Opinion: How to get more women into office

The San Francisco Chronicle

By Amber Maltbie and Rob Bonta

The November elections delivered a strong message that a new generation of female leaders is ready and motivated to seek elected office. Women will make up 30 percent of the incoming California Legislature. While that’s a significant improvement from the 23 percent representation just a few months ago, and it is mirrored at the city level, where California women hold 31 percent of elected seats, it is still well below gender parity.

In California’s 10 largest cities, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and San Francisco Mayor London Breed are the only female mayors.

There are many ways to help bring about more parity. One solution would allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care.

Running for office is time-consuming and requires money, and not just the money needed to run a campaign. Being a candidate often takes a toll on an individual’s personal finances. Candidates with young children, women and men, often face the practical reality of paying for increased child care to campaign and network. That helps explain, in part, why women are half as likely as men to even consider running for office.

Historically, candidates have been uncertain about whether they are allowed to use campaign funds to pay for child care. This poses a barrier to all parents considering public office.

Campaign finance laws are complicated, and no candidate wants to get fined for using funds inappropriately. California’s campaign finance law expressly allows candidates to use campaign funds for unusual expenses like parking fines, home security systems and even specialty clothes. That means a male candidate could rent a tuxedo, but a female candidate may not be able to use funds to pay for extra child care expenses incurred because of campaigning.

The campaign finance law must change if gender equality is to be achieved.

Change is slowly starting. In May, the Federal Election Commission ruled that campaign funds could be used to pay for child care expenses that were a direct result of campaign activities. However, this sensible victory applies only to candidates running for federal offices.

Among states, Alabama became the first state to allow campaign funds to be used for child care expenses, and since then, at least nine other states’ campaign finance agencies have addressed the question.

But in California, candidates running for state and local office, who make up the vast majority of office seekers, still lack a clear legal directive that says campaign funds may be used for child care expenses while campaigning.

Relief for parents of young children seeking office can come from either the California Fair Political Practices Commission or the Legislature. The FPPC is often called the state’s political watchdog. It’s a five-member, nonpartisan body charged with setting and enforcing campaign rules.

In 1994, the FPPC issued an “informal advice letter” granting permission to use campaign funds for child care, but only in certain circumstances and up to a certain amount. Not only was this advice too narrow, but also the problem with advice letters is that they are not law.

That means a candidate who uses campaign funds for child care expenses based on nonbinding advice that is now two decades old could still face fines and the certain campaign attacks from an opponent and negative news coverage. This exact scenario played out in Louisiana just last month, when a female candidate for the statehouse was denied a request to use campaign funds for child care. The denial was a surprising setback, given that the Louisiana Ethics Board had advised a male candidate in 2000 that he could use campaign funds for child care.

The Legislature will only address these concerns of everyday Californians when its members reflect California. And to help make that a reality, the Legislature needs to pass a law that removes this campaign finance uncertainty.

Amber Maltbie is an attorney specializing in election law and chair of Emerge California. Rob Bonta is a father of three children and member of the state Assembly representing Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro.