Legislators balance lawmaking with child raising

Rep. Erin Koegel feeds her daughter as she chairs a committee meeting.
Rep. Erin Koegel feeds her daughter, Clara, as she chairs a labor committee meeting at the Minnesota State Capitol on Jan. 23.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

In a basement hearing room near the Minnesota Capitol, lawmakers were discussing securing state election systems when an unfamiliar sound arose from behind the committee table.

Weeks-old Clara let out a soft whimper as she woke up from a nap, the only indication that she'd been swaddled and sleeping in her mother's arms during the hearing. Her mom, Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, quickly hopped out of her chair and took baby Clara outside the room as the hearing continued.

"A lot of people have commented to me that she is the most well-behaved committee member," Koegel laughed, though she acknowledged newborn sounds can be startling in the formal — if not stodgy — halls of the Capitol.

That's just part of life as a legislator and parent. Clara has been at Koegel's side in constituent and committee meetings and on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives since session convened in early January.

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Koegel is happy to have Clara with her in St. Paul, but the situation is in part born of necessity. State legislators are technically part-timers, so they don't get any time off, including maternity or parental leave.

Rep. Erin Koegel holds her daughter Clara as she meets with a constituent.
Rep. Erin Koegel holds her 7-week-old daughter, Clara, as she meets with one of her constituents at the Minnesota State Office Building.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Committee hearings and critical votes don't wait, so legislators must find a way to juggle both. It's becoming a more visible issue in government as a historic number of young women and men ran for office last fall and won.

But balancing work and family life is challenging in the halls of the Capitol — a workplace that's historically been unfriendly to families. After all, the Legislature is known for long hearings that can be scheduled in an instant or hourslong debates that can stretch into the early hours of the morning.

Ellen Anderson was a DFL state senator from St. Paul in the 1990s when she met her husband, a House member, and started a family. They had two children while they both served in St. Paul.

"I had a crib in my office and we had a babysitter who would come to the Capitol for the late nights of session," Anderson said. "She would stroll my babies around in the Capitol until 2 a.m. sometimes."

One night during a particularly long floor debate, Anderson tried to take her baby into a retiring room off the Senate floor because she needed to nurse. She was told it wasn't allowed.

She took a survey of other Capitol employees and heard "horror stories" from lobbyists and staffers who were forced to sit on a toilet to pump breast milk. Some lobbyists and staffers would ask Anderson if they could use her office to pump. That's when she passed the nursing mother's law in Minnesota, which required break time and space for nursing mothers across the state.

But even back then, Anderson said it was rare to see another legislator pregnant or caring for young kids. It's becoming more common now, she said, with more women running for office than ever before.

The Minnesota House floor is kid-friendly, but there are still rules in Minnesota against bringing babies on the Senate floor. Days after undergoing a C-section, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, had to make arrangements with the Senate sergeant-at-arms to bring her newborn son, Arthur, to the floor as she was sworn in for her second term.

"It's not to say that we are going to come in with our young kids every day, but we have to be flexible, the world had changed," Franzen said. "It used to be a male-dominated body and it certainly still is, but as we get more young people and young families we have to catch up with realities."

For Franzen, it's about representation. The Legislature has to be more welcoming to young women and families if it is going to be representative of the state.

"[It's an] institution with a systemic unfairness to women and young families — and it's just the way it's set up," Franzen said. "We haven't revised."

Leaders are taking some steps to make the Legislature a more family friendly workplace.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman designated $1,000 to each caucus to spend on accommodations for parents, but serving with young children is especially challenging for legislators from outside the Twin Cities.

Rep. Josh Heintzman, R-Nisswa, had his 2-year-old son, Troy, with him on the House floor during a recent session.

"He came about 3 a.m., and I could have skipped, but my wife looked at me at about 7:30 a.m. and said, 'I'm going to take a nap, go to work,'" he said. "So I was back at the House at about 9:30 a.m. in the morning."

Heintzman has six children and many of them are around the Capitol during the session. He said he and his spouse make it work through homeschooling, but it was a family decision about whether he should run for office in the first place.

"Everybody definitely has to take inventory and figure out if there's a way," he said.

Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said she tries to bring comforts of home to the Capitol when she is visited by her young daughter, Florence. There are also plenty of days they are apart, she said.

"As women serving in the Legislature from greater Minnesota, there's not a huge number of us that have done this with children," she said. "It's not easy every day, but it's something we feel really committed to."

Rep. Erin Koegel holds her daughter, Clara, as she checks email.
Rep. Erin Koegel holds her 7-week-old daughter, Clara, as she checks email at her office at the Minnesota State Office Building.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Legislative pay is another major challenge. After a recent raise, lawmakers earn $45,000 per year and can claim expense payments. But freshman Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, said his salary barely covers the cost of child care for his two kids, including 4-month-old Elsie. And there are no child care options close to the Capitol. Long said he's in early discussions with some other legislators about trying to bring a child care option back to state government.

There used to be a state-run child care facility near the Capitol for legislators and state employees, but it closed in the early 2000s.

"For a lot of the employees who work up here, there's no opportunity to have your kids in care even near where we work," Long said.

Koegel is making it work. She has a changing station and a Pack-n-Play setup in her office, which is sprinkled with kid-friendly political books like "One Vote, Two Vote" and "A is for Activist." She is able to nurse or pump breast milk in her office if she needs to.

It's not always easy, but Koegel wants to show women that they can serve and start a family at the same time. And babies are bipartisan, she added.

"I was talking to one of my Republican colleagues about breastfeeding. That probably wouldn't have come up in the past. It's a great conversation starter and a way to develop those relationships across the aisle," Koegel said. "Maybe having more family friendly places would make this Legislature go a little more smoothly."