Lawmakers eye child care as legitimate campaign expenditure

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Capital News Service

LANSING – When Sen. Stephanie Chang first ran for office, she didn’t have any children. 

The Detroit Democrat said she can’t imagine being a parent while running for office for the first time.

“For first-time candidates, in order to run a really vigorous campaign, you have to leave your job in order to knock doors all day and raise money,” Chang said. “That’s obviously a big financial edge, it was for me and luckily I was married, I didn’t have children yet, so I don’t know how I would have been able to afford to do it.”

 A major obstacle for first-time candidates deciding to run is figuring out child care, Chang said.

That is why Chang is pushing to allow candidates to use the funds they raise during a campaign toward child care costs.

While spending campaign funds on child care is not illegal, the Campaign Finance Act, which Chang would amend, lacks clear language allowing candidates to spend their money on the expense, said Nick Pigeon, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

“It’s kind of how a court would interpret it at the time,” Pigeon said. “The language is loose and some could say it’s on purpose but in the end it is up for a court to interpret.”

Chang is the first Michigan senator to give birth while holding elected office. Since then, Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, has also given birth while in office.

Child care is costly and campaigns are time-consuming, Chang said. Her proposed legislation would allow people to run for office who may have not otherwise considered it.

“I’ve talked to a number of people over the years who were just contemplating running and had all these questions about what it’s like to serve or run a campaign while having a little kid,” Chang said. “Some people chose not to because they know how much it’s going to be a challenge.”

Chang introduced the Senate bill earlier this month. Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, sponsored a House version. Chang and Hood have both introduced similar legislation in past sessions, but it did not move forward under the GOP majority in both chambers.

Hood has only heard positive comments and has not received opposition to the legislation from Republicans or her fellow Democrats.

Hood said she was intentional by including the language to include dependent care because she recently had to take care of her elderly parents while also campaigning for office.

Hood and her parents were privileged enough to have the resources to hire caregivers for themselves and to be independent, but not everybody is able to do that, Hood said.

There are many would-be candidates, Hood said, who would be “completely unable to do the work of running for office” if they had a dependent parent who needed care.

Now with a Democratic majority in both legislative chambers, Chang is more optimistic about moving forward with the bills. And she has the support of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who oversees campaign finance disclosures. She recently lauded Chang and Hood.

“I will continue to work with you to ensure that mothers running for office have the support they need to put in the countless evening, weekend and holiday hours that successful campaigns require and that strengthen our democracy,” Benson said in a press release.

Chang said her office has had talks with the office of Sen. Jeremy Moss, who chairs the Election and Ethics committee, where the bills were referred.

“I know that he has some interest in the bill,” she said. “We may make some tweaks along the way, depending on what kinds of feedback we get from him and others, but I think that there is a lot of interest.”

In an email statement, Moss’ office said he has not reviewed the legislation, citing the work needed to be done to implement last November’s ballot referendums that required lawmakers and candidates to submit financial disclosures forms. It also allowed more ways to vote early.

Twenty-nine states have laws or rulings that allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care, according to the Vote Mama Foundation, which advocates for the policy. Ten of those 29 states have legalized it through rulings by court rulings or an attorney general issuing their own ruling.

As for why she chose not to ask Attorney General Dana Nessel to make a ruling on the issue, Hood said her job is to be a legislator and so she is “staying in my lane.”

Vote Mama is also a Political Action Committee that donates money to candidates who are mothers. Vote Mama CEO and founder Liuba Grechen Shirley said the PAC gave to nine candidates in Michigan. In addition to Chang and McMorrow, they include Sens. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor; Kristen McDonald Rivet, D-Bay City; Sue Shink, D-Ann Arbor, and Reps. Hood, Carrie Rheingans, D-Ann Arbor, Kelly Breen, D-Novi, and Natalie Price, D-Berkley.

The Senate bills are cosponsored by Sens. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, McDonald Rivet, and Erika Geiss.

The House bills have 20 cosponsors, including Rheingans. 

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