Research shows that childcare obligations are among the most significant factors women consider when deciding whether to run for office. Moms face increased scrutiny when running for office and often feel the need to hide their parenthood. Yet research shows moms in Congress introduce five more bills over their tenure than their peers. They are also more likely to introduce legislation prioritizing the issues that matter most to families, such as healthcare, childcare, education, paid family leave, and affordable housing for families.
While campaigning, New York State Democratic House candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for a ruling on whether she could use campaign funds to pay a caregiver for her two young children. Grechen Shirley started using campaign funds for the expenses but planned to pay her campaign back if the FEC ruled against her.
Because of Grechen Shirley, the FEC ruled in 2018 that federal candidates can use campaign funds to pay for child care costs that result from time spent running for office. Grechen Shirley became the first woman in history to receive approval to spend campaign funds on childcare. This decision paved the way for working parents to run for office.
"Less than 5% of people in Congress are mothers with school-aged children. If we aren't supporting mamas running, we aren't supporting most women." -Liuba Grechen Shirley, founder of Vote Mama
It was because of this experience that the Vote Mama Political Action Committe (PAC) was born just months later. Vote Mama works to overcome the structural and cultural hurdles mothers face while running for office and legislators face while fighting for family-friendly legislation. Grechen Shirley believes by empowering moms to claim their seat at the table, we are changing the conversation at all levels of government and building a future where all working families across the country will have their voices heard and their needs met.
The PAC does so through the channels: mentoring candidates, connecting them with mothers who have run and won and run and lost; fundraising for candidates, increasing the political power of moms through direct financial support to help build successful campaigns; and through coaching candidates, working with them one-on-one to create and implement fundraising strategies, policy platforms, and communication plans. The PAC’s Advisory Committee consists of nearly 40 elected mothers. Senator Elizabeth Warren filmed the PAC launch video, talking about why America needs more mamas in office. Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton headlined their launch event in March last year- the moment went viral when she answered a FaceTime from her grandkids during the speaking program.
In April 2020 Grechen Shirley launched the Vote Mama Foundation and Action Fund – the policy and advocacy arms of the Vote Mama family to complement the PAC’s work. Their mission is simple: to overcome the structural and cultural hurdles that mothers face while running for office and that legislators face while fighting for family-friendly legislation. The Vote Mama Foundation aspires to achieve gender equity by breaking down barriers for working mothers to run for elected office, winning universal childcare for all Americans, and expanding the use of campaign funds for childcare for candidates running at the state and local level. The foundation and action fund's Board of Directors consists of 15 leaders in politics, gender equity, and children and families.
Since Grechen Shirley's FEC ruling, the Vote Mama Foundation has been working with state legislators to introduce legislation and with candidates to petition their states' election commissions to allow the use of campaign funds for childcare for candidates running at the state and local level. To date, seventeen states have approved the use of campaign funds for childcare, either through passed legislation or a granted request. Grechen Shirley plans to get all 50 states on board by 2023.
The Foundation recently brought on a New American Leaders Legislative Fellow, Washington State Senator Rebecca Saldana to help them build a policy package for their partners to introduce this legislation in ten states next year. According to Grechen Shirley, dozens of working parents are also now able to run for office because a massive financial burden has been lifted.
Specific Candidate Support
"Moms see problems, and moms fix problems. That's exactly why I launched Vote Mama––to elect moms who will fix these problems. It's time for a change. It's time to elect working mothers who understand childcare, the pandemic, education, healthcare, paid family leave, and the maternal mortality rate at a visceral level, and who will fight for all Americans. That's our movement at Vote Mama." -Liuba Grechen Shirley, founder of Vote Mama
Unfortunately, fundraising is still the primary measure of candidate viability, and many working moms may have trouble accessing donor networks. Because of this, Vote Mama has received more than 300 applications from 32 states from moms running for office, without any recruitment efforts. In the past 18 months, the foundation has endorsed over 100 candidates in 24 states, and boasts a 52% general election win rate. The PAC and Foundation have raised nearly $1 million to support moms (with no corporate money).
Supporters of Vote Mama direct contributions according to their desired impact. The Vote Mama PAC specifically supports progressive moms running from School Board to the U.S. Senate across the country.
Vote Mama recently launched a new state strategy, bringing on former legislators and candidates to serve as state chairs in Georgia, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Louisiana, and New York. The state chairs help recruit, mentor, and raise funds to support moms running in their states and are an integral part of growing the organization.
In 2018, Democrat and mom Morgan Lamandre decided to run for election to the Louisiana House of Representatives to represent District 66. While campaigning, Lamandre had her request for using campaign funds for childcare initially denied.
During her hearing, Lamandre was told that she had "misplaced priorities" and that her "primary responsibility was to be at home with her kids." Lamandre contacted Vote Mama, which helped Morgan with her appeal. Grechen Shirley personally coached Lamandre on her argument and wrote a formal letter of support. In February 2019, the initial decision was overturned, and Morgan was able to use her campaign funds for childcare.
Since Grechen Shirley’s FEC ruling more than 40 federal candidates, and more than 60 state candidates have used campaign funds to pay for their childcare, including 27 moms running for federal office and 19 dads running for federal office. Notable candidates who are or have used campaign funds for childcare include U.S. Representative for California's 45th congressional district Katherine Porter and the U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 5th congressional district Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, who was also the first Somali-American, the first naturalized citizen of African birth, and the first woman of color to hold elective office from Minnesota.
The Future Of The Vote Mama Foundation
"If the U.S. had similar labor force participation rates to Canada or Germany- countries with labor market policies such as paid leave, workplace flexibility, and affordable childcare- we would have roughly 5.5 million more women working. We would also put an additional $500 billion into the U.S. economy. Childcare is an economic issue." – Liuba Grechen Shirley, founder of Vote Mama
One of the nation's current hot topics is childcare, with many believing it should be treated as a public health issue. Even before the pandemic, the American childcare system was broken. Infant childcare costed more than four-year college, yet childcare centers operated on razor thin profit margins and paid their staff minimum wage. “More than half of Americans live in childcare deserts and our nation is losing $57 billion each year in lost earnings and revenue because of the lack of childcare,” Grechen Shirley adds.
Grechen Shirley brought this to the nation's attention back in April. The foundation has been committed to elevating the childcare issue among candidates, elected officials, and the American public so that childcare is no longer referred to as a women's issue but as an economic issue that affects all Americans.
The Vote Mama Foundation is currently conducting a 50-state review and in-depth policy analysis into childcare regulations, which will inform legislation that will protect children and help families survive the cost of childcare. The foundation aims to close the religious institution childcare loophole, bring civilian childcare standards up to military childcare standards, and ultimately pass universal childcare.
"As the only organization tracking the use of campaign funds for childcare, we will monitor how its use breaks down across critical demographic areas, including gender, race, and party," Grechen Shirley says. "This analysis will allow us to evaluate the potential impact of our work on both gender and racial equity in our political system and refine our legislative strategy accordingly."
Firmly believing that diversity of thought drives change and that change occurs at the local level, 39% of the women Vote Mama has helped have been women of color, 13% have been LGBTQ+, and 87% have won city and town seats.
"As we prepare for the 2021 election cycle, we will actively recruit Black moms and moms of color. We strive to have a portfolio that reflects diversity in age, income, education level, marital status, pregnancy status, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. The moms we support will also commit to working on behalf of gender and racial equity in their policies and governing," Grechen Shirley states. It is her hope that through Vote Mama, America will change the way working parents run for office and simultaneously, the perception of moms as candidates.