The first few months after Liuba Grechen Shirley launched her congressional bid for New York's 2nd District were spent in a blur of calls. The 37-year-old Democrat needed to raise at least $100,000 to be taken seriously as a candidate.
So she picked up the phone and started contacting everyone she knew, as first-time candidates often do. But unlike other people running for office this election cycle, Grechen Shirley's calls were made while nursing her baby boy and caring for her rambunctious daughter, then one and three years old.
It was quite the juggling act, but she knew it was her duty.
"It’s not easy to run for office with two babies. It wasn’t something I thought I could do," she told Refinery29. "My children were my biggest hesitation. But in the end, they’re the reason I decided to run because I want a more safe and equitable world for them to grow up in."
Few mothers of young children run for office because of the stigma associated with it and because, frankly, it's almost an impossible task. Even fewer are representatives in Congress. Only 10 women, including Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, have given birth while serving in the House. In early April, Sen. Tammy Duckworth became the first woman in history to give birth while in the Senate. The rules of the chamber had to be changed to accommodate the new mother: Children were not permitted in the Senate floor, but a new policy passed because of Duckworth's baby girl will allow lawmakers to bring their children to work until the age of one.
Grechen Shirley is deeply aware of the lack of representation of young mothers in Capitol Hill.
"We’re missing out on that critical voice in Congress," she said. "We’re missing out on the voice of the people who know what it’s like not to have access to paid family leave; that know what it’s like not to be able to find affordable, quality child care; we need that know what it’s like to rely on CHIP to cover their children’s healthcare. If we had those people in office, we wouldn’t have a Congress that let funding for CHIP lapse."
Grechen Shirley, who has called Long Island home all her life, is the granddaughter of Russian immigrants and the daughter of a single mom. She studied politics and Russian at New York University, followed by an MBA with specializations in Management, Economics, and Social Innovation from NYU’s Stern School of Business. Like so many other young women in her generation, she has student loans. (At the moment, she is paying $1,000 per month.) Before running for office, she has a career working with nonprofit groups focused on global economic development and human rights.
Republican Rep. Peter King, the incumbent Grechen Shirley is challenging, has been in office for thirteen terms — basically since she was 12. He hasn’t had a serious opponent since he took office. In fact, when Grechen Shirley debates him in September, it will be his first debate in eight years.
"I’ve had enough of having a representative who doesn’t stand up for his constituents," she said.
Her path towards being a candidate began with her dabbling in activism immediately following the 2016 presidential election. In January 2017, she started the New York’s 2nd District Democrats, drawing inspiration from the grassroots organization Indivisible. The group went on to have about 3,000 members across the district in just a few months. Grechen Shirley never thought of running for office,
"I kept waiting for the right person to come along to run against Peter King," she said. "And I eventually realized I was that person."
Grechen Shirley officially launched her congressional bid last October. Part of her platform includes enacting universal healthcare and paid family leave policies, protecting reproductive rights, increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, gun safety measures such as closing the domestic violence loophole, and cutting taxes for the middle class.
Before becoming the Democratic nominee after June’s primary, Grechen Shirley made news when she petitioned the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to allow her to use a portion of her campaign funds to pay for child care. Prior to running for office, she used to work from home and was the full-time caregiver of her children.
For the first few of months of her campaign, she would stay home with her kids until 3:30pm. That’s when her mom would take over after finishing teaching at a nearby public school so Grechen Shirley could go out to knock doors and do campaign events. But then, her son broke his leg in January and was put in a body cast. The family realized that if they wanted to continue with the campaign, they needed help. They eventually hired a part-time babysitter, paying her $22 an hour for about 20 hours per week. But it was financially straining.
"There was no way for us to give up a year-and-a-half of our life with no salary and also pay our student loans, our mortgage, our taxes, and the cost of child care," she said. "It was impossible for me. We didn’t have enough money left to cover [it]."
This financial burden can severely limit whose voices get represented in Congress: As of 2015, the median net worth for representatives was $900,000 and for senators it was $3.2 million. In contrast, the average American household's net wealth was around $80,000.
The FEC ended up ruling in Grechen Shirley’s favor. The decision, which changed the game for candidates seeking federal office, also paved the way for other mothers at the state and local level to petition their respective governing bodies to allow them to campaign funds to cover their child care expenses.
"Using a portion of my campaign funds for child care was critical for me to be able to run," she said. "It was a bipartisan, unanimous decision. It’s an important way to break down barriers and make sure that we have more parents of young children, more people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in office."
Most women running for office will tell you about the gender-based criticism that gets thrown their way. But the shaming Grechen Shirley has faced as a mom since launching her campaign is a particular brand of ugly.
"I’ve been told I’m a bad mother. I’ve been told that she’s using her children as political props," she said. "Meanwhile, if a man brings his children with him [to a campaign event] or has them in a campaign ad, he’s considered more responsible."
She added: "My children are not political props, they’re my whole world. I’m doing this for them."
Come November, it’s still unclear whether Grechen Shirley will be able to dethrone the Republican incumbent. (According to FiveThirtyEight’s most recent forecast, she has about a 19% chance of winning.) But still, her visibility as a congressional candidate who also happens to be the mother of young children has opened the door for other parents to follow in her footsteps.
"The more we normalize parents of young children and working [class] people running for office, the more representative our country will be," she said. "[Most of our representatives] don’t understand how the policies they enact affect our lives. We need people in office who understand these issues because we live them every day."