BENTONVILLE, Ark. – A candidate for state representative can use campaign funds to pay for tickets to a constituent dinner with her husband, but she wondered if she could also use the contributions to pay someone to watch their kids.
The Arkansas Ethics Commission told her yes.
Gayatri Agnew is a mother of two, the senior director of Walmart Giving and the Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Jim Dotson in District 93.
During her time on the campaign trail these past three and a half months, Agnew gets asked about education, jobs, infrastructure and more, but one question keeps following her that her male counterparts are often not asked.
“‘Well, if you’re here, who’s watching your kids?,'” Agnew said. “I have to say I know that folks don’t ask that question out of engrained sexism but out of curiosity. I don’t think that the need for child care when you’re the parent of a young child is fundamentally different for women than it is for men, but the burden of expectation of caring for young children does tend to fall disproportionately to women.”
Out of the 100 seats in the Arkansas House, 18 are currently held by women.
Agnew does bring her kids to campaign events with her sometimes, including her kick-off event when her two-year-old daughter would not stop screaming during her speech until she held her.
“It is kind of funny, but it’s also very real, right? That’s my life,” she said. “I’m raising two toddlers, and I’m also campaigning and running for political office.”
When her daughter and four-year-old son are off the campaign trail, Agnew occasionally hires babysitters, who she pays $15/hour out of her own pocket.
“That gets expensive pretty fast,” she said. “That can easily become $50 just to go out and knock on several doors in several neighborhoods.”
Agnew and her husband, an attorney, wrote a letter to the ethics commission last month asking for an advisory opinion if she could use campaign contributions for certain child care expenses while she is out campaigning and he is working.
In a 4-0 vote, the commission ruled in her favor Friday.
“It’s just logical, right?,” she said. “When those kinds of barriers are removed, different kinds of candidates can get into politics.”
Director Graham Sloan said this is the first time this has come up in his 20 years at the ethics commission but calls her request and their answer easy.
“I don’t think it was an oversight of the past,” Agnew said. “I just don’t think anybody ever asked.”
But Agnew said this is the time, with more women running for office than ever before.
“While this particular ruling applies only to my personal circumstances on the campaign, I think it opens the door for us as a state to have the conversation,” she said. “And ideally, for the ethics commission rule to be changed to apply to certain candidates facing similar circumstances.”
Sloan said it does not really require a rule change because there is nothing prohibiting it; Agnew is just the first to ask. He said other mothers and fathers running for office can follow the commission’s opinion but may also have to ask for guidance if their child care needs fall under different circumstances.
The Federal Election Commission ruled in May that candidates seeking federal office could use contributions to pay for campaign-related child care expenses. Since, Alabama and Texas have followed suit, while Iowa ruled against it.