New York gubernatorial opponents Carl Paladino and Andrew Cuomo are among the dads running for office today, and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is among the moms. And of course, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton are also on the growing list of mothers who have campaigned in recent years. (Palin — the mother of five — famously got her start in Wasilla, Alaska, where she was a city council member and then mayor.) Should you, too, put your name on the ballot some day? "Like all things in life, it's got both positives and negatives," says Bill Halter, the lieutenant governor of Arkansas and the married dad of 2- and 4-year-old girls. "I would urge everybody to look for an opportunity to serve and to figure out if this is the way to do it."
Whether you're kids are young or grown up, think about the following factors before — and after — you decide to join the ranks of parent-politicians.
Mull over how you and your kids would handle negative comments. "They're going to hear things about their parents that are not complimentary," says pediatrician William Coleman, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics. "They may have a difficult time because it's made to be like fact on the advertising." You know your kids. "How much can they separate fact from fiction?" says Coleman. Regardless of their age, children may have trouble hearing mean statements. You, may, too. In August, jezebel.com ran an item called "Meg Whitman Is a Bad Mother."
Think about any secrets in your past. "Make sure you don't have any skeletons in the closet that will embarrass your kids," says Coleman. How would the revelation of personal information affect them? When he was governor of New Jersey, married dad Jim McGreevey, created quite a stir when it came out that he was gay. (Later, he wrote about the experience. Click here.) And think about the family of then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a married father of three, during the hubbub over his use of a high-priced prostitution ring. And is there anyone who might say you illegally hired them? Attorney Gloria Allred said Whitman employed an undocumented maid.
Do some soul searching about negative commercials. "You've got to worry a little bit about kids seeing ads where mommy or daddy gets attacked," says Halter, a college classmate who this summer lost his attempt to become his state's Democratic's candidate for a U.S. senator. "You wind up having these very age-accelerated discussions… 'This is what's going on, and this is why.'"
Consider the clock. "Any parent who takes on a big time-consuming commitment — whether it is running for mayor or working in a high-pressure law firm, or taking on two jobs to make ends meet — has to look seriously at the clock and weigh the importance of other responsibilities," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. "A day has only 24 hours, no matter how grand the ambitions of someone who wants to fill the day meaningfully…Honest accounting of what it will take from Mom and from everyone else needs to be respected before launching into any campaign." Even if the school board officially assembles just twice a month, you will need to attend committee meetings and talk with community members. "You've got to be prepared for the amount of time governing and campaigning take," says Halter.
Look ahead. Are you planning to be on the school board for just one four-year term? "How long will this be?" asks psychologist Marcella Bakur Weiner, coauthor of The Problem Is the Solution: A Jungian Approach to a Meaningful Life.
Weigh whether you can balance the dual stresses of parenting and politics. "It's a terrible pressure cooker," says Coleman.
Factor in finances. No one goes into politics for the money. But know that you're not going to bring in a Goldman Sachs-ian salary. And your pay will be public record. Halter, for example, earns $42,000 a year.
Get the OK from your spouse and kids. My friend Nancy Rodkin Rotering, a city council member who is running for mayor of Highland Park, Ill., asked her husband and four sons (ages 8 to 16), "Should we run for office?" After all, "It is everybody," she says. "There's no way I could have done it without my husband being 100 percent on board."
Mull over meals. Typically you can expect fewer home-cooked family dinners together. Rotering's husband, Rob, jokes, "Cooking was never her strength anyway!"
Think about how your kids would handle your time away from home. Do your husband and kids feel comfortable that you'll be gone more than usual? When Rotering steps out and leaves her 16-year-old in charge, she jokingly tells her boys, "Don't fire up the nuclear reactor!"
Study your motives. Give your kids an "explanation of 'why,'" says Weiner. Make sure you truly think politics is the best way for you to fulfill your desire to make the world a better place. Halter, who notes that this year 30,000 Arkansas students will get $5,000 scholarships, feels great when parents come up to him and say, "Thanks to what you did, my kid is going to be able to go to college." Rotering grew up wanting to fix problems. (She remembers her mom's framed needlepoint: "Save the world tomorrow. Today just clean up your room.") She started her political career a decade ago, after she successfully campaigned to get the city to put in a stop sign.
Consider the role-model factor. "Public service is very praiseworthy and noble," says Coleman. Kids can grow up learning first hand how to speak up when they see injustices. They also see parents who take action instead of just complaining.
Think about losing your anonymity. It's part of the job, but it can be tricky for kids. "You're out with the family, and the next thing you know, someone wants to talk to you about an issue,' says Halter. Kids, too, can become public figures. Whitman's son has been the subject of not-so-kind writeups.
Be prepared for attacks on your parenting. Last month Paladino criticized Cuomo for marching with his daughters in a gay pride parade.
Be proactive about mud slinging. Talk to your kids in advance so they get your spin on anything potentially negative. Then, says Coleman, "they hear it through a more truthful filter." Kids may experience name calling on the playground — or read mean comments on the internet.
Preserve your kids' privacy. "How well can the parents keep their children protected?" asks Coleman. He notes that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush managed to keep their kids largely out of the spotlight — but Palin did not. Particularly if you're not popular, you may want to leave your children at home. Think of Rod Blagojevich's kids, who heard booing when their dad (then the governor of Illinois) threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. Of course, it's impossible to completely shield kids. The three sons of Rand Paul, a born-again Christian who is a Kentucky candidate for U.S. senator, may well have seen ads that said their dad (while a student at Baylor University) tied up a woman and forced her to bow to a god named "Aqua Buddha." Democrats are also accusing him of misogyny.
Think about teachable moments. Running for office can be a way for kids to experience the First Amendment. When Rotering ran for city council, she and her boys held up campaign signs on the sidewalk of a busy street. "We had the right to peaceably assemble!" she says.
Talk to your kids before and after negative experiences. During her city council campaign, someone gave one of Rotering's sons the finger. He asked her, "What kind of a person flips the bird at a 10-year-old?" She replied, "Someone who's not very thoughtful."
Get your kids to pitch in (appropriately). "The kids can be involved to a certain extent if it's not going to expose them to ridicule," says Coleman. Rotering got her kids to help when she successfully ran for city council. They liked making yard signs out of recycled materials, passing out campaign buttons and pens, and critiquing her website.
Ready to run?