BOSTON — Sen. Patricia Jehlen knocked on every door in her ward when she first ran for Somerville School Committee in the 1970s, she said Wednesday. And while she did, her 2- and 4-year-old children stayed “every night” with a friend of hers who’d agreed to watch them.
“I’m here because of that,” Jehlen said Wednesday as she touted legislation that would allow candidates and officeholders in Massachusetts to use their campaign funds to cover campaign-related child care expenses.
The House recently agreed to study the idea, and some version of the proposal is likely to come before the Senate on Thursday when that branch takes up campaign finance legislation. Jehlen, the Senate sponsor of a campaign child care bill, said she wants to “move the idea into law in whatever way is available.”
Supporters said making child care an allowable campaign expense for state and municipal candidates would open up the pipeline to office for more working parents and others from diverse backgrounds. A similar policy is already in place at the federal level.
“To be honest, this is only one barrier, but it is a barrier to entry for young parents — not just women, but young parents with young children — and what hasn’t changed is that barrier is still there, and what also hasn’t changed is the underrepresentation of women and people of color and low-income people in the Legislature,” Jehlen said during a panel at the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association office in downtown Boston.
This term marks a historic high for representation of women in the Massachusetts Legislature, though the 200-seat body remains predominantly white and male. There are 57 female lawmakers, and 13 members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said costs like child care create a “barrier” for candidates that “further marginalizes the voices of working parents, women and women of color.”
“We must recognize that child care costs are just as essential to running a campaign as rallies and advertisements,” Pressley said. “The lived experience of working parents is truly critical to informing policies around environmental justice, transit justice and racial justice, and we must ensure that these parents are empowered to run for office.”
Backed by groups including the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, the child care bill would apply to parents of all genders.
Rep. Joan Meschino said she’s heard from male colleagues that the ability to use campaign money to pay for child care would have helped in their runs.
The child care bill (S 408, H 639), filed by Jehlen in the Senate and Reps. Mike Connolly and Meschino in the House, is before the Election Laws Committee, which held a hearing on it in May. Senators approved a similar policy during as part of their fiscal 2019 budget last year; the measure didn’t survive talks with the House.
State law allows candidates to spend campaign funds “for the enhancement of the political future of the candidate or the principle for which the committee was organized,” and prohibits expenditures that are primarily for “personal use.”
The Jehlen/Connolly bill would specify that “personal use” does not include “expenses relating to the provision of child care services.” Its supporters say 14 other states allow campaign funds to be used for child care.
In late September, the House passed a bill that would change the campaign finance reporting system for legislative candidates and the method for selecting the director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Before passing the bill, representatives unanimously agreed to a Meschino amendment creaeting a commission to study the feasibility of allowing campaign funds to be spent on child care.
Meschino, a Hull Democrat, said they agreed to put forward the commission proposal after it became clear “that there were people who had questions.”
The Senate is set to debate the campaign finance bill Thursday. The version that the Senate Ways and Means Committee released last week (S 2391) is silent on the issue of child care, and Jehlen has filed an amendment that mirrors her bill.
The Somerville Democrat suggested Wednesday that the amendment may not be in its final form.
“The question is, do we adopt that and then go into conference or do we try to come closer to the House in order to come out of conference in a better way,” Jehlen said. “That’s our goal is to use this opportunity to move the idea into law in whatever way is available.”
She said she’s been in “constant communication” with her colleagues, who have “convinced” her that the bill should be changed because it does not mention the care of elders or other family members.