While most elected officials can vividly recall the blood, sweat, and tear-soaked path to completing their first campaign for office, Lee Erica Palmer couldn’t have been more prepared for her initial run as school committee representative for Ward 3 in 2015.
“Unlike a lot of first-time candidates who can be surprised by what it takes to run a successful campaign, I actually had a lot of advantages in that regard,” Palmer recalls. “I knew I was going to have to raise a ton of money, even for a ward race in a city like Somerville.”
It certainly helped that Palmer was no stranger to both local politics and the city’s education system—along with formerly teaching high school Spanish, she aided several statewide gubernatorial campaigns and served twice as the campaign manager for Representative Denise Provost.
But what was a challenge for Palmer was finding care for her son, Andrew, who was then entering kindergarten.
Palmer’s campaign raised $15,000, which she put toward high-quality campaign literature, several mailing campaigns, and data access for targeted voter outreach. But since child care was considered a personal expense, she was not allowed to tap into campaign funding to even partially cover a babysitter.
“My son was not interested in campaigning with me at all,” Palmer emphasizes with an understanding laugh. “Some kids maybe think it’s fun, but I brought him to knock doors one time just so he’d know what I was doing, but he just wanted to play at home.”
Roughly half of the hours she needed to campaign were covered by playdates with friends and family stepping up to care for Andrew, but Palmer, a single parent, ultimately paid for about 250 hours of babysitting out of her own pocket.
“It’s put it in the category of a personal expense when, literally, you can go out, rent a tuxedo for your inauguration, and that’s not a personal expense,” Palmer adds. “That is fully covered and you can use your campaign funds to do it.”
Soon after being elected to the committee, Palmer put her experience as a legal services attorney to use as she began looking at ways to improve funding regulations and allow candidates to use campaign funding for childcare while on the trail. Palmer’s story and efforts eventually caught the attention of several state representatives and a bill, H.2898, began to form.
“Lee Erica Palmer’s experiences are an important example of how our campaign finance laws may preclude individuals, particularly based on gender and socioeconomic status, from ruwnning for office,” Representative Joan Meschino told Scout in an email.
“My sincere hope is that we can adopt this bill right away, as doing so will help to mitigate some of the barriers faced by many women and by all parents who wish to participate in the political process,” Representative Mike Connolly, one of the bill’s other presenters, told Scout in an email.
Palmer is quick to point out that she doesn’t want “candidates raising money, then spending it on whatever they want to,” but has been heartened by the groundswell of support the bill has seen. The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women put its support behind the bill soon after its announcement, and the Somerville Board of Alderman unanimously voted for its resolution.
Palmer has received “dozens and dozens” of letters sharing support, testimonies, and thanks for her story and for inspiring the bill, many from fellow single parents who are thankful that a local elected official is paving the way for them to get involved in politics.
“Anyone who has a kid or knows people who have kids understands the cost of child care is prohibitive, so I think it was a no brainer,” Palmer says.
Still, Palmer thinks the playing field can be leveled further across Massachusetts.
“Campaigning is hard work and long hours, but being an elected official is also and many of the positions across the state, particularly school committee, are unpaid, volunteer positions,” Palmer says. “I don’t know how someone, particularly low-income folks, would afford to represent their communities. That seems undemocratic.”
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.