What passes for political expenses in Illinois often runs the gamut.
Politicians on and off the ballot have spent campaign cash over the years on legal fees — pre- and post-indictment — meals for staffers as well as season tickets for the Chicago Bulls, White Sox, Cubs and Notre Dame. Former House Speaker Michael Madigan was especially partial to the Fighting Irish.
Campaign funds even once covered the funeral expenses of a former state legislator.
So, why not child care?
That was one question state Sen. Melinda Bush said drove her push to clarify state law pertaining to the use of campaign funds. She argues that clarification, which is part of a sweeping election bill recently signed into law, could remove a barrier to running for office.
“[Political] office shouldn’t just be held by people who have access to money,” the Grayslake Democrat told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Bush said she decided to seek the clarification after traveling the state in 2018 while serving on an anti-harassment, equality and access panel to talk to women about why they don’t run for office and what could be done to change that.
Access to child care was a common reason, Bush said.
Illinois law didn’t bar candidates or elected officials from using funds in their campaign coffers for that, or for the care of another, dependent family member, but the changes laid out in the new law make clear that those are approved expenses.
It’s something Bush has first-hand experience with.
“I can tell you I didn’t run for my county board until my son was grown,” Bush said. “I had been part of my village board when my child was very little, and I felt I didn’t have the ability to run for higher office. So, I hope this provides women — single women, women of color — who are much more impacted, the opportunity to run for office.”
“My hope is that this gets us to a place where women are at least 50% — [or] 51% — of the representation.”
In the Illinois Legislature, women lawmakers make up about 39% of the House and 42% of the Senate. In Congress, women make up 27% of all members, according to the Pew Research Center found.
Groups that keep a sharp eye on money in politics welcome the change.
Alisa Kaplan, the executive director of campaign finance watchdog Reform for Illinois, said allowing for child care or caretaker costs to be paid from political funds is “a no brainer” that could allow elected officials to come from “all walks of life” and better “reflect the people they’re serving.”
While Bush and advocacy groups she worked with, such as Vote Mama, hope the clarity will lead to more women running, men can also pay for child care through their campaign funds.
Alexandra Eidenberg, the state chair of Vote Mama, said that’s important — even though her organization focuses on helping women with young children get elected and stay in office.
“I think it’s really important that men have the opportunity to use the funds as well. ... I also think that we would see more dads with young children serving in middle class families,” Eidenberg said. “If we’re seeing everyday families serve, that child care component is critical and most of those folks don’t have the ability to quit their day jobs in order to run for office.”
Illinois is the 12th state to pass legislation to allow for campaign funds to be used for child care, said Liuba Grechen Shirley, the founder and CEO of the Vote Mama Foundation.
Grechen Shirley, who ran for Congress in 2018, said while her mother would help watch her two children who were one and three at the time, Shirley often had her children by her side — and strapped to her chest — while on the campaign trail.
She petitioned the Federal Election Commission to be able to use her campaign dollars for child care and, after that request was approved, others followed in her footsteps.
Since the 2018 FEC ruling, 51 candidates for federal offices on both sides of the aisle have used campaign funds for child care.
The head of Vote Mama hopes the Illinois legislation and other policies or bills like it around the country will “completely change the political landscape.”
“It will ensure that no woman — or man — has to weigh the cost of child care when choosing to run,” Grechen Shirley said. “Moms with young kids, when they run for office, are the ones who fight for things like legislation for reproductive rights, for education for health care for making sure that our children are getting the resources and the support that they need.”
As for politicians abusing or misusing the new law, Bush said “there’s the same remedy for that as there is for anything.”
Instead, supporters of the measure expect it to change the way government looks and works, for the better.
“I think it’s really important to note that when moms are in office they see through multiple lenses and are some of the hardest working legislators,” Eidenberg said. “I’m hopeful to see more moms and dads running [because of] this legislation and particularly seeing more moms at the forefront writing, creating and passing legislation that supports all of our communities.”