In a country riddled with inequity, Americans have begun turning to a new approach in the voting booth. This revolutionary and groundbreaking approach is…voting for people like themselves.
Now more than ever, Americans are beginning to value what a diverse group of representatives can do for their communities. Having an elected official share the same struggles as you, might make one trust them more to look out for their interests. After all, our republic was designed this way, with our representatives standing in as advocates for towns, counties, and states–ideally being intimately aware of the needs of their constituents.
And yet, there is one group that continues to feel unheard and unappreciated for what they have to offer our government: mothers. To remedy this, one organization is helping mothers get elected in a system that was never designed to allow parents with young and school-aged children to be elected, in the first place.
Vote Mama is a political action committee (PAC), 501(c)(3), and 501(c)(4). These three branches operate in tandem to work towards Vote Mama’s ultimate goal of normalizing mothers in office, and making it easier for mothers to run.
And helping mothers run for office is worth it. According to Vote Mama’s prospectus, “Women legislators sponsor more bills, pass more bills, and send their districts more money. Moms in Congress write even more bills over the course of their term than other women do, and their legislation is focused on health care, childcare, education, reproductive rights, and affordable housing for families.”
Despite this, only 27% of US Congress members are women, along with only 29% of state legislators. By having more women, particularly mothers, in office, Vote Mama believes that some of our country’s most pressing issues affecting women may finally be addressed in a more effective manner. Some of the issues highlighted by the organization include paid family leave, childcare, and the country’s maternal mortality rate being the highest in the industrialized world.
Sarah Hague, Vote Mama’s political director, says that American policies fail women at every turn, and it’s often the reason that more women are running for office. The most common story she hears is about women that initially had no intention for running for office, being galvanized to say, “Screw this, I’m running.”
Jen Lunsford knows first-hand how this frustration with the current system can lead to taking it upon yourself to make a change.
“My son was born 8 weeks before the 2016 presidential election. I expected him to be born into a certain kind of world and then the outcome of that election went differently than expected. I knew that if I wanted him to have a certain kind of role model that I needed to step up and do it myself,” Lunsford said. She was eyeing a seat for the New York State Assembly, representing the 135th District. Already equipped with a political science degree, a good understanding of her state government, and her role as the statewide co-chair of Lawyers for Good Government, Lunsford felt qualified but apprehensive.
“At that point, I had an infant and a full-time job as a litigator, so running for office seemed like a crazy thing to do,” Lunsford said. “I also never saw myself as the person out front. I was very familiar with a lot of state-level law from my work as an attorney, but I never even thought about running for something. The average woman needs to be asked to run for office 7 times. I had to be asked about 70 times.”
Every element needed to operate a successful campaign becomes more difficult while juggling the roles of candidate and mother. Women are 15 times more likely than men to endure childcare making it difficult to fulfill crucial campaign obligations like: demanding driving schedules, weekend events, securing donors and endorsements, fundraising, and more. Not to mention that many of Vote Mama’s candidates still deal with archaic notions of women’s roles and capabilities with the question, “But who will take care of your children?”
It wasn’t until Lunsford met the chair of her county’s Democratic committee, Jamie Romeo, a mother with her own small child, that she felt confident enough to run. Through the Democratic committee, she was connected to Vote Mama. According to Hague, once you’re a Vote Mama candidate, you are given 24/7 support on anything “from car seats to call time.”
Lunsford then began her journey running for office, experiencing first-hand the barriers that came with being a parent. Having a four-and-a-half-year-old son meant often having to leave him behind with her husband during events or relying on paid-for babysitters. Some mothers Lunsford met had to put their children in daycare in order to run, which can become a big expense as well. According to Hauge, it’s not uncommon for mothers to even have to quit their jobs to run their campaigns.
Liuba Grechen-Shirley, the founder of Vote Mama, had a major win during her 2018 campaign in New York’s 2nd congressional district. Grechen-Shirley successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to gain approval for the use of campaign funds for childcare. According to Vote Mama, “This decision paved the way for working parents to run for office. Nine federal candidates took advantage of the ruling during this past cycle–both moms and dads. Soon after, women across the country were petitioning their states and cities to spend campaign funds on childcare too.”
Vote Mama’s 501(c)(3) branch is currently working to make the FEC’s decision a reality in each state, for parents running for state and local elections as well. The PAC branch of Vote Mama endorses Democratic mothers for all positions, including school boards, to Congress. They endorse candidates early in their campaigns and provide them with support and advice from mothers who have run and won themselves. The purpose of endorsing early is to legitimize the candidate, whereas many institutions only endorse candidates once they’re considered viable. They’ve endorsed approximately 120 candidates since its start in 2019 said, Hague.
Vote Mama has created a network of mothers supporting mothers. Lunsford attests to this, saying “Organizations like Vote Mama that don’t just tell mothers they can run for office, but actually show them how they are essential. I wouldn’t be here today if Jamie Romeo, another mom, hadn’t taken my hand and shown me what to do. I try to do that myself with other moms. Moms make up an enormous part of our population, and you want the government to look like the people it represents.”
Lunsford won the seat in November of 2020 and is currently the representative in the New York State Assembly for the state’s 135th District. Being a mother has shaped many of her goals in office. Her guiding principle: “When lawmakers have lived the reality of mothers, laws that protect mothers become reality.”