Liuba Grechen Shirley lost her race for Congress in 2018. Now she wants to provide the money and mentorship to help moms win.
Liuba Grechen Shirley was a mom of two young kids back in 2016, when like many women, she began to think: Maybe I should run for office. When her congressman Rep. Peter King refused to hold a town hall, it cinched the decision for her.
“In the 25 years he’s been in office, he has never held a town hall, but he’s written three spy novels,” she said in an interview with Working Mother. “I asked if he would hold a town hall, and he told me it would only diminish democracy. I remember thinking, he doesn’t even understand what democracy is, and that’s what made me decide I had to run.”
But running for federal office meant she’d have to work over 40 hours a week—with no salary—and figure out a way to pay for babysitting on top of it. So she challenged the Federal Election Commission to allow candidates to pay for childcare using campaign funds—and won.
It was the first of many victories she hopes to help win for her fellow moms. Though the number of working moms in Congress doubled this year, Grechen Shirley lost her race to King, as did every other mom with kids under two. So she’s formed Vote Mama, the first political action committee devoted to supporting progressive moms running for office with kids under the age of 18.
Here, she shares her inspiration for the PAC, why she cried on the phone with Sen. Elizabeth Warren during her campaign and what she hopes to see for moms who run for office in 2020 and beyond.
You broke a major barrier for working parents when you got the FEC to allow people to use campaign funds for childcare. Have you heard from others who were grateful for the change?
A lot of people actually. Once the FEC approved our request, nine federal candidates used the ruling, including a man. And we’ve heard from women in eight different states who have put in similar requests with their state election commissions. In some cases they were approved, and in some they weren’t. New York City actually passed a bill that allows people to use their campaign funds on childcare. And I’ve heard from a number of people who have been inspired to run for office because now they can use campaign funds for childcare.
What are the biggest barriers for working moms who want to run for office in 2020 and beyond?
One, the time commitment—the time you are away from your children. Two, the ability to take a year off from your life without a salary. Most working people can’t do that. There’s a reason that more than half of our representatives are millionaires.
How much time does it take, honestly?
The way our political system is set up, unfortunately, fundraising is still the No. 1 determinant to whether or not you’re a viable candidate. Candidates for federal level spend about 40 hours a week doing call time [fundraising over the phone]. The rest of your time is spent out campaigning, talking to constituents and holding town halls and meet-and-greets. It leaves very little time for having a life and seeing your children. This is one of the major reasons we need campaign finance reform, so that it’s not a 40-hour-a-week job just to fundraise the millions of dollars necessary to run for office.
Would you ever run for office again?
Two of my biggest hesitations are how much time it took away from my children, and the ability to take another year without a salary. It’s really difficult if you’re not independently wealthy. I took money out of my retirement account.
Was that why you wanted to start the PAC, to provide financial help for moms looking to run for office?
There’s no playbook for running for Congress. And there’s certainly no playbook for running with small children. I saw Sen. Tammy Duckworth and thought, if she can give birth while in office, I can certainly figure out how to run with toddlers. But there was no one to lean on. There was no one to learn from. There was no one to talk to. And sometimes you just need to have that no-nonsense conversation about what it’s like to do this as a mom, and how you juggle it all. If you don’t have those conversations, it seems daunting and overwhelming. But if you see other mothers are doing it, you start to think you can do it as well. I want the PAC to provide that mentorship. To provide that 1-on-1 conversation with another mother who has done it before. That was my biggest inspiration.
You had one of those 1-on-1 conversations yourself with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and you’ve said it made you cry. What did you talk about?
My son had broken his leg the week before and we were at the doctor. It was one of those long and excruciating doctor's appointments, and my kids were both crying by the end of it. I took my babies home, left them with my mom and went back to the office. Elizabeth Warren happened to call for the first time that day, and we started talking politics, but then it turned to motherhood, and because I had had such an exhausting day, I ended up telling her about it all. She said, ‘We moms, when we run out of milk, we make breakfast with orange juice.' She gave me the tough talk I needed, and it was not only kind, it was necessary. You need to have those real conversations, so you feel you’re not alone.
So many women candidates made motherhood a key part of their identity in 2018. Was it a conscious decision?
A reporter once asked me, ‘You talk about your children and your family and your struggles. Was it a strategic decision to run as yourself?’ I said no. I started this campaign nursing. There was no way to separate who I am as a mother from who I am as a candidate. In the past, when moms ran for office, they kept their motherhood and family life separate and didn’t talk about it on the campaign trail, and that usually was a strategic decision so that people took you more seriously. And this cycle we really saw women really embrace motherhood. It’s becoming the norm.
To receive the PAC’s endorsement, candidates must be Democrats who support abortion rights, paid family leave and universal pre-K. Why do you feel paid leave is so important?
We are one of two countries in the world—Papua New Guinea is the other—that does not have paid family leave. One in four American women will go back to work 10 days after giving birth. That’s a public health crisis. It’s a human rights crisis. Eighty-eight percent of American women don’t have access to paid family leave. We have the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world. We have representatives who voted to take maternity coverage away from 13 million American women last year.
And so many women end up having really difficult deliveries and have to go right back to work.
Until you give birth, you have no clue what your body goes through afterwards. I had pretty scary deliveries myself, and your body needs that time to heal. Just think of the women who go back to work in 10 days. You’re still bleeding. You’re still stitched up. You’re still in massive recovery. The fact that women are going back to work because they’re afraid of losing their healthcare, or they’re afraid of not being able to put food on their table, it’s absolutely a human rights crisis, and I meant that.
What do you hope to see for moms running for office going forward?
I’d like to see it become the norm, that no one is even fazed by a mother with small children running for office. Because right now when you run, the first question you get asked is, ‘What will happen to your children while you’re campaigning? What will happen to your children if you win?’ Men don’t get asked those questions. If you see a man running with small children, they’re looked at as more responsible, that they understand the issues of working families in this country. And women are often discredited. They’re often considered unviable. When California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s toddler wandered around on stage while he was giving a speech, it went viral because everyone thought it was cute. That happened to me many times, but my staff worried people were going to think I couldn’t handle it because I had a 4-year-old running through my legs during a speech.
Not only that, but I want our kids to see that running for office is just what mamas do. One of my favorite memories from the campaign was when I took my daughter, who was 3 at the time, to Gov. Cuomo’s press conference when he announced paid family leave. After he spoke, she turned to me and said, ‘Are you going to speak?’ I said, ‘No, baby, it’s not my event.’ She looked confused, ran up to the podium, asked me to pick her up and started to give a speech. I want our kids to see that mamas give speeches—that we get out there and talk to people and run for office.