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Ann O'Leary Headshot

Why I'll Miss Rick Santorum

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In recent months, I've begun many a meeting by telling people how much I love and appreciate Rick Santorum. This usually elicits hard laughs and perplexed looks as people realize I'm not joking.

The fact is, I'm an unlikely woman to love and appreciate Rick. For one, I'm a committed left-leaning women's advocate. I also was Hillary Clinton's Legislative Director in the United States Senate when Rick was Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania, railing regularly against women as part of his effort to ban late-term abortions. And I know we have differences on the role of women in our society.

But here is why I love Rick Santorum and why I paid close attention to his presidential bid, which he finally abandoned this week. Throughout his career in politics, Rick Santorum has never stopped talking about children and families. His understanding of the challenges many low-income American families face comes from first-hand experience, hiring onto his office staff women once on welfare who were struggling to support their children.

So these have never been side issues to him or a campaign ploy to win over women voters. They are central to his core beliefs and to his vision for a strong economy.

While there may not be much that he and I could agree on if we sat down to talk about how society should best support children and families, we would certainly agree that our political leaders need to do more to support families as the backbone of our economy and that we need to have real conversations about finding the best ways to educate and support all of America's children.

To be sure, these smart conversations are happening. Just yesterday, my friend and colleague, Jodie Levin Epstein, wrote a thoughtful piece about the role of marriage in alleviating poverty in response to Ron Haskin's alternative view on the same subject. But I don't think we will hear much about the role of marriage in alleviating poverty when the Republican's probably nominee, Mitt Romney, takes the debate stage across from President Obama later this year.

Look at the track record: Last November, Voices for America's Children, in partnership with the Child and Family Policy Center, analyzed the content of the first ten Republican presidential debates and found that children's issues--including education, health care, and child poverty--made up only 1 percent of the discussions. That report expressed disappointment, but also hope, that moderators would steer the conversation toward children's issues in later debates. An updated analysis, however, showed that nothing changed as the debates continued and the field of candidates narrowed.

Our country is about to face a crisis when it comes to supporting our children and, frankly, I'd like to hear a real open, live debate about the issues in the months before the November elections. Our children are getting poorer--in fact, children are poorer than any other age group in America. Our family structure is breaking down--last year, more than half of all births to women under age 30 were to single parents. And our government is disinvesting in children at every level cutting funds for public education and social supports.

More evidence came this week in a new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. It found that total state funding for pre-K programs in 2010-2011 decreased nearly $60 million nationwide, the second-straight year of declining support.

Rick Santorum and I might not agree on what to do about that, but he would have made sure that we knew there's a problem and we need to keep talking about how to solve it. He may be out of the presidential race, but I hope his passion for the debate does not go away.