Political campaigns of Ga. moms: a blur of juggling kids and Zoom calls

Turner Beeson (right) sneaks in the background as his mother, Sarah Beeson, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 56, prepares for a virtual campaign event at their residence in Roswell on Sept. 10, 2020. Turner usually spends time in the basement with his father and his little brother while Sarah is participating in virtual campaign events at night. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Candidates balance campaign commitments with day jobs and tending to homebound children amid a pandemic

It’s 6:59 p.m. when Sarah Beeson slides behind her desk, methodically positions her laptop then adjusts a light to evenly illuminate her face.

The 7 p.m. Zoom meeting she’s setting up for is with a local chapter of the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon. After a few niceties with the dozen or so women who have signed on to learn more about her platform, Beeson confidently launches into her stump speech.

“I’m proudly running for office to flip one of Georgia’s most flippable state Senate district seats,” she says before reciting her credentials.

The Democrat’s sharp image and polished virtual speech offer no clue to the chaos that was her living room just minutes before, when she was scarfing down a plate of spaghetti, cajoling a stubborn 3-year-old into finishing his dinner, dashing around the house in search of her blazer, nursing her infant son and helping her husband usher both boys into the basement, out of earshot of her back-to-back campaign events.

Beeson is one of a record number of women running for office in Georgia this year. She’s also a relatively new breed of candidate: a mother with small children at home.

That in itself is novel. Until recently, many of the country’s female political leaders waited until their kids were older before embarking on the campaign trail.

But it’s even more notable considering the significant stress the coronavirus has put on working parents, and particularly mothers who shoulder a disproportionate share of housework and childcare duties even in normal times, studies show.

Lyndsey Rudder, Republican candidate for state House District 54, takes advantage of a red light to open a snack pack for her son Tripp after picking him up from school in Atlanta on Sept. 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Many cite their children as their reason for running amid a pandemic that’s made it even more challenging for first-time candidates to raise funds. There’s an urgency to the moment, they say. Action is needed on issues dealing with education, child care and public health.

“There wasn’t time to wait for them to get older,” said Lyndsey Rudder, a Republican running for a Buckhead-based state House seat, referring to her 2- and 4-year-old sons.

Waiting it out

Historically, the logistics of political life dissuaded many women from running for office. Elected positions in Congress or state and city governments meant long workdays away from their children — and defied expectations for the roles women should play within a family.

Many of the state’s highest-ranking women, including ex-House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and former secretaries of state Karen Handel and Cathy Cox, didn’t have children.

Children from left to right; Mary Claire Griner, 8, Rebecca Moody, 7, and Ellie Griner, 6, sit in the Georgia House chamber before Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs is sworn in in January 2012. The girls, all from Valdosta, traveled with their family to witness the ceremony because Michael Boggs is Rebecca Moody's uncle and the Griners are close friends with Boggs. January 9, 2012. Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: jgetz@ajc.com

Others waited until their kids were in high school or out of the house entirely before committing to the campaign trail.

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House Speaker Pro-Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, the highest-ranking woman in the Legislature, timed her first run carefully. Frustrations with local governance in her north Fulton community are what initially got her involved in politics, but she waited until her four children were all in school before seeking a seat in the General Assembly in 2002.

“I made sure I finished going door to door each weekday in time to be home when they arrived from school,” said Jones, whose kids at the time ranged in age from 5 to 12. “I wouldn’t have run for office a single year earlier because it would have been too much.”

Decades ago, it was common for women to be told they wouldn’t get certain positions in politics and corporate America because juggling the job would be too hard for a mother with young children. And still today, some female candidates said they’ve been asked who would take care of their kids if they were elected. Their male counterparts are often spared the same questions.

“Am I supposed to just hunker down at home until they reach 18 years old?” said Beeson. “I think that’s ridiculous. (Running for office now is) demonstrating to my sons that a woman or a mother can do anything, and they’re not a hindrance.”

‘Putting out there what you are’

Not only is the current crop of female candidates not waiting until their kids are out of diapers to run, they’re often putting them at the forefront of their campaigns.

Many feature their children prominently on their websites and social media accounts — and not just in the staid, color-coordinated photos that have become campaign literature clichés. Now it’s not uncommon for social media accounts to feature more candid shots of kids sprinting around backyards or learning virtually from dining room tables.

Sarah Beeson, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 56, prepares a plate of spaghetti for her son Turner before joining a virtual campaign event at her residence in Roswell on Sept. 10, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

It’s a notable way for new candidates to connect with voters, particularly as the presidential campaigns duke it out for suburban women in places like metro Atlanta.

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Leigh Miller, a first-time candidate running for a Hall County state House seat, has three children between 6 and 10. She sometimes posts about personal challenges with virtual schooling, and shares moments of kid-created mayhem, on her social media pages.

“I do believe in putting out there what you are, and I’m running as a small business owner, a mom of three young kids with a background of being an attorney and a homeowner in my community,” said Miller, a Democrat. A picture of “me in a suit in a dark room isn’t necessarily going to tell anybody all of those things.”

In her speeches, Beeson often discusses looking at preschools for her 3-year-old Turner and asking about active shooter drills, tying it to a school safety bill authored by her Republican opponent that she believes is inadequate.

For Rudder, public safety is a top priority. On the trail, she ties together the work she does at her day job as a deputy district attorney for Fulton County and the future she wants for her sons, Tripp and Maclin.

An uptick in violent crimes this summer is prompting some neighbors and business owners to leave her Springlake community, she said, and she’s nervous to let her children play in her front yard.

Lyndsey Rudder (left), Republican candidate for state House District 54, is helped by her nanny Olga as they get Maclin, Lyndsey's youngest son, into a seat to eat lunch at her residence in Atlanta on Sept. 14, 2020. Rudder says she is appreciative of the help she receives while navigating this campaign season. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. I want my kids to have independence. So, for them to have that, I want public safety to be a priority,” Rudder said.

It’s a message she delivered this week in front of a group of prominent Republican women at a Buckhead horse park, and again in what has become an unofficial campaign headquarters: the front seat of her Honda Pilot, where she’s often shuttling her sons between day care and activities.

It’s easy to “end up feeling spread so thin,” said Rudder. “It’s like wanting to give 100% to everything and having to just have peace with the fact that I can only do so much in one day.”

Support system

A glaring truth, however, is that most of the Georgia women running for office with young kids have a solid support system, the lack of which has prevented countless others, including many single and low-income moms, from entering politics.

Beeson works for her family’s environmental consulting business with her husband, which allows them to hand the kids back and forth as the other works. Her parents live nearby and watch her children several afternoons a week.

Tommy Beeson, husband of Democratic state Senate candidate Sarah Beeson, feeds their youngest son Rowan (right) during dinner time at their residence in Roswell on Sept. 10, 2020. Tommy helps Sarah by keeping the kids busy in the basement as she participates in campaign events in the evening. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rudder has a nanny and a husband who often works from home. She takes her kids to in-person pre-K and day care for a few hours a day. COVID did quash another child care lifeline she was counting on when she entered the race: her mother, who is immunocompromised, and hasn’t been able to visit during the pandemic.

Some groups have emerged to help boost mothers on the campaign trail, especially on the left. The New York-based political action committee Vote Mama is pushing for state legislation to allow general assembly candidates to use campaign funds for child care.

“If you’re not wealthy, many of these races are out of reach,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, the committee’s Georgia chairwoman and a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate.

The pandemic has provided a few side benefits for candidates with kids. Working and campaigning from home has eliminated commutes and allowed for more time with children. But it requires even more carefully choreographed routines for mothers trying to balance life’s competing demands.

Some of Beeson’s campaign work is scheduled around nap times. Frequently, virtual meetings have been carried out with a child in her lap. On occasion, she’ll carefully nurse her youngest out of view of the camera frame.

Rudder will wake before the sun rises to pen thank you notes and call prospective donors during spare moments in the evenings, sometimes from a basement closet to escape the thudding noise from children running upstairs.

Lyndsey Rudder, Republican candidate for state House District 54, speaks with her campaign finance director Amy Doehrman in her makeshift basement office at her residence in Atlanta on Sept. 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The balancing act doesn’t always work.

“The kids ran into each other and smashed their mouths open. Blood everywhere,” Rudder wrote in a text message to her campaign manager one recent evening, asking to reschedule a call. “As soon as I get them back down, I can call you or we can just chat in the morning. I’m so sorry.”

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