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‘And I’m a Mom.’ Candidates and Voters Warm to Kids on the Trail


By KATE ZERNIKE, The New York Times

Mikie Sherrill, Democratic candidate for Congress, had finished a radio interview and was heading toward the stage at the local library where a crowd waited for her to begin an event with the mayor and a native-son-turned-astronaut.

But first, there was a smudge of chocolate to be dealt with.

Ms. Sherrill reached down and cleaned the face of her 6-year-old daughter, Marit, who squirmed, pigtails shaking. “I’m doing it,” Ms. Sherrill insisted. Her 8-year-old seized on the distraction to ask if he could have a cookie. “One,” his mother told him.

She briefly chided her 12-year-old for letting Marit get chocolate on her face, then took her seat on stage, settling in with a broad smile and the perfect posture honed by her days at the United States Naval Academy — apparently immune to the funny faces Marit was making from the front row.

Ms. Sherrill is often introduced as “Navy pilot, federal prosecutor and mother of four,” as if the descriptions should be hyphenated. But as she campaigns around this suburban battleground House district her role as a mother is the one most on display. Her children march in the front row of parades, tumble out of the family’s SUV with lacrosse sticks in a television ad, and milled in the crowd at Ms. Sherrill’s event with Joe Biden along with the children of her volunteers, many of whom are mothers from her children’s schools.

It is also the role that makes her campaign — and that of many other women running for office this year — so revolutionary.

Male candidates have long been able to use their children to appear more youthful, human and charming: John F. Kennedy, Jr. peeking out from his father’s desk in the Oval Office, Andrew Giuliani anticallyupstaging his father during his inauguration as mayor of New York.

But female candidates with young children have traditionally faced skepticism: “Who’s going to take care of the kids?” voters ask. Women have tended to wait until children were out of the house to run, or, if they didn’t wait, were advised to keep the kids out of the picture.

This year, with a record number of women running for office and a surge of energy among female voters, candidates are pushing back on that bias, arguing that motherhood not only doesn’t disqualify them, it makes them more qualified.

Voters are connecting with candidates who can understand the jumble of forgotten homework, missed buses, stalled commutes and spilled coffee that is morning in America for many families of working parents.

“You want somebody in Congress representing you that on some level you feel has the same values you do and has the same priorities you do,” said Ms. Sherrill, 46. “I hear a lot of, ‘You remind me so much of myself.’ I think that’s important.”

“If I just said, ‘I’m a helicopter pilot and a federal prosecutor’ they might think I’ve served my country, I’m experienced,” she added. “If I say, ‘And I’m a mom,’ they think I get it. ‘She’s a working mom. That’s tough.’”

On the voice-over of a video for Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat running for governor of Michigan, her daughters talk about how she always wants to know about their days, how caring and patient she is: “those are very important characteristics if you’re running for governor,” they say. Ilhan Omar’s 15-year-old daughter narrates a biographical ad for her mother’s campaign in a Minnesota congressional seat, the camera closing in at the end on the two of them canvassing voters together, clipboards in hands.

[Make sense of the people, issues and ideas shaping the 2018 elections with our new politics newsletter.]

Elsewhere, children testify to their mother’s record of accomplishment for schools (Gina Raimondo, a Democrat seeking her second term as governor of Rhode Island) and inability to dance (Kristi Noem, Republican candidate for governor of South Dakota).

[Video: Slow Dance Watch on YouTube.]

In perhaps the boldest gamble, Zephyr Teachout, eight months pregnant and a Democrat running in a competitive primary for attorney general in New York, released an ad this week ahead of Thursday’s voting that opens with a sonogram image of her baby.

“What does his or her future look like?” Ms. Teachout asks, then recounts her qualifications as the camera moves out to show her lying on the examining table, abdomen bared as the ultrasound wand moves over it. She sued the Trump administration, she says. She took on corrupt politicians in Albany and rallied against health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. “You’ve never seen an attorney general like me,” Ms. Teachout says. “And neither have they.”

[Video: Being a parent and being in power shouldn’t be in conflict for a woman anymore than for a man Watch on YouTube.]

Still, attitudes about women and children are never simple. The campaign trail only magnifies the complexities.

“There’s motherhood and lack of motherhood, and both matter,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has surveyed voters on attitudes about women with children and without. “While having children has gotten easier, not having children has gotten harder,” she said. “It’s political and it’s cultural. Whenever you’re dealing with culture, people are so judgmental of women.”

Candidates without children, like Lauren Underwood, running for a House seat outside of Chicago, say voters have asked when they intend to have them. Groups trying to increase the number of women in political office advise childless women on the best strategies to convey that they share family values. Stacey Abrams, for instance, shows herself surrounded by nieces and nephews and other extended family in ads in her campaign for governor of Georgia. Talking to voters about the importance of kinship care, she describes how her own parents are raising the children of her brother, who suffers from mental illness.

At the same time, some voters have commented that it is good Ms. Abrams does not have children; as governor, she would have fewer distractions.

Still, to see how far the conversation has come, consider the mother of all mothers on the trail: Jane Swift, who became the second pregnant women to run for statewide office when she campaigned for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1998.

Conservative women’s groups criticized Ms. Swift, a Republican, for not staying home with her child. Once in office, she was fined for allowing aides to babysit her daughter for free, and for using a state police helicopter to fly from Boston to western Massachusetts with a sick baby to avoid Thanksgiving weekend traffic. When she became acting governor while pregnant with twins and was confined briefly to bed rest, she tried to hold a meeting of an advisory council by speakerphone; Democrats went to court to try to block her.

“I made mistakes, but I was often asked questions and presented with challenges that a man with young children never would have faced,” Ms. Swift said in an interview. With each episode, reporters followed up with stories about what other young mothers thought of her choices.

“No politician hasn’t had a bad news story,” she said, “but I’ve never seen where they went and interviewed men on the street about how they felt about it.”

Twenty years later, Ms. Teachout is believed to be only the third woman to run for statewide office while pregnant. A law professor, she had not intended to run; she was four months along with her first child when Eric Schneiderman was forced out of the office. “I had always wanted to run for this particular office — I’ve spent my life deep in the laws that are currently being violated — and I had always wanted to have a baby,” she said in an interview. “I did not expect it would happen at the same time, but this is life.”

This time, voters have not treated the pregnancy as a pre-existing condition.

“There’s just so much excitement about changing what politics looks like and feels like,” Ms. Teachout said. “Part of what that means is, if you have women running in their 20s and 30s and 40s, you’re going to have candidates who are pregnant and have small children.”

As Ms. Teachout campaigned in the Bronx, Tom Maharas eyed her belly as he greeted her, saying “Two for the price of one!” Raquel Batista, an immigration lawyer, recounted how she ran for City Council while pregnant five years ago and lost. “People would stare at me on the street like I shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “People now understand women work pregnant all the time.”

“Exactly!” Ms. Teachout replied.

Women in the workplace have become the overwhelming norm — about 70 percent of women with children under the age of 18 are working, compared with less than 50 percent in 1975.

“I come from a long line of strong working women,” said Lena Epstein, a Republican in Michigan, who had her first child in October and resumed raising money for her campaign for Congress two weeks later. “My great-grandmother was one of the first women to receive a master’s from the University of Michigan, my mother was an attorney while I was growing up. At no point did I ever pause to think I should not do this.”

In May, Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democrat running for Congress on Long Island, successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to use campaign funds to pay for babysitters while she is on the trail. Women in five other states have since won or filed legislation for the right to do the same, and Ms. Grechen Shirley has a wall of postcards thanking her for moving women and mothers forward in politics.

In Parsippany, as the library event ended, Mayor Michael Soriano gave Ms. Sherrill’s children balloons, which Marit began using to bop her older brothers, ages 8 and 11. Ms. Sherrill was standing nearby talking to a voter who wanted to know what she would do for veterans. Ms. Sherrill put her arm around Marit’s shoulder to rein in the balloon action, all the while nodding and listening to the voter; she then mentioned the importance of keeping open a local arsenal and increasing funding for veterans’ hospitals.

“I like how when they started to get rambunctious, she squashed it,” the voter, Laureen McGovern, said later. “She stopped what she was doing to deal with it and then got back to work.”

Ms. Sherrill finds she is sharing more about her kids than she has in any previous professional setting.

“It was never something that I thought put me in a good light, that I was a working mom,” she said. “Just from what I’m hearing, not just in the campaign but in the work force, something critical feels like it’s shifted. Instead of looking to male mentors, saying this is the paradigm of a candidate and it looks like this, we’re suddenly finding that there’s some powerful female mentors — and they look a little different.”


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‘And I’m a Mom.’ Candidates and Voters Warm to Kids on the Trail
Politics - U.S. Daily News
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