During the first week of summer, Jennifer Gray had to begin juggling.
Gray, a Democratic candidate for the Alabama Legislature, was scheduled to attend events, make calls, and knock on doors across the district she hopes to soon represent. But Gray also has another firm commitment: She is mother to a nine-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder.
These two responsibilities did not mesh, Gray said, and she needed help.
Spurred ahead by a similar federal decision, Gray asked state officials to allow her campaign to spend its money on child care made necessary by her bid for office. She was successful.
In a 3-1 decision, the Alabama Ethics Commission approved child care expenditures in Gray’s case.
“Friends of Jennifer Gray… may use campaign funds to pay for the childcare expenses described in the request,” the opinion read, “to the extent such expenses are incurred as a direct result of campaign activity and are tied to specific campaign events.”
Gray said the decision was a relief.
“When you’re running for office, there are lots of things you have to do as a candidate,” Gray said. “There is phone banking. There is canvassing. There are chamber of commerce meetings. These aren’t places I could bring my child.”
Gray said that she even had to secure child care to attend the ethics commission meeting concerning her case.
While a majority of the commission supported the decision, Commissioner Charles Price voted against the measure, suggesting that Gray could either deal with the inability to use campaign funds for such expenses or not run at all.
“First of all, she doesn't have to run for office. And if she does,” Price said in the meeting, “[she’s the mother of] a child and she understands that, and you have to consider all those things.”
Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama’s top election official, also opposed the decision, saying it could lead to “unintended consequences.” Merrill’s office asked that the measure be tabled for later consideration, but the body went forward with the vote, saying candidates like Gray need clarity as soon as possible.
Gray said that as much as her effort was about getting legal clarity on campaign child care expenses, it was also aimed at legitimizing bids for office by primary caregivers.
“We need people in the legislature that represent all walks of life,” said Gray, who holds a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry. “That includes being a parent. One of the reasons we have this issue to begin with is that we don’t already have people in power who’ve had these diverse experiences.”
Gray’s opponent in the House District 45 race, Republican Dickie Drake, said he was surprised when he heard about the ethics commission’s ruling.
“I was shocked,” Drake said. “I don’t think that’s an expense that’s campaign-related.”
Drake said he is OK with the decision that was made, but that he agrees with the concerns raised by Merrill.
Gray said she was originally told by commission staff, as part of a candidate training session earlier this year, that no child care expenses could be incurred by a campaign. When she saw that a federal candidate was pursuing an effort to change the rules, then Gray knew she had to pursue the change on the state level.
That federal effort was successful, too. The Federal Elections Commission unanimously decided in May that federal candidates may spend campaign funds on child care made necessary by a campaign.
Gray will face Drake in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 6.