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Campaign funds could be used to pay for child care under proposal by Assemblyman Rob Bonta

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Men dominate California lawmaking, and an East Bay assemblyman thinks child care duties hold women back from elected office.

Four North Bay female officials — and one man — agree.

They are endorsing a bill introduced this week by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, an Oakland Democrat, that would allow men and women running in local and state elections to use campaign funds to pay for child care.

Bonta said his own experience as a father of three holding public office since 2007 motivated his proposal, which is designed to promote “gender equity” among candidates for offices from school board to governor.

The state Legislature is 30 percent female this year ­­­— with 36 women out of 120 Assembly and Senate members. While the number of women in the Legislature has increased from 23 percent in 2017, their ranks are still nowhere close to their 51 percent share of the state population as a whole.

In 1975, there were only three female lawmakers and it wasn’t until 1999 that women accounted for more than one-fourth of the Legislature.

“We’ve moved from unacceptable to needs improvement,” he said. “We want to remove barriers so our Legislature can reflect what California looks like.”

Federal candidates can already use campaign funds to pay for child care.

Bonta’s bill, AB 220, would amend state campaign finance law and is gender neutral, he said. “It doesn’t assume that only women need child care. It’s for parents; for moms and dads.”

But Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, a mother of two who is pregnant with a third child, said women provide more child care and perform more household chores than men, based on studies of households with two working parents.

“I do think it is a barrier for women (seeking office),” she said.

When she campaigned for office in 2016, Hopkins knocked on doors with her younger daughter in a body pack and her husband, Emmett, pushing the other in a stroller. It “never crossed my mind” to use campaign funds to pay for child care, she said.

Bonta’s bill is “a fantastic idea” that will help working parents run for office, Hopkins said.

Victoria Fleming, a political newcomer who won a Santa Rosa City Council seat last year, said she would support “any reasonable measure that makes it easier and more accessible for anybody to participate in democracy.”

Fleming, a social worker with a young daughter, said she was advised she could use campaign funds for child care but opted not to do so. With “clear legal direction” that it was permissible, Fleming said she would in a future campaign, noting that the financial opportunity tilts toward female candidates.

“We tend to think of child care as a burden that falls mainly on women, and it usually is,” Fleming said.

Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele, who was elected to the City Council in 2016 and has two young children, concurred ­— with a kicker.

“I feel traditionally that’s been the case,” he said, adding that he perceives a “cultural shift” with fathers getting more involved in child care. Hagele, who works in commercial real estate finance, said he sees equal numbers of moms and dads dropping their children off at school.

Bonta’s bill is “a great idea” that could help put more young parents in public office, where they are now under-represented, he said.

“It would be awesome to have that additional support,” he said, noting that city council salaries are negligible.

Bonta’s bill would also allow elected officials in California to use campaign funds for child care while performing official duties.

Hagele, Fleming and Hopkins have established an informal group of Sonoma County elected officials who are parents of young children, including Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus and Supervisor James Gore. One idea they’ve hatched is putting toy boxes in council chambers, making it easier for parents to attend evening meetings with their kids.

Lemus, who was elected last year and has two grade school-aged daughters, endorsed use of campaign funds for child care.

Seeking public office is a challenge, she said, “given the time and energy it takes to run a campaign,” she said.

Lemus said she probably wouldn’t need the support since her daughters no longer need child care.

Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, whose children are in their 30s, said she would support Bonta’s bill even though it wouldn’t benefit her directly.

“It’s tough on moms to be in Sacramento separated from their children,” she said.

And from a public policy perspective, “we need these young voices at the table.”

Bonta said he and his wife, who also works full-time running an early childhood education nonprofit, have depended on child care while raising three children. “Our lives don’t work without it,” he said, noting they have help from family members.

“I can’t imagine how single parents would handle it,” he said.

Child care responsibilities are a major reason why women remain a minority in the Legislature, he said,

His bill is not a panacea, “but it can help,” Bonta said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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