Home » The Downballot: Why we need to elect more moms (transcript)

The Downballot: Why we need to elect more moms (transcript)

One of the most under-represented groups in elective office is also one of the least discussed: moms, especially mothers of young children. On this week’s episode of “The Downballot,” we’re talking with Liuba Grechen Shirley, the founder of Vote Mama, an organization devoted to electing progressive moms at all levels of the ballot.

Grechen Shirley describes her groundbreaking success in getting the FEC to allow her to use campaign funds for childcare when she ran for Congress on Long Island in 2018 and her subsequent efforts to support candidates like her. She explains how electing more mothers will mean more pro-family policies and tells us about some of her top candidates running this fall.

Co-host David Nir and guest co-host Joe Sudbay also recap Tuesday’s key primaries in Ohio and Illinois, including the blowout GOP Senate primary in the Buckeye State whose results will make both Donald Trump and Democrats happy. They also discuss an important new ruling from the Montana Supreme Court, which just smacked down an attempt by the state’s Republican attorney general to keep an abortion rights amendment off the November ballot.

Subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. New episodes every Thursday morning!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Nir: Hello and welcome. I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. My co-host David Beard is off this week, but joining me is our frequent guest co-host Joe Sudbay. Joe, it’s awesome to have you back co-hosting “The Downballot” again.

Joe Sudbay: David, thanks for having me back. I always, always enjoy this experience. I love “The Downballot” anyways, and then to be part of it is just all the more special.

Nir: Well, it’s super special for me too so why don’t we dive right in. For our Weekly Hits, we are of course discussing this week’s big downballot primaries in Ohio and Illinois, especially the Ohio Senate race, where both Democrats and Donald Trump got their man, and it’s the same man. There is some very positive news on the abortion front out of Montana. We’re going to be discussing that as well. And then our guest this week on our deep dive is Liuba Grechen Shirley, a candidate for Congress in 2018 who then went and founded the organization Vote Mama, which is dedicated to helping elect progressive moms to office at all levels of the ballot nationwide. We have another terrific episode for you, so let’s get to it.

Nir: Well, Joe, it was another downballot primary night, and things went according to plan for everyone involved in the ugliest GOP primary in the country, the Ohio Senate race.

Sudbay: David, I am fairly geeky about this stuff, as are you and your colleagues. I could not keep track of all the super PACs that were supporting and opposing and spending millions and millions and millions of dollars, and for what? A landslide, basically, for Bernie Moreno, Donald Trump’s handpicked candidate who used to be sort of pro-LGBT and now is vehemently anti-LGBT, and used to be sort of anti-MAGA and now is full-throated MAGA. But he is now the candidate who will be running against Sherrod Brown, and it’s the candidate that the DSCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, really wanted.

Nir: Yeah, so Moreno won in a 51-33 landslide over former state Sen. Matt Dolan, who was the least MAGA-fied candidate in the race but still very, very conservative. Secretary of State Frank LaRose finished a distant third, to 17%. Honestly, Joe, I absolutely love that because, as “Downballot” listeners know, LaRose was the face of the opposition to the abortion-rights amendment that passed in Ohio last year, including the August ballot measure to try to make further ballot measures harder to pass by increasing the threshold from a majority to 60%. So Frank LaRose, Joe, he managed to lose three elections in a single cycle. How do you like that?

Sudbay: Well, thank you, Frank LaRose, for being such a disaster last year, last August, and last November, and for yourself. Seventeen percent. I mean, literally what’s really striking is Dolan had the support of, let’s call them, the institutional, not-as-MAGA Republicans, like the Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman, and he got a third of the vote, and there wasn’t for lack of money. There was a lot of money spent to bolster Matt Dolan just as there was for Bernie Moreno. But man, it was ugly. But Donald Trump got who he wanted, and I think Sherrod Brown got who he wanted too, in the same person of Bernie Moreno.

Nir: Yeah, exactly. And that spending was super confusing, with multiple PACs going after multiple guys. But the one that mattered in the end was called Duty and Country PAC. This was a group supported by Democrats that, according to Ad Impact, spent at least $4 million to boost Moreno with these attacks—quote, unquote, “attacks”—that we have seen time and time again now. He’s too conservative for Ohio, and of course, GOP primary voters too conservative? “Give me some more of that,” and yeah, let’s hope they’re right.

I certainly think, Joe, as you said, because he became such a sycophant for Donald Trump, I think that he presents the least appealing profile in terms of persuading those middle-of-the-road voters that Sherrod Brown obviously desperately needs him himself, but basically the kind of voters who did come out and support the abortion-rights ballot measure, which won with 57% of the vote. Those are the voters that Sherrod Brown needs to convince should not get near Bernie Moreno, and I definitely think Moreno is the best candidate for Sherrod Brown to be able to make that case.

Sudbay: Absolutely. And David, towards the end, there was a scandal involving Bernie Moreno that he was allegedly on AdultFriendFinder searching for men. Now, I have no problem with men who go on online and search for men. I know a few men who’ve done that. Might’ve myself, and of course, the excuse was the intern did it, which didn’t make any sense. But I will say this—this is just from talking to some of my fellow gays—if Bernie Moreno was in fact on AdultFriendFinder, we’ll probably hear more because in our experience, it’s never just a one-off. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it. So let’s keep an eye open for that. Maybe it was the intern, maybe it was a prank. We might know more soon enough.

Nir: Oh, Joe, you’re killing me. Well, there are a whole bunch more primaries from Tuesday night that we should talk about. One that probably flew under the radar for most folks, because state-legislative races typically do, but not for “Downballot” listeners, of course—the Ohio state House saw a really interesting battle, a bit similar to what went down just a couple of weeks ago and is still ongoing in Texas. Last year, there was a bitter divide in the state House GOP caucus, and it sort of split in half, and one group of Republicans sided with all of the Democrats in the chamber to elect Jason Stephens speaker of the House over another conservative guy, Derek Merrin, who ran for Congress. He’s now going to be the nominee against Marcy Kaptur. And so Jason Stephens won with sort of a minority of Republicans, plus the Democrats, to become speaker.

And so of course, the ultrapartisans wanted to go after the folks who supported Stephens for speaker because “How dare he win the speakership with the aid of Democrats!” And there were 22 of these Republicans in the Stephens faction, including himself—quite a bunch of them had primary challenges. Four of them wound up losing, which, I think, in any normal year would feel like a lot, but compared to the bloodbath we just saw in Texas, not quite so cataclysmic. So it seems like maybe Stephens will have the chance to remain speaker next year. Who knows? But it’s close.

Sudbay: Yeah, it is close. And I saw a quote from Stephens in Ohio Media where he said, “The shadowy out-of-state, dark-money groups who spent 2 to 1 learned a valuable lesson last night: The Ohio State House is not for sale.” And I did laugh out loud when I heard that because the former Ohio speaker, a guy named Larry Householder, he’s doing 20 years in prison for a racketeering conspiracy to receive $61 million in bribes.

Nir: Literally for sale.

Sudbay: For sale, yeah. But there’s one other point I want to make, and it’s on the Democratic side. One of the things we’ve struggled with is state-legislative recruiting, and I have to give the Ohio Democrats a shoutout here because there are 16 Senate races up this year, state Senate races, out of the 33 total. Democrats have candidates in all of them. On the House side, there are 99 races. I think Democrats have fielded candidates, and 94 of them. Now, I view state-leg. candidates—they do door-knocking, they do organizing. They are doing get-out-the-vote. I think they can be little GOTV machines, and I think that can be very helpful to Sherrod Brown’s campaign.

Nir: It’s amazing to be able to recruit that many candidates in such a difficult legislature that has been gerrymandered to death by the Republicans. It can really feel like a thankless task. But, as we know and as we’ve talked about on “The Downballot” before, reformers are trying to put an amendment on the ballot for this fall that would finally establish true independent redistricting in Ohio. And what that means is that if that passes, then Ohio would have new maps in time for 2026. And if Democrats can make some gains this year, and also just get people excited, get a class of candidates who have experience running and then get fair maps in 2026, that could really be a game-changer. Now, I’m not going to predict that Democrats are going to win a majority in the Ohio legislature, even with fair maps, but you want a seat at the table. You don’t want these GOP supermajorities.

And just to circle back a little bit, Democrats supported Jason Stephens. It’s not clear exactly what they got out of it. Stephens is still very conservative, but I’m going to trust that Democrats knew that Derek Merrin would be an even worse choice. But if Democrats can make gains this year, if they can get fair maps in 2026, then you’re in a situation where if Republicans still wind up being divided and there’s every reason to think they will remain so, then maybe Democrats really can form a proper coalition, like we see in Alaska, for instance, with non-crazy Republicans. I’m optimistic that we have opportunities like that coming our way for the rest of the decade.

Sudbay: Well, in a race in Ohio that really could be helpful along these lines is the Ohio Supreme Court races and Lisa Forbes, who’s an appeals court judge, endorsed by the state Democratic Party, won her primary. She’s going to be on a ticket this year, with two incumbent Democratic judges. So if Democrats could win all three races, they could flip what is currently a 4-to-3 Republican majority. And David, you know, and “The Downballot” has talked about it as much as anyone, the importance of state supreme court races. It is critically important in Ohio. It certainly is.

Nir: It absolutely is. And we saw just how important it was when the court had one moderate Republican who sided with Democrats repeatedly in all of those redistricting cases, striking down GOP gerrymanders. Of course, Republicans managed to run out the clock and then take a hard line 4-to-3 majority on that court. Obviously, as with anything in Ohio, flipping that court is going to be super, super hard. To go three for three is going to be really, really difficult. But I’m optimistic that if the Democratic candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court present themselves in the way that Janet Protasiewicz did in Wisconsin as really firm believers in women’s bodily autonomy and firm believers that gerrymandering is a sin against democracy and really center these and not just talk about, “Oh, I want to be a fair and impartial jurist,” but really talk about the issues that matter to people in a way that comes from the heart, then I think that there is a real possibility here.

Sudbay: And it just goes along with what the voters in the state want. As you mentioned earlier, they passed the referendum for abortion rights last November, with 57%. Twice in the past few years, Ohioans have voted to try and fix the gerrymandered system, but again, the courts have blocked it. So I think those are perfect issues and they should all lean into them very heavily.

Nir: So we’re going to switch gears. There was one other big state on the docket Tuesday night that also had primaries, Illinois, and most of those races went down exactly as expected. But there was one really interesting House race in southern Illinois, in the conservative 12th District, where Republican incumbent Mike Bost, he’s been there for many years—he defeated his challenger Darren Bailey, former state senator by just a 51-49 margin. That is a really, really narrow escape. Joe, were you following this one at all?

Sudbay: Yeah, just from a distance, because I think Trump had endorsed Bost a couple weeks ago, and it was one of those “Why is he bothering with this particular race?” But clearly, Bost was in trouble, and it’s really interesting how few intraparty primaries there are, but the Republicans, seem to me, they seem to have their fair share this year. But this was pretty wild, David.

Nir: It really was. And Trump getting involved, why was he getting involved? Well, like you said, clearly, there were some issues here for Bost, but it was remarkable because Bost is the incumbent from a distance. There was no reason to think he was anything but an extremely loyal conservative Trumpist. He had outraised Bailey by a huge margin. But this is one of those, I think, really, if you really dig under the surface here to the nerdier strata of the election, it really seems like a redistricting hangover, is the way I would think of it. Because Illinois, like every other state, just a couple of years ago, put in place a new map and about half of the district was completely new to Mike Bost. Normally, when that happens, usually, you see primary challengers crop up that very year because, “Oh, wow, there’s all this new turf. There’s a new opportunity for me to run against someone.” But no one really big showed up to run against Bost, even though he had this district that was half new to him, and he managed to skate through.

What he didn’t seem to do is spend the next few years introducing himself to the new voters in the other half of the district. Well, that’s exactly the half that Darren Bailey had represented in the state Senate. And so if you look at the map, if you go to any election-results site and look at the results from Tuesday night’s primary, you’ll see in the western half of the district, which is Bost’s half of the district, he cleaned up in every county. And in the eastern half of the district, Bailey cleaned up in every county. And it was just super, super close, and it just suggests to me that maybe Bost was one of these guys who, I don’t know, just didn’t really care about the ordinary blocking and tackling of campaigning and constituent services. Who knows? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but he definitely seems like the kind of guy who could be extremely vulnerable in two years from now. He won by 2 points.

Sudbay: It certainly sends a signal, and look, you know he’s either going to learn from this or he’s going to be right back where he was. And the fact that, after two years, you didn’t really do the outreach to that other half of your district, that new half, kind of signifies a pretty weak member of Congress and with a pretty shitty staff, to be honest.

Nir: And the bottom line is, this primary seemed to be motivated more by personal animosity than anything else. This didn’t really seem to be a fight between a squishy RINO versus a MAGA true believer. But we got plenty of those coming up. This will definitely not be the last nasty primary against a sitting GOP incumbent, and Bost got really lucky that he didn’t lose, but there are always some incumbents who lose primaries every cycle.

Sudbay: Well, and we have seen Speaker Mike Johnson begging his colleagues not to take sides against each other. And, of course, most of them are ignoring him, like they do on everything else. David, there was one other big news this week. It wasn’t electoral, it was actually a Supreme Court ruling, but has electoral implications, and that’s in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court ruled by a 6-to-1 margin that Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen had improperly blocked an abortion-rights amendment from moving forward. Now, David, this is an amendment that would provide for abortion rights. We know, in 2022, Montana voters defeated a ballot measure. It was a born-alive ballot measure, so it had been pushed by the anti-abortion forces. It lost 52.6 to 47.4. So clearly, Knudsen and other Republicans didn’t want this on the ballot, and they’re doing what so many attorney generals and others are doing in other states to try to prevent voters from having a say in reproductive rights.

Nir: It is just pure obstructionism, and he really got smacked down by this court. Knudsen had claimed that the proposed amendment had violated the state’s rule that ballot measures only address a single subject. This is a very common rule in many, many states that allow ballot measures, but the court rejected his interpretation flat-out. It said the amendment does indeed address a single subject, the right to make decisions about one’s pregnancy, including the right to abortion. Pretty simple, pretty clear. And the fact that it’s a 6-1 ruling was quite interesting to me because Montana’s court is very hard to pin down. It’s got a few hard-line conservatives, a few liberals, some swing justices in the middle, but the fact that it was 6-1 means that one of the very conservative members agreed with the majority here, that the attorney general was completely out of line.

But this is good news. But the problem is, Joe, as you were alluding to, these Republican state officials—by delay, delay, delay, they make it harder for organizers to do their work. And so, only now, can organizers begin the actual task of gathering signatures to put this on the ballot. And they need a lot. They need 60,000 by June 21. Montana is obviously a small state, small population-wise, but very spread out, huge geographically. And then, of course, they have to fight to pass it at the ballot box. Now, if it does make it onto the ballot, Joe, for the reasons you were alluding to before about that ballot measure in 2022, I think there is a really good chance that it passes.

Sudbay: And I also think it accrues to the benefit of Jon Tester who’s running for reelection—

Nir: For sure.

Sudbay: Who’s always been a very strong supporter of abortion rights. So let’s hope it gets on the ballot. And I know the organizers out in that state, I have to think they know exactly where to get those signatures, and they’re going to do it. I hope so.

Nir: Absolutely. Absolutely. And Montana has remained this abortion oasis, again, because of the state Supreme Court, which decades ago found that the state constitution recognizes a right to an abortion. And that is why conservatives, especially in recent years, have been flipping their lids, trying to flip the state Supreme Court, because they want the court to overturn that precedent. And so this is kind of a belt-and-suspenders thing because you got to protect the state Supreme Court, but also, at least, if you can get this amendment into the constitution in Montana, then even if conservatives one day do wreak havoc on the Supreme Court and it revisits its old rulings, the fact that it’s in the constitution hopefully will render that a moot point.

Sudbay: Absolutely. Absolutely. David, before we go, there is one thing I wanted to just bring up, and I know your listeners understand the importance of special elections. March 26th, House District 10 in Alabama, Huntsville, Madison area, Marilyn Lands is on the ballot, it’s an opportunity for a Democratic pickup, really important special election in a state that has been just horrific in terms of so much, so much. So this could be a bright spot for us in Alabama.

Nir: Absolutely. It’s a very swingy district. I think Trump won it by just 1 or 2 points. I know Doug Jones carried it, even when he was losing reelection by a huge margin statewide in 2020. So definitely, the kind of district where a pro-IVF campaign, which is what Lands has clearly been running, could really have a chance for success. Definitely an important one to watch on Tuesday. Joe, I really appreciate you mentioning that.

Well, that does it for our Weekly Hits. Coming up, we are talking with Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is the founder of Vote Mama, an organization devoted to helping elect progressive moms to office. It is a fascinating conversation. There is so much to learn about this under-discussed topic, so please stay with us after the break.

Nir: Joining us today on “The Downballot” is Liuba Grechen Shirley, the founder and CEO of Vote Mama, which is a PAC dedicated to electing progressive moms up and down the ballot. She is also the founder of the Vote Mama Foundation, which is devoted to researching and analyzing the political participation of mothers in the United States.

Liuba, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.

Liuba Grechen Shirley: Thank you for having me. And you said my name beautifully, so thank you.

Nir: Mission accomplished, then. Well, we do actually have a few questions that we want to ask you today. That’s not the only thing. So I wanted to start off by talking about your campaign for Congress in New York State back in 2018. And in particular, you became the first woman in history to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on child care. So I would love to hear about how that decision came about and also just a little background on that race in general.

Grechen Shirley: So I ran for Congress with a one-year-old and a three-year-old. It was the least planned thing I’ve ever done. I was not planning to run for Congress. I had two small babies. I had started an Indivisible group to hold our representative accountable, Peter King, who had been in office since I was 12 and continued to vote in ways that hurt working people across the country, but in particular, people in our district. He voted to take health care away from 74,000 people in our district. He came out and supported the Muslim ban. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood 17 times. And I started that Indivisible group to hold him accountable and really, really was not planning on running. And when I finally decided to jump in, I had never thought of running for Congress before. I thought I would run for office maybe much later in life, when my kids were grown, but I hadn’t thought about how to do this with a one-year-old and a three-year-old.

And I remember sitting down trying to find other people who had done it before. I would find a quote from Grace Meng or a quote from Kirsten Gillibrand, and I remember thinking, if they can give birth while serving, somehow I can do this with two toddlers. It was really difficult. My mom at the time was my child care, but she was still teaching full-time. So I literally had two babies with me all day on the campaign trail. And my mom would come home at 3:30 in the afternoon, and she would watch the babies and I would run out to go to events and fundraisers and that sort of thing. I did that honestly for the first five months of the campaign. I would give speeches with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler running around circling me, and it really wasn’t sustainable.

In May of 2018, I put a request into the Federal Election Commission, and I said, “Can I use some of the funds that I’m raising to hire a babysitter?” And honestly, everybody told me I was nuts. They said it was political suicide. My campaign manager supported me, and everybody else thought I was crazy.

I put the request in, honestly, because I wasn’t going to be able to continue without child care. I had given up my salary to run for office. This is why we have more millionaires in Congress than moms, because you have to be independently wealthy to run for office. You take a year to two years off of your life. We were trying to make ends meet with just my husband’s salary, and two kids, and the thought of paying for child care, which we all know how expensive child care is in this country—it was impossible. So I put the request in, not to make a political statement, but out of necessity.

Shockingly, it was a bipartisan, unanimous decision. Hillary Clinton wrote in, in support, 25 members of Congress wrote in, in support. And it was a decision that changed the way that people run for office, that parents run for office. I remember being shocked, honestly, by the response. I think every press outlet in the country covered it that day.

Nir: That’s truly, truly amazing. And so once you got that authorization, how did that affect how you campaigned for the rest of the race?

Grechen Shirley: It changed everything. We hired a babysitter. It was the first time I ever had a babysitter, and we hired a babysitter, and she came over during the day. So I actually would do call-time from home, and she would watch the kids while I was home still. And then the second my mom would get home, we’d do this transition. So I only had a part-time babysitter, but it worked. And then I would go to the office, and I’d be out running around at events all for the rest of the night.

But it made me able to actually do call time, and to do the fundraising that was necessary to run a congressional—I had to run against a person who had $3 million in the bank, so I had to out-raise him, and I did. And the only reason I was able to do that, was because I had somebody to watch my children, so that I could focus on call-time.

Before that, I was nursing and doing call-time with my daughter putting a million hairclips in my hair, that was how I kept them busy. And it’s really hard to have a conversation. I was actually talking to somebody the other day on the phone, and my three-year-old was following me around asking me questions while I was trying to have an important conversation. That’s what most moms, if they don’t have child care, are doing when they’re running for Congress.

And this is why child care is so critical, because moms are the ones who are most likely to be during the bulk of child care. And we have so few moms in office, especially at the congressional level. It’s literally 6.8% of Congress who are moms of minor children. We need to make it easier for more moms to run, because by the time we’re 45, 85% of us are moms in this country. We’re missing out on that very critical perspective at the decision-making table, which is why our policies are terrible, and fail women and children.

Nir: So now, because this is “The Downballot,” we want to catch people up on what happened in the rest of that race. This is 2018 and Peter King, this is New York’s 2nd Congressional District, based on Long Island. He, like you said, had been there a long time, was viewed as very entrenched, even though it was a pretty swingy district.

And you were a first-time candidate. You had this remarkable FEC ruling that allowed you to campaign in a whole new way. And you wound up holding him to a really close race.

Grechen Shirley: Yeah, he won by 6 points. The year before, he won by 24 points. He had won by 40 points in the past. It was the closest race that he had ever faced, since he had gotten elected back in the ’90s.

And he decided not to run again. We gave him a run for his money. We out-raised him, we outworked him. And I think he was shocked that we came as close as we did.

And honestly, it was the first real campaign that he had to fight, because the Democratic Party, on Long Island in particular, they would run really easy candidates who wouldn’t really fight Peter King. And they did it for a long time, and they helped Peter King stay in office. And we ran a grassroots campaign, and we motivated people across the district to come out and vote, and to come out and knock on doors. And that was what the difference was: We really built a grassroots movement. So he decided not to run the next year.

Sudbay: That is such a great story. And it really was … I mean, I remember vividly when this news broke, being able to use campaign funds for child care, it made so much sense. And the way you’ve described it really resonates. I’m sure it resonated with a lot of your voters, with a lot of mothers around the country, with a lot of women who want to run. Which leads me to asking, how did Vote Mama come into being?

Grechen Shirley: Yeah. Vote Mama was something my kids used to say all the time. They used to run around with their little baby voices and scream, “Vote mama,” and it was the cutest thing, and I loved it.

And at that point, I actually planned to run for Congress again. And I remember sitting down with my campaign team, and they said, “What do you want to do in the meantime? In the next few months, what do you want to do?” And I said, immediately, I had a little bit of money left over in my campaign account, I said, “I want to start a PAC, and I want to support other Democratic moms running for office.”

Because my experience as a mom with young children, running for office, you understand how incredibly difficult it is, and how the political system was designed by old, wealthy, white men for old, wealthy white men. And everyone will automatically ask a mom, “Who will watch your kids while you’re campaigning?” No man has ever been asked that question. Every mom who’s ever run has been asked that question.

And women are not looked at as serious candidates if they have young children. They are immediately discredited—by donors, by the political establishment, sometimes by voters. And I wanted to change the narrative.

So I launched a PAC first. The foundation and the lobby came a year, year and a half later. But I launched the PAC first, to endorse, and support, and coach, and frankly just be there to talk to other Democratic moms. Because the people who were the most support during my campaign were the moms who had done it before—Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Grace Meng. Katie Porter ran the same year as I did, and was such a support.

And those moms, just being able to talk to somebody about how difficult it is … Elizabeth Warren gave me the best mom pep talk during my campaign. My son had broken his leg, and I was a mess, and she gave me the best talk. It was just, it was the talk that I needed to keep me going.

And I wanted to provide that support to other moms, so I launched the PAC. And I remember thinking, how are we going to get people to apply for endorsements now? We did a launch event. Hillary Clinton came to our launch event, and she answered a FaceTime call from her grandchildren in the middle of her speech, and the video went viral. It was on “Colbert” that night.

And I remember my mom calling me at midnight, screaming that we were on “Colbert.” But because of that video, we got hundreds of applications from moms running across the country. It was amazing. And every time we talked to one of these moms, none of them were running for the title, none of them were running because they wanted the position or the power. They wanted to change something.

Almost every mom we’ve talked to, and at this point it’s well over a thousand, more than that, because now we’ve actually endorsed over 500 moms, so thousands of moms we’ve talked to, they all have one particular issue. They reached out to a local representative, they reached out to their member of Congress, something was going on with their child, or their family, and they needed support, and they didn’t get the support that they needed. And most of them decide to run because of that. And I love that, there’s always one very, very local, very personal issue that got them into the race.

So we launched the PAC, and started funding these candidates, and started supporting them, and connecting them with each other. Because the old boys network is alive and well, and I wanted to build the mama’s network.

Sudbay: I love that. I love that. So, quickly, and you’ve kind of laid it out, but how would you describe the mission statement of the organization?

Grechen Shirley: The mission? I won’t give you the exact mission statement. I will tell you, in my personal feeling, I want to change the narrative of what it looks like to run as a mom, and to serve as a mom. I want the first question not to be, who will watch your kids while you’re campaigning, but, why are you running, and how can I help?

Every time I talked about child care, or paid family leave during my campaign, every single time, someone would say, “You should ignore the women’s issues and stick to the bread-and-butter issues.”

We lose $122 billion a year because of the lack of child care. If we had similar labor-force participation rates to countries, like Canada and Germany, that have paid family leave, and quality, affordable child care, we would have five and a half million more women in the workforce, $500 billion more in the economy every year. These are the most basic economic issues our country faces, and I’m sick and tired of people saying that they’re women’s issues.

So my mission, when I started Vote Mama, was to change what it looks like to run and serve as a mother. And someone asked me, they said, “How many moms do you need to get elected to feel successful?” And I said, “It’s not about the number of moms. It’s about changing a perspective, changing that narrative.” And that’s what we’ve set out to do.

And, honestly, we supported all of these incredible moms, and we were funding them and working with them on the political side, and I realized that there’s only so much you can do to support these moms once they stepped up to run. You need to actually make it easier for them to run and also to stay in office once they get there. And that’s why I launched the foundation, to break all of the structural barriers that moms in particular, and frankly every working person in this country, faces.

It’s not just about moms. It’s about getting working people into office. People who understand how these policies actually affect everybody’s lives, because it’s their lived experience as well. So that’s why we launched the foundation, to continue to change the way that people run, so that we can support more moms getting into office.

Nir: So you released a study called “The Politics of Parenthood,” about caregiving and the parental status of legislators. What are your key takeaways from that study?

Grechen Shirley: That there aren’t enough moms of minor children in office, at any level of government. That it is much easier to be a dad of a young child than a mom of a young child, and serve. If you look at the numbers … And this is the first time that anyone has looked at caregiving as an identity in looking at political candidates and electeds.

So at the federal level, 6.8% of our Congress members are moms of minor children, 6.8%. Three percent are moms of color of minor children. And only 1.7% specifically are Black moms of minor children.

At the state level, it’s 5.3% of our state legislators. And it’s less than 1% of our state legislators who are moms of minor children. There is no surprise that we have the worst maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world, that we cannot pass paid family leave, that child care costs more than college in most states.

If you look at the makeup of Congress, there are three times more men named John in the Senate than there are moms of minor children. There are more millionaires in Congress than moms. And this is my particular—this really hits home as a mom who ran with kids under six. If you look at the Congress members who have children under six, the ratio of dads to moms is 9 to 1. Only 1% of our Congress members are moms of children under the age of six.

It goes to show how difficult it is to run with small children, and what the perspective is of these moms of minor children running for office. So many people will tell you, and I’ve been told, “Wait till your kids are grown. How can you do this to your children? How can you do that to your husband?” We need to change that completely. We need moms in office because they’re the ones who understand how these policies are affecting us.

Legislators legislate on their lived experience. If you don’t have that lived experience, you’re missing out on really critical conversations and important legislation. So I think the biggest takeaway is just how underrepresented mothers in America are in Congress.

Sudbay: Well, and it’s fascinating to have people say, “Focus on economic issues,” as if being a mother with children isn’t an economic issue in and of itself in so many ways. So with that in mind, what are some of the policy priorities of Vote Mama that would actually help mothers serve in public office?

Grechen Shirley: Yeah. Well, we have been working to take my FEC ruling and expand that for state and local candidates. So my FEC ruling approved the use of campaign funds for child care for federal candidates. We have now worked across the country with legislators and candidates. Thirty-one states have now approved the use of campaign funds for child care for state and local candidates. Indiana just became the last state to approve this. And nine of those states have also approved the use of campaign funds for dependent care as well for people who are in the sandwich generation. There are a lot of people who are taking care of young children and taking care of parents. And it makes a huge difference in who gets to step up and run. We actually just released a report last month on the usage of campaign funds for child care. We’re the only organization both working to get campaign funds for child care passed and tracking the usage.

So I have two favorite numbers that I’m going to share, but we literally just hit the $1 million mark. So over a million dollars in campaign funds have been spent on child care in this country, and this is by both men and women, Democrats and Republicans. And my other favorite number is 2,156%, which is the increase in usage at the state level from 2018. And it was a 662% increase in usage at the federal level. When everybody told me I was nuts and this was not needed, these numbers literally show how very, very needed it is and how it makes a difference to keep people in office and to even help them step up and run.

This is helping moms and dads, and it’s a very small structural change. It’s campaign finance reform. It’s not one of those sexy things that people like to talk about politically, but it literally has the ability to completely transform the political landscape. More than half of the funds used have been used by women. More than half of the funds used by women have been used by women of color. It changes who gets to step up and run.

Nir: You mentioned something interesting, that 31 states have now adopted some form of this regulation. And you mentioned Indiana being the most recent. Of course, Indiana, very red Republican state. Obviously, in a lot of ways, supporting child care has been seen, for better, for worse, as a Democratic priority. But clearly, you’ve had a success reaching out to Republicans and conservatives on this issue. So what has that bipartisan response been like for you? What has your experience been like going into these red states?

Grechen Shirley: Yeah, it’s interesting. When we first started to do the work on campaign funds for child care and we were getting support from Republicans, my theory was that it was a libertarian issue, that these are private funds that you’re raising for your campaign. And a lot of people were like, “You should be able to choose how to spend these dollars. It’s money you’re raising. You go ahead. You can either buy lawn signs and pay for more staff, or you can hire a babysitter and have somebody watch your children so you can go out and knock on more doors.”

So there is this libertarian aspect where some Republicans think you should be able to use your campaign funds how you choose. There are no tax dollars that are involved in this. There might be a little bit more pushback if that was the case or there would be more pushback if that was the case. But it’s also this perspective of we need more working people in office and we need young families in office. We need that representation from young families. And there are Republicans who understand that.

We’ve actually had a lot of support. This year in particular, we have broad bipartisan support both in South Carolina and Ohio for this legislation. In Oklahoma, our prime sponsor is a Republican mom. So really, it’s people who understand the necessity of having more young families in office of having that experience. And there’s also this perspective of “We want to bring our state statute in line with federal statute.” This is allowed for federal candidates. We want to have this allowed for state candidates as well.

Nir: I have a really nerdy follow-up question on that, which is, in your campaign, you got authorization through an opinion by the FEC. At the state level, you’ve talked a lot about legislation. Have you worked directly with election authorities in these states or are you just trying to go the legislative route?

Grechen Shirley: We have multiple ways that we’re getting this approved at the state level. One is legislation, one is through an ethics ruling. We’ve gotten attorney general rulings and we’ve gotten secretary of state rulings. In the cases where we have ethics approvals, we’re also still trying to introduce and pass legislation just because it really solidifies it more. But we have to go about this in many ways to get it approved. So in Virginia, for instance, we had an attorney general ruling. And we’re working… It’s funny because the prime sponsor in Oklahoma submitted … She’s introduced the legislation. She also submitted an ethics ruling.

Nir: That’s so interesting.

Grechen Shirley: In some cases, we try to do both.

Sudbay: Really so fascinating. And the states are so varied. I mean, trying to figure that all out is amazing. And it sounds like you’ve been having some great success, but it is an election year and this is “The Downballot.” So let’s talk some politics. Are there particular candidates you’re focused on supporting this year on the PAC side?

Grechen Shirley: Yeah. We have 122 endorsed candidates right now, and we’re not even done with endorsement interviews. So we have 25 U.S. House candidates that we’re supporting, two Senate candidates. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell—I am very, very excited about her race. We’re actually hosting an event for her in New York in two weeks. I think she is a really … It’s a big pickup opportunity, and I think we can win that Senate seat.

We have 10 incumbents that we’re working with across the country. Becca Balint is one of the … She’s the only LGBTQ parent of minor children in Congress. And Hillary Scholten, who we supported in her first run and then again last year when she won, last cycle when she won. And it’s a huge Republican target race. That’s a big pickup opportunity for the Republicans. So we are trying to support Hillary as much as possible.

And then we have one red-to-blue candidate, Missy Cotter Smasal, down in Virginia, who I love. And we supported her years ago when I first launched Vote Mama. I think she’s actually in our very first endorsement group when she ran for state Senate. In New York, we have Sarah Klee Hood running upstate. We have Laura Gillen running in our district right next door. Both of those would be flips, and we need to win those seats. Laura Gillen is New York 4. It used to be held by Kathleen Rice. It was held by Democrats for a long time. And Long Island, as you know, has been going redder and redder, and we need to win that seat back. So Laura Gillen is really a really important candidate.

Lateefah Simon, who is running for Barbara Lee’s seat, I love her. She is so cool. She is a Black single mom of a minor children. As I said earlier, only 1.7% of our Congress members are Black moms of minor children. We need to change that. And she is absolutely just one of the most badass people that I know, and I think she has to win that seat, and she will. We need more single moms in Congress. We have two single moms in Congress right now. Literally, it’s Katie Porter and it’s Nancy Mace, and we need to get some more single moms of minor kids in Congress. So Lateefah is amazing.

And then we have candidates across the country that I can talk about. But I think one of the exciting things is we’re trying to do full slates of Democratic moms running in four states this year. We’ve targeted Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, and we have some of the most wonderful candidates, I will tell you. But those are really important states that we need to maintain some of our seats in those seats. And in some of those cases, we can flip those houses.

Nir: So how far down the ballot do you folks get with your endorsements?

Grechen Shirley: We do school board to Senate. This year, right now, we have only announced, because we’re rolling them out, we’ve only announced state and congressional and statewide right now. But we do school board to Senate, and we will be announcing as we continue with our endorsement cycle, we will be announcing school-board races as well and some other local seats.

Nir: I love that. The tagline of “The Downballot” is “From Senate to city council.” So you are truly of the same heart there.

Grechen Shirley: Honestly, it makes such a difference. And I witnessed that locally because I, before I decided to run for Congress, was trying to find a good person to run for that seat. And a lot of the people who run for congressional seats have held local elected office. And we don’t have a lot of downballot candidates, especially on Long Island, in my district, who were ready to step up and run for Congress. I had a really hard time trying to recruit somebody, which is why eventually I ended up running myself. But that’s a problem in many places, in many districts across the country if you are not getting really good, strong Democratic candidates into these local seats.

And in so many places, we have corrupt politicians and corrupt party chairs that play favorites and play games and put people into certain seats. A lot of the people who are in these local seats have never run a competitive race and don’t know how to run a competitive congressional. So actually supporting people who are running competitive downballot races is something. I love doing that. We have supported so many downballot candidates running from county ledge to school board. The school board is critical.

Moms for Liberty is trying to take over school boards across the country. It’s so important, and we can do so much with our school-board candidates, a little bit of fundraising, a little bit of support. So many of these people are first-time candidates, and they’re critical races. So I’m always excited about the downballot races.

Nir: Well, we have been talking with Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is the founder and CEO of Vote Mama, a PAC dedicated to electing progressive moms up and down the ballot. Before we let you go, where can our listeners find out more about your organization, you have several organizations, and where can they follow you on social media?

Grechen Shirley: Yes. So on Instagram, please follow us @votemamalobby, and our website is votemama.org. It’ll take you to our PAC, our lobby, and our foundation website. So you can go there. So votemama.org, @votemamalobby in Instagram, @VoteMamaPAC on Twitter, and @VoteMamaFdn as well on Twitter. But go to Instagram. It’s where we do our most work. It’s where we communicate mostly, @votemamalobby.

Nir: Well, thank you so much for coming on “The Downballot” today.

Grechen Shirley: Thank you for having me.

Sudbay: Yeah, this was terrific. Thank you.

Grechen Shirley: Thank you.

Nir: That’s all from us this week, thanks to Liuba Grechen Shirley for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing [email protected]. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Drew Roderick, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.


March 2024