Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub (courtesy of CTN)
Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub (courtesy of CTN)

Federal Elections Commissioner Ellen Weintraub weighed in Friday to support a Connecticut bill to allow candidates participating in the state’s public campaign finance program to use those funds to cover the cost of child care while campaigning. 

The legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee held a public hearing on the bill Friday. If passed, the legislation would settle a back-and-forth legal issue unique to Connecticut. 

Last year a Superior Court judge overturned a decision by state election regulators and ruled that Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, a publicly-financed candidate for state representative in 2018, should have been permitted to use campaign grants to pay for child care. 

Weintraub, who addressed the committee via Zoom, called the court ruling a “great win” that should be codified by the legislature. 

“At a time when a lot people are concerned about political power being concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller segment of society, a law like this may help to open the door to political participation for more younger candidates, more female candidates, people of limited means and generally may help to advance a more diverse group of candidates,” Weintraub said.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The issue is specific to use of the state’s public campaign finance grants. For decades, Connecticut has permitted privately-raised campaign funds to be used to pay for the care of a candidate’s children while they are campaigning. Weintraub said she joined other FEC commissioners in unanimously supporting the same policy on a federal level. She said that child care was one of the most efficient ways to buy time for a candidate to campaign.

“Can a campaign pay for a car rather than have the candidate walk 20 miles to an event? Of course. Can a campaign pay for a phone line …  so the candidate can call voters rather than having to walk around the district to see everyone in person? Of course,” she said. The bill “would guarantee that child care is treated as a cost that directly furthers a political campaign just as surely as payments for transportation and telephones.”

Sen. Mae Flexer, a Democrat from Killingly who co-chairs the panel, said permitting campaign grants to pay for child care allows access for parents who may have felt excluded from the political process. 

“Something like this could make people who thought this sort of service wasn’t for them, it was for a different group of people — oh no, wait. Maybe it is. Maybe I do have a voice that belongs in that arena and a change like this could make that possible,” Flexer said. 

Sen. Gary Winfield, D- New Haven, addressed the committee while his young children played nearby. He said that excluding parents from running for office based on their financial situation would shape the legislature “in a way that is not positive” and betray the spirit of a public financing system designed to remove the influence of big money from Connecticut politics. 

Sen. Gary Winfield (courtesy of CTN)
Sen. Gary Winfield (courtesy of CTN)

“I think about the two little ones who are running around right next to me right now and if I had to run right now, what it would be like to try to run with those two little people in my life? My wife works in the middle of the day so I do a lot of the child care,” Winfield said. 

Some members of the committee had concerns about how regulators would make sure the public funds directed at child care were used appropriately. Rep. Christine Carpino, R-Cromwell, said she was worried about the change despite empathizing with parents running for office. 

“I’ve run with a two year old and then I ran with a newborn and a four year old. Although you and I may not necessarily agree on this proposal …  I certainly have some experience,” Carpino told Weintraub.

Carpino asked how the legislature could craft the bill to insure the funds were not misused. 

“How do we put fair parameters around this so that nobody thinks that folks are misusing the intended funds,” she said. “We have single parents as well out there, who need child care, and then there’s — extra. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Weintraub suggested lawmakers leave those determinations up to Connecticut’s election regulators, the State Elections Enforcement Commission. 

“This isn’t for date night. It is to cover child care costs while the candidate is campaigning,” she said. “I think it’s not really that hard to put those parameters around it.”

Later in the hearing, Clarkson Pereira testified and urged lawmakers to codify the judge’s decision in her case. She said the law would give women greater access to elected office. 

“When we tell women ‘If there isn’t a seat for you at the table, you should pull up a chair,’ implying that this will allow them to finally be a part of whatever important decisions have traditionally been made without their input, the subtext of that sentiment should not be that these women may also need to pull up a high chair,” Clarkson Pereira said. 

After her testimony, Flexer, a mother herself, sought to ask questions. She was immediately interrupted by the sound of an infant beginning to cry.

Flexer took a breath. “Okay. Caitlin, all I can say is thank you for your continued and dogged leadership and advocacy on this issue.”