Congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is running in a Democratic primary to face Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), has asked the Federal Election Commission for an advisory opinion about whether she can use campaign funds for childcare.
Grechen Shirley said that since March 1, she has paid a babysitter $22 an hour to watch her two children, ages 1 and 3, for about 17 hours a week while she has worked on her congressional race. She and Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) will face off in a Democratic primary June 26.
“I wanted to set a precedent so mothers and fathers of small children can run for office even if they’re not independently wealthy,” Grechen Shirley, 35, of Babylon Village, said in an interview Monday.
Grechen Shirley said the babysitter is “just as essential to the campaign as our campaign manager or finance director.”
Gregory’s campaign criticized the use of campaign funds for childcare.
“Ethics rules exist for serious reasons, and using campaign funds for personal expenses is a very slippery slope,” Gregory spokeswoman Daniele de Groot said in a statement. “There must be stark, bold lines when it comes to campaign and government funds.”
Asked about Grechen Shirley’s move, King said, “it’s up to the FEC, but I certainly have no problem if it goes ahead.” He said any allowance for childcare should apply to both spouses.
Federal election law says campaign funds cannot be used for personal expenses. The law specifically bars the use of campaign funds to buy tuxedos or dreses for political functions or for mortgage payments, utility bills and household groceries.
But it allows for campaign money to be used for expenses incurred only due to a candidate’s campaign.
Grechen Shirley, in an April 3 letter to the FEC,cited prior commission opinions that allowed using campaign funds for childcare.
In 1995, an advisory opinion allowed a Louisiana Rep. Jim McCrery to use campaign funds for childcare so his wife, the full-time caregiver of their infant son, could attend campaign events with him. A 2008 draft advisory opinion from the FEC also allowed candidate Todd Goldup in New York’s 20th congressional district to use campaign funds for child care, but it was never approved by a quorom of the FEC board.
Columbia Law School Professor Richard Briffault, an expert on campaign finance, said Grechen Shirley would“have a good argument that she can use campaign funds for childcare costs if she’s incurring them solely because she’s running for office.”
Susan Lerner, executive director for Common Cause New York, a Manhattan-based government watchdog, said the FEC determination would be based on the facts of Grechen Shirley’s particular case.
“If she didn’t have the costs prior to running for office, the FEC may consider them legitimate campaign expenses,” Lerner said.
Judith Ingram, a spokeswoman with the FEC, said the agency would have an advisory opinion for Grechen Shirley within 60 days.
Before deciding to run for Congress in October, Grechen Shirley worked from home consulting for nonprofits. Her mother, a teacher at Western Suffolk BOCES, would watch her children beginning at 3:30 p.m.
Grechen Shirley’s husband, Christopher Shirley, commutes on the Long Island Rail Road to his job in Manhattan as a structural engineer. “He helps on the weekends, but during the week he doesn’t get home until late,” Grechen Shirley said.
On Sunday, Grechen Shirley, her husband and son Nicholas and Mila attended a Holtsville union hall rally for State Senate Democrats and Congressional candidates.
“My children come with me as much as possible. I love them, I want them with me. I also don’t have full-time child care,” she said. She said her diffulties with childcare is why many Americans, and women in particular, can’t run for office.
“We need to break institutional barriers that are holding back women from running for office,” she said.
Grechen Shirley spent the first months of her campaign on fundraising calls while her one-year-old son nursed and she let her three-year-old daughter put clips in her hair. She raised $126,000, exceeding her goal, she said.