Mom running for office told she could not use campaign funds for child care

A Louisiana mom, running for office for the first time, thought about taking her kindergartner and her 1½-year-old along with her on the campaign trail. But she realized that probably wouldn’t work.

So, Morgan Lamandre asked the board that oversees election rules if she could use political donations to cover child care expenses that wouldn’t exist if she weren’t running. Those might include times she’s headlining a fundraiser and her husband is with her or traveling for work.

Candidates in other states, particularly mothers, have made similar bids this year and won.

Not only was Lamandre’s request rejected, but the response she got reflected “some veiled sexism” and perhaps an outdated take on politics and the American family, the 35-year-old attorney told CNN.

“Child care … should come before public office or anything else,” Lamandre was told by 76-year-old board member Charles Emile “Peppi” Bruneau Jr., a retired legislator who steered the debate before the matter was denied, 5-2.

“Life is full of choices, and that’s one of them,” Bruneau said, according to the official recording of the November 16 board meeting. “Nobody forces you to run for public office. But you have a child, and that is your primary responsibility, to provide for that child.

“I don’t think you need to be raising money to run for an office to do that,” he continued. “I just think it’s a misplaced priority.”

Bruneau, a grandfather who recalled his experience in the 1970s as a state lawmaker with small kids, also pressed Lamandre on her appreciation for the demands of the Legislature, asking, “If you get elected, are you going to quit your regular job?”

To Lamandre, a lawyer in Baton Rouge for a nonprofit that serves sexual assault survivors, the line of questioning exposed a bias rooted in old stereotypes but still in play today.

“I still don’t think men have the same barriers as women to running because maybe the women in their lives just pick up” parenting obligations, she said.

‘An important bridge to cross’

Already, Lamandre’s case has spurred a push among Louisiana lawmakers to write an allowance for child care expenses into state election law.

“Having kids doesn’t ‘disqualify’ you from serving when we’re constantly making decisions (affecting) families w/ small kids,” tweeted state Sen. J.P. Morrell, along with an image of himself and his young son, Alexander, at a statehouse dais, with the note, “Due to my wife being in Nursing School, my kids were underfoot EVERYWHERE during last session.”

The episode follows similar requests in at least six states from mothers hoping to use political contributions to hire sitters while they worked to get elected. In those cases, opponents echoed arguments similar to Bruneau’s, along with fears of broad fiscal abuse. Bruneau did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

But candidates and advocates, who already are beyond the midterms and looking ahead to 2020, say allowing campaign dollars to be spent for child care directly related to campaign work is critical to making sure elected bodies more closely reflect their constituencies.

“This is an important bridge to cross because women don’t feel like the opportunity is there for them because they have a family, they have responsibilities. A lot of women feel like the door isn’t open to them,” said Danielle Noelle of Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.

“We don’t feel like being a mother should limit your ability to serve your country in this way,” she said.

This isn’t for ‘babysitting on date night’

The spate of official inquiries came during an election season in which women, many of them rookie candidates spurred by opposition to President Donald Trump, made historic political gains, including winning a record number of seats in Congress.

“As a single mother, my primary concern when considering a run for office was how it would affect my child,” Cynthia Kaump tweeted in June after ethics officials in Wisconsin approved her request to use campaign contributions to cover child care related to her bid for state treasurer.

Another request made its way to the Federal Election Commission, which in May allowed New York congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, who appeared before the panel with her 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, to use campaign dollars to pay for the children’s care in limited circumstances related to campaigning. Her appeal was backed by 26 members of Congress and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, among others.

“We’re not creating a wholesale carve-out for child care,” FEC Vice Chair Ellen Weintraub said during a public meeting. “You still can’t use campaign funds for babysitting on date night.”

In Alabama, state House candidate Jennifer Gray’s campaign hinged in part on her experience as a mother. “But I defy you to go have an hour (campaign-related) meeting … with a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum,” she told CNN. “Nothing productive is going to happen.”

So, Gray asked for permission to use campaign dollars to pay for qualified sitters.

The Ethics Commission director reportedly countered the notion that an expense as intimate as child care should only be paid from a candidate’s personal coffers by citing other bills that can be covered by a campaign kitty, including car expenses, hotel and meal costs, and legal expenses, when they are tied directly with campaign activity.

“For my commissioners, the need for child care in limited circumstances was at least equally important with these other uses which no one really argues about,” Tom Albritton told AL.com in discussing the board’s June ruling in Gray’s favor.

Iowa ethics officials made a similar comparison in a case there but punted the decision to lawmakers.

In Texas, as elsewhere, ethics officials weighed the chance loopholes could be exploited when they considered Wichita County Commission candidate Catie Robinson’s argument that letting political donations pay for child care might “help a lot of other women and just parents in general in Texas who either are running or want to run for office,” CNN affiliate KLBK reported.

Officials’ voted in June to let her expense child care costs to her campaign.

“It’s kind of just where the law is catching up with the times,” Robinson told the TV station.

And Gayatri Agnew won her bid to use political funds to pay for sitters midway through her Arkansas House race. She spent less than $200 of it toward the care of her children, ages 2 and 4, so she and her husband both could attend key campaign events, she told CNN.

But even having to make the request, she said, sent the message: “This is not your club.”

“When you still have people writing the rules that are of a different time, it’s very hard for a 30-something mom who’s choosing to seek public office while working full time and raising kids to do that,” Agnew said. “If we want our political system to evolve and we want to have the voice of moms … something’s got to give.”

‘I’m clutching my pearls, y’all’

In Louisiana, Lamandre’s case has rankled not only lawmakers. Columnist Chelsea Brasted of The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com penned a snarky piece with this opening: “I had to take off my apron and stick my Jell-O mold in the ice box to come talk to you about this.”

Brasted noted that the Louisiana Ethics Board’s own staff attorney reminded members weighing Lamandre’s appeal that the same panel in 2000 allowed a male lawmaker to pay for “childcare (babysitting) expenses … from campaign funds since they are related to your campaign.”

“But a woman asking for the same treatment?” Brasted wrote. “I’m clutching my pearls, y’all, I am!”

For her part, the decision won’t derail Lamandre’s campaign to win a state House seat next year, she told CNN, though it has forced her to defend a role that normally goes unquestioned.

“I love being a mother,” she said. “This is not about me not wanting my responsibility as a mother.”

She’s also using social media to make sure others who might be affected by the board’s ruling know they can ask for it to be reconsidered, in hopes more working parents might get involved in politics.

“There’s already certain opportunities for a certain class of people to be able to run for office that others wouldn’t, so this gives the opportunity for two working parents to be able to run for office that wouldn’t otherwise have the extra funds to be able to run for office,” Lamandre told the Ethics Board.

“This allows more people to represent who is in our state, who is in our communities,” she said. “It gives more people a chance to actually have reflective representation.”