July, Emily’s List, a political action committee geared toward pro-choice women Democrats, reported that since the 2016 election, some 40,000 women had contacted them to say they were considering running for office. In the 2016 election cycle, only 920 women had done the same.

Katz settled on a Democratic primary for a Massachusetts state Senate seat held by a Republican incumbent. In 2017, she attended the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s “MTA Campaign School,” a program geared toward educators who are considering a first-time run. There, she learned the ins and outs of raising funds, addressing voters, and using databases. Katz figured that, as a public school teacher, she was used to multitasking and talking to groups. And while she lacked the resources of someone with deep pockets, she was frustrated with the lack of educators, social workers, and nurses elected to office: “Our legislature is made up of lawyers, realtors, and small business owners.”

 The fact that she became pregnant with her first child soon after she announced her candidacy didn’t slow her down — until eight months into her pregnancy, when she found that she no longer had the energy to attend events or canvass voters.

Then she gave birth to Jorah in late January and the equilibrium changed. Suddenly, she had to figure out how to take advantage of a newborn’s naps and hold him while she put together mailings, posted on social media, and made phone calls. “I did not anticipate the lack of sleep a new mother has,” she said last summer, during the height of her primary battle. “Before I had my son, it didn’t matter that I was not home at 6 p.m.”

By the time election season geared up, Katz’s husband, an electrician, started staying home with the baby in the evenings so Katz could continue a grueling campaign schedule that had her working seven nights a week. In addition to canvassing two hours during the day and two hours in the evening, she attended events, spent hours on the phone looking for volunteers and fundraising, assembled mailings, responded to email, and handled her social media.

 “It’s as hard as I thought it would be,” she said at the time. “I just wish I had more time.”

“Serious campaigning is a full-time job, and then some.”

Becca Rausch, Massachusetts state Senate candidate

Until recently, women politicians have tended to wait until their children were older before they tossed their hats in the ring, says Kira Sanbonmatsu, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In a 2008 nationwide survey of state legislators conducted by the center, researchers found that 3 percent of women legislators had children under age six, compared to 8 percent of men. Twenty-two percent of men and 14 percent of women had children under age 18.

At the time, only 24 percent of state legislators were women — perhaps because, as one woman surveyed noted, fewer women have a “stay-at-home wife.” According to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports women’s political involvement, the percentage of women in state legislatures since then has only risen by 1 percent.

It’s unclear whether this year’s election results will ultimately change that balance. But in the current cycle, “women have been more open to using motherhood as a credential on the campaign trail,” Sanbonmatsu says. “I think that’s partly an evolution of voter acceptance.”

Indeed, in some notable cases this season, bulging bellies and tiny children became full-fledged campaign accessories. In September, Zephyr Teachout, a New York State attorney general hopeful, released a campaign ad that showed her undergoing a prenatal ultrasound. In Wisconsin, gubernatorial candidate Kelda Roys breastfed a child in her own campaign ad — the film crew captured the scene by accident, but Roys decided to leave it in the spot. “What the heck, this is real life,” she told HuffPost.

The presence of small children with their politician-mothers has forced some institutions to change. When Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth became the first U.S. Senator to give birth during her term, the Senate passed a rule allowing women to bring and breastfeed infants on the Senate floor during votes.

“It symbolizes the greater integration of women into Congress,” Sanbonmatsu says.  “It’s taken so long.”

Those symbolic gestures don’t help much with the logistics or expense of entering the arena in the first place. But some candidates have found that campaign law is on their side. Last April, Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democratic candidate for New York’s 2nd Congressional district — who worked from home as a consultant while caring for her children — asked the Federal Election Commission to rule whether using campaign funds to pay for child care was considered “personal use” under its regulations. A month later, the FEC ruled unanimously in Grechen Shirley’s favor.

Jackie Katz, for her part, found ways to adapt her campaign to Jorah’s presence. On weekends, she took the infant on the trail, bringing him along to walkable neighborhoods as she canvassed. She developed a system for holding Jorah in one arm, popping the rear hatch of her SUV open with her free hand, lifting a stroller out of the trunk, and unfolding it in one swift motion. She would load her stroller with baby and campaign gear, strap on a baby carrier, and set off down a street, her long dark ponytail swinging.

Using a campaign app that provided each resident’s name and voting history — all public record — she would stop at houses likely to vote in Democratic primaries and ring doorbells with Jorah nestled in her arms. If no one answered, she would leave a postcard, scribbling a handwritten note that said she was sorry she had missed the resident, adding: “If my writing is messy, it’s because I’m carrying a baby.”

At one house, Jorah attempted to wriggle out of his carriage. Without pausing from her pitch, Katz hoisted him in her arms. “You’re doing so good. I’m so proud of you,” she murmured in his ear a few minutes later. She liked having him with her, she said afterward — though she knew she could double the number of homes she visited if she didn’t have him in tow.

Katz wound up coming in second in the September 4 primary. The winner, 39-year-old Becca Rausch, also has young children: Her sons are 2 and 4 years old. As they prepared for the general election, Rausch and her husband also found themselves juggling campaign and child care, enlisting volunteers to babysit and organizing family-friendly campaign events. Because of her candidacy, Rausch had to take a leave from her state government job. To make up for lost pay, the couple dipped into savings, while she took a part-time job as a lawyer to pay for day care.

“It was a big leap,” she says.

But Rausch says those challenges were part of the reason she ran for office in the first place — because she felt that the voices for young families like hers were missing in her district and in the legislature.  “I don’t see a whole heck of a lot of people who look like me,” she says. Because parenting takes up a lot of time and money, she notes, many young families can’t become fully engaged in local or state government.

But political institutions have the power to make things easier for their aspiring members. Liuba Grechen Shirley’s campaign-finance request is a case in point. “I think it would be helpful to women candidates with children — as well as men candidates with children — if child care expenses associated with campaign events could be treated as a campaign expense in state and local elections,” Sanbonmatsu says. Across the country, state ethics boards are starting to agree: When candidates recently petitioned state ethics boards in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and Wisconsin, they were given a thumbs up.

In other states, including Massachusetts, bills have been introduced to allow the use of campaign funds for child care. “It is crucial that child care qualify as a campaign expense,” Rausch said in a recent email. “This is an equity issue at its most basic level, disproportionately affecting women. Serious campaigning is a full-time job, and then some.” If she makes it to the Massachusetts state Senate, she may get a chance to vote “yay” for it.

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Delia Cabe is a writer based in Boston and the author of Storied Bars of New York.

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