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POLITICS Childcare campaigner

August 25, 2018

FAIRFIELD — As she waddled down the long driveway, Caitlin Clarkson Pereira clutched a water bottle, cellphone and stack of campaign flyers in one arm, while pinning the 30-pound toddler to her hip.

Sweat dampened her blonde hair in the 90-degree heat. She wondered if she should just give up. She also knew this is why she wanted to be elected.

Clarkson Pereira had knocked on 15 doors with her 3-year-old, when Parker, slathered in sunscreen and wearing a small, pink bucket hat, was too tired to walk any farther.

She wasn’t sure she could juggle her daughter, ring a doorbell, shake a voter’s hand and deliver a palm card, all the while presenting herself as an appealing candidate for state representative in the 132nd District.

In her first run for elective office, mastering the art of the door knock was hard enough for the 31-year-old.

But Clarkson Pereira’s partner was away on business, and her sister, upon whom she often relied for child care, was near the end of her pregnancy. A babysitter cost money that Clarkson Pereira didn’t always have.

Meanwhile, that August Sunday was Clarkson Pereira’s first Day of Action, and Democratic supporters were canvassing the town to help elect her, a Southern Connecticut State University counselor who never thought much about politics before 2016, to the Connecticut General Assembly.

“I couldn’t bail on my own Day of Action,” Clarkson Pereira said in an interview a few days later. “I really wanted to finish this particular turf.”

So Clarkson Pereira brought along Parker. In a way, it was fitting: Clarkson Pereira wanted to show that working, full-time mothers, can run for office and win.

She was determined to normalize the image of a mother as a politician. She just wished she had a choice of how to do it.

States say no

Last month, Clarkson Pereira filed Connecticut’s first formal request to use a public-campaign grant to pay for election-related childcare. She highlighted her lack of options: a traveling domestic partner and many upcoming events that fell at Parker’s bedtime.

She thought she would quickly be granted permission.

After all, in May, when a New York Congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley filed a near-identical request to the Federal Election Commission, the agency ruled she could use campaign funds to pay for child-care. Previously, the FEC also gave a male candidate permission to pay for occasional babysitting with campaign funds.

In contrast, few states now allow campaign dollars to be spent on child-care. State commissions in Minnesota, Texas, Alabama and Arkansas granted permission to candidates this summer, but an Iowa board ruled against it.

In Connecticut, as Clarkson Pereira learned, campaign funds may only be spent on “the promoting of the nomination or election of the candidate,” according to state law enforced by the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Candidates receiving grants through the Citizens’ Election Program, like Clarkson Pereira, have a further restriction: funds may be spent “only for campaign-related expenditures made to directly further” their election.

‘Incendiary fuel’

Two weeks ago, Clarkson Pereira read and re-read a letter from the SEEC denying her request in frustration.

“I wanted to believe we were so much farther along than we actually are, and that this was a gimme,” she said in an interview, her voice shaking. “This is why I am running for office. This is some of the most incendiary fuel on the fire that you could add.”

When she collected herself, she called Grechen Shirley.

“It’s time to break down the barriers and make sure we have more parents of young children, more working Americans of different socio-economic backgrounds, in office,” Grechen Shirley said in an interview Thursday. “There’s a reason why we don’t have a national conversation about paid family leave.”

Clarkson Pereira is weighing what next steps to take. She may seek a declaratory ruling on her case from the SEEC. If elected, changing state law to permit campaign funds to be spent on child-care will be on her “short list” of priorities, she said.

Clarkson Pereira’s general election opponent, Republican state Rep. Brenda Kupchick said Wednesday lawmakers should consider permitting campaign funds to be spent on caregiving for children or even aging parents.

“I understand the struggle, I went through it myself,” said Kupchick, whose son was a teenager when she served in town government in the early 2000s.

She now cares for her elderly mother. “I think we should look at in the next legislative session: what are the boundaries and what is a valid expense?”

Some lawmakers believe more low and middle-income parents could be elected if campaign funds covered child care.

“If we want diverse voices in politics, we should consider using campaign funds for (child-care),” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who regularly campaigns with his six-month-old twins.

While the children may “tug at the heart strings” of some voters, feeding, changing and comforting can interrupt voter interactions, he said.

But state Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, a member of the legislative Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the Regulation Review Committee, who has two young children, agreed the question should be part of a broad discussion on “work-life balance.”

“The juggling act of campaigning is nothing compared to the juggling act of serving,” she said.

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