Democratic congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley scored a victory when she became the first female candidate for federal office allowed to use campaign funds to pay for child care. Beating 13-term Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King in a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016 may be a steeper climb.
The Federal Election Commission ruled last May that Grechen Shirley, 37, could use political funds to hire a sitter to look after her young daughter and toddler son while she was out campaigning.
"It's a crazy thing to do to run for Congress with two babies but somebody needed to do it," she said.
It was the first time the commission agreed that child care could be an ongoing campaign expense. U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican, had won approval in 1995 to spend campaign funds on occasional baby-sitting when his wife was traveling with him.
Grechen Shirley said the FEC ruling will help any parent who wants to run for office, but doesn't have a stay-at-home spouse or the means to pay for child care out of their own pocket.
"We're missing out on the voices of people with diverse economic backgrounds," she said. "If we want a more equitable society, we need to break down barriers. We need to get more diversity in Congress."
She said she's been paying a sitter $22 an hour for 20 hours a week while her mother and husband take care of the children, now 4 and 2, in the afternoons, evenings and weekends.
Grechen Shirley, who is making her first run for any public office, got a bump of attention over the child care issue and raised more than $1.3 million for her campaign. But she still faces a formidable opponent in King.
The blunt-talking 74-year-old, the longest-serving Republican member of New York's congressional delegation, won his last election by 24 percentage points.
He has cultivated a reputation for bipartisanship while maintaining a hard line on immigration and crime — winning issues in New York's 2nd Congressional District, which covers suburban Long Island about an hour's drive east of Manhattan.
"I feel as good as I've ever felt," King said in an interview. "I take no race for granted. I keep my foot on the pedal until Election Day but everything seems to be going fine."
During the race, he has highlighted his work advocating for rescue and recovery workers who fell ill after working in the ruins of the World Trade Center and run television ads featuring support from a woman whose daughter was killed by members of the MS-13 street gang.
King broke with his party to vote against the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, and like other Republicans from the New York City area, he opposed the Republican tax plan because it limited deductions for state and local taxes.
"I definitely work across party lines. I don't give it two thoughts," King said.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, noted that King's campaign ads don't even mention his party affiliation.
"He says he's a blue-collar conservative," Levy said. "He emphasizes that he's delivered for people in his district."
Grechen Shirley said she believes King is beatable. She cited his staunch opposition to abortion rights and his support of President Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban as reasons she felt compelled to run.
"He hasn't faced a serious challenge in at least 12 years," she said in an interview. "We've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars more than his last five challengers combined."
A Long Island native, Grechen Shirley graduated from New York University and received an MBA with specializations in Management, Economics, and Social Innovation from NYU's Stern School of Business. When she started her race last year, she was taking care of her kids full time while working from home as a consultant to nonprofit groups focused global economic development.
The FEC ruling allowing Grechen Shirley to use campaign funds for child care sets an important precedent, said Jean Sindzak, associate director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
Sindzak said child care expenses have prevented women, still the main care-givers in most American families, from running for office.
"For congressional candidates around the country to be able to use campaign funds for child-care expenses is extremely significant in terms of breaking down the institutional barriers to women running for office," she said.