RICHMOND, Va. – Democrats' decision to drop a proposal for paid family leave from their massive social safety net and climate change package was met with disappointment and irritation by female voters in Virginia, a critical constituency in the tight and closely watched governor's race.
Days before Election Day, many Democratic voters there saw the elimination of the plan as a significant step back from the ambitious agenda Democrats pledged if voters ousted Donald Trump from the White House. Some worried it would leave voters soured on the party, just as Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe was scrambling to get out the vote.
"I don’t think that the Biden administration is doing themselves any favors, in terms of actually, you know, making good on the promises that they campaigned on," said Meredith Katz, a Richmond mom of a 4-year-old son and an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, who cast an early ballot for McAuliffe. “A lot of people are upset and frustrated and disappointed because of that.”
It’s unclear whether the gloomy sentiment will become powerful enough to influence the results of Tuesday’s election. Polls indicate the race for governor is deadlocked between McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin, with many Virginians having already cast their votes. And other national issues, including threats to abortion rights, may hold more sway with Democratic voters than the chaotic negotiations on Capitol Hill.
Still, McAuliffe hoped to enter the final weekend of the campaign with a sense of momentum, buoyed by progress in Congress that would remind voters that Democrats can pass bold legislation that improves their lives. Instead, he seems eager to move on from the debate.
“I'm hopeful that something's going to get done,” McAuliffe said when asked directly about the elimination of the family leave provision from the legislation being considered in Washington. “But this race is about Virginia.”
Biden originally called for up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, allowing workers to get their wages partially replaced in the event of a new child or to care for a seriously ill loved one. It's among several top Democratic priorities that were eliminated to appease two Democratic senators — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — who have insisted on a smaller package. Other dropped proposals include expanding Medicare to cover dental and vision care and having Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices.
The concept of paid family leave is particularly popular. A UChicago Harris/AP-NORC poll conducted in February found that 66% of Americans said they favor government funding for paid family leave, compared with just 16% who said they were opposed.
The president nonetheless described his $1.75 trillion framework as “historic,” saying it would "fundamentally change the lives of millions of people for the better.”
Women in Virginia led the early resistance to Trump when their votes and activism helped propel Democrat Ralph Northam to a nearly 9-point victory over his Republican opponent in the 2017 governor’s race. In last year's presidential election, 53% of voters in Virginia were women, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate, and they backed Biden decisively over Trump, 57% to 41%. That helped Biden carry the state by 10 points.
McAuliffe has pledged to pursue legislation at the state level that would guarantee an unspecified amount of paid sick days and family medical leave. He’s also released several ads highlighting his commitment to the issue. Youngkin's campaign has not said where he stands on paid family leave.
The risk for McAuliffe is that paid family leave is a particularly tangible component of a broader piece of legislation that Democratic leaders have often struggled to explain and its elimination could be particularly stinging.
Some prominent activists, including the actor Alyssa Milano, encouraged women to consider other provisions in the package, including free prekindergarten, new child care subsidies and a one-year extension of a child care tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 rescue.
Kristina Hagen, the director of the Virginia Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, said the measure would be “transformative for Virginia families.”
“This is why,” Hagen said in a statement, “with just five days left in the 2021 cycle, we are leaning in on our full support for Terry McAuliffe.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, who campaigned with McAuliffe in Norfolk on Friday, spoke about the importance of both elder care and child care and electing a governor who would prioritize those issues.
“If you care how workers are doing and working people and you understand that when 2 million women had to leave the workforce, a large part of it had to do with an inability to afford or have access to childcare, who is governor matters,” she told the crowd.
Several women interviewed in Virginia on Thursday recalled the informal arrangements and individual kindness of bosses they had to rely on to care for their families without losing their jobs.
Katz, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor, said she was able to spend about six months at home with her son after his birth thanks to an “accommodating" department chair and the ability to do some teaching remotely.
Ciarra Smith, a 35-year-old Richmond resident, recently returned to work after having her third child and said time away from work was critical for her and the baby. Her leave was paid for through her job with the state.
“For them to even consider removing that (from the legislation), that’s going to jeopardize not only the mother’s health, but also those developmental bonds with the baby,” she said. “Then they’re going to be forced with, how do I maintain and survive and still care for my child? And unfortunately, women are always placed in that position.”
Eucharia Jackson, a 58-year-old who attended a McAuliffe campaign event at a Richmond church on Thursday, said she was able to cobble together at least three months of leave after the births of her two children because her employer was flexible.
She called paid leave “absolutely necessary” for new parents and said she’s seeing women increasingly disillusioned and open to Republican arguments, animated in particular by the debate over the curriculum being taught in schools.
“It certainly would be good to have some good news coming from Washington,” she said.
Sloan reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Emily Swanson and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.