Campaigning in the Time of Coronavirus

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BY TONY WEST
The COVID-19 pandemic has filled the spring of 2020 with baffling challenges for Philadelphians’ paths of everyday life. Keenly feeling this pinch are political campaigners in the June 2 primary, which features several locals in competitive races: Theirs is not work that can be put on hold until June.

POLITICKING follows the rest of public, business and social life into the era of online meetups, commonly arranged on Zoom. Screenshot from the 27th Ward Democratic Committee’s four-candidate 188th Legislative forum, which drew 60 attendees.

So much of politics traditionally relies on face-to-face interactions: town-hall meetings, fundraising socials, door-to-door streetwork and election-day get-out-the-vote operations. In all these activities, social crowding has been a measure of effectiveness.

All that is out now, replaced in large part by social media. This arena had been growing in importance long before the pandemic; now it is virtually the only tool that is available to State representative candidates, challengers in particular. There are six contested Democratic legislative district races in the city – in the past fertile fields for retail campaigning. Now the chief way for them to get in voters’ faces is virtually. How well will that work?

27th Ward Leader Carol Jenkins, a veteran political observer and political scientist, is dubious. But she advised, “Don’t think there won’t be an effect at all. It will cut into old-school ballots.” Ward committees will not be able to fan their members out through their divisions as effectively as usual.

How Many Will Vote by Mail?

Their difficulties will be compounded by the drastic reduction of physical polling places. Most divisions across the city will have to go to another division, some quite a hike a
way, if they wish to vote in person. These sites were determined by the Department of State, not City Commission. In many cases, ward leaders and City commissioners have argued against the sites approved by State, to no avail.

CONSULTANT Teresa Lundy says the virus lockdown has put a crunch on many fundraising drives during the crucial last phase of the spring campaign.

City commissioners have been promoting the new at-will mail-in voting procedures to the max. But there are significant concerns about their eventual success. So far, there has been a large disparity in received mail-in applications between more-affluent parts of town (high) and poorer neighborhoods (low). And time is running short. Next Tuesday, May 26, is the deadline for voters to apply for a mail-in ballot. While everything about mail-in voting is designed to make voting easier for low-income voters – who often find it hard to get to the polls in person on election day – the reform may wind up favoring voters with more money and education (who already, to be fair, turn out in greater numbers than the poor).

And there are widespread concerns about the untested mass mail-in method. “Campaigns need to have volunteers to oversee mail-ins,” said Teresa Lundy, a Philadelphia consultant who is working on the statewide campaign for auditor general of Tracie Fountain in a wild five-way race. “There hasn’t been a clear strategy. That makes my candidate a little apprehensive. Getting in a line at a polling station makes a little more sense to me.”

No mail-in vote campaign is likely to capture voters who make up their minds at the last minute – always an extra problem with downballot and General Assembly races.

Packing the Room with Zoom

Jenkins questions how effective online rallies can be to reach large numbers of voters. That may leave incumbents, with built-in recognition and other outreach tools, with an advantage. “You can only go so far with online campaigning,” she says.

The effectiveness of Zoom meetups may vary in different neighborhoods. Younger, tech-savvy areas may adapt more quickly to them. Jenkins’ 27th Ward, for instance, which is in the Penn-USciences neighborhood, staged a virtual candidates’ forum for the lively 188th Legislative District race, which features four contestants. Organized by a volunteer tech whiz, it drew 60 attendees. That would be a big live turnout in many wards!

STATE LEGISLATIVE candidate Marisa Shaaban has been working the streets in a new way: delivering emergency supplies where needed. From her Facebook page

One of the candidates in that race, Reclaim Philadelphia veteran Rick Krajewski, has been hosting online town halls every Sunday and lunch hours every Wednesday. “Zoom is an okay substitute for now,” said his campaign director Pele IrgangLaden.

One of Krajewski’s opponents, State Rep. Jim Roebuck (D-W. Phila.), admits he’s never been a computer person but he too is learning to Zoom. “My house is now my office,” he noted. One advantage that incumbents have is that they can host online events, alone or with colleagues, in their official capacities, not as campaigners. (COVID-19 is the runaway favorite topic these days.)

In the similar 182nd District, where Marisa Shaaban is challenging incumbent State Rep. Brian Sims (D-S. Phila.), Shaaban’s consultant Karen Sugarman said Shaaban has appeared at Zoom events hosted on her behalf and at events hosted by grassroots organizations that endorse candidates. And Sugarman has also been using it for meetings she sets up for her clients. “When it comes to the face-to-face, Zoom will ultimately achieve the same purpose,” she said.

“If the incumbent is out-front and visible, there is an advantage for them in having that platform. It increases the challenge for the challenger, less so if the incumbent has a lot of negatives,” Sugarman advised.

Face Time via Facebook

Facebook also gains extra power in this election. Most candidates are using it to fire up their base – by definition, each of their Facebook Friends is, at least in theory, friendly to them. Facebook has been around longer than Zoom so more people are familiar with it. It has recently added its own real-time video-conferencing function, Facebook Live, which some candidates are using.

ONLINE videos posted on websites and social media, like this one from State Sen. Larry Farnese’s campaign, are, in the age of COVID-19, one of the few ways for candidates in the June 2 primary election to show a human face to voters.

Candidates who are connected to an existing organization already deeply invested in social media may have an edge in virtual campaigning. That’s likely to favor progressives in well-established progressive groups such as Working Families Party, which is boosting its member Bernard Williams in the 198th District, where four hopefuls are vying for an open seat. The district, which takes in Tioga and Germantown, is not high in online access but if his group works as a team for him, that may help his turnout, should old methods – coupled with new difficulties – hurt his rivals in the COVID campaign season.

In statewide races, online work becomes even more crucial, since the time-tested tactic of driving across state commonwealth trying to hit as many counties as possible is off the table.

“When we started to see a spiraling downward, event cancellations, we went straight into digital mode,” Lundy explained. “We thought about radio but people have got to be in their cars for that to work. So we amped up social media, stopped email and moved to text messaging.”

Calling on All Phone Bank Workers

THE SPRING primary is just a test run for Democrats figuring out how to campaign in the age of coronavirus, says political strategist Ken Washington of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO and a veteran phone-bank planner.

Telephone work has gained in importance during this campaign. Nina Ahmad, a Philadelphia who is also running for State auditor general, did a statewide call in March with 20,000 people with Salima Pace of NUHHCE District 1199C (a union that represents hospital workers). “It was a live conversation called ‘Take a Pulse,’” Ahmad related. “Top concerns were the spread of COVID and Trump’s poor response.” It was a subject many Pennsylvanians were eager to bone up on.

Phone banking is not much affected by the virus and can be easily adapted to social distancing or work from home. As always, though, it takes a team. Philadelphia AFL-CIO maven Ken Washington stated that phone banking has long been a specialty of organized labor’s political activism. His main focus, though, is planning November general-election operations. But in a couple of contested local primaries, labor may deploy its teams.

Krajewski’s campaign has put together an ambitious telephone campaign. IrgangLaden reported it has “the technology to connect with at the same time,” logging 30,000 calls so far.

Empathy matters, IrgangLaden stressed. “We knew people would be in real distress right now. So we launched a mutual-aid program. Our volunteers will do a grocery run, pick up prescription, find you a social worker. Our first sentence is, ‘How are you doing?’” The campaign has received 130 requests for aid, he said.

The Value of Friendships That Deliver

Other important tools for incumbents and insiders to wield – money and endorsements, which often go together – have been compromised by coronavirus. “No candidate has money, because money has been displaced,” commented Lundy. “And less than 10 county committees had endorsed as of May 8.” Endorsements commonly require the endorsing body to council together and they are all trying to figure out virtual councils like everyone else.

ENDORSEMENTS often give a boost to incumbent candidates like State Rep. Mary Isaacson in the 175th Legislative District if they have a track record of serving labor unions and other constituent groups with clout. From Isaacson’s Facebook page

Incumbents have an advantage in winning endorsements, especially the ones that pay. Democratic City Committee has endorsed all incumbents. In the 198th District, Chairman Bob Brady reported, the party endorsed Darisha Parker, an aide to retiring State Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Northwest).

In the biggest local race, that for the 1st State Senatorial District, incumbent State Sen. Larry Farnese (D-S. Phila.) is backed by 18 organizations that are known to spend money. That has enabled him to run regular TV ads, something beyond the dreams of other candidates.

His opponent, however, Nikil Saval, has union organizing chops and won the backing of three – American Federation of Teachers, Laborers’ District Council and UNITE HERE – along with a host of progressive groups, so he can afford some campaign tools as well.

Snail mail remains a reliable old-school standard for those who can budget to send it out. Many a $1,200 federal stimulus check, observers suspect, will be spent by state-rep candidates at USPS this month. Most contested races are seeing rounds of mail.

State-rep candidates with established networks are plying them hard. “I did not have to close up shop because of COVID,” said 51st Ward Leader Gregory Benjamin, another candidate in the 188th. “I’ve been knocking on doors, feeding people, aiding people with rental assistance.” He has a couple of billboards up.

No Way to Stay off the Streets

Lundy says her campaign has been out knocking on doors, with masks and gloves. In the 182nd, Shaaban has been collecting, delivering, and donating emergency PPE supplies and food for frontline workers and vulnerable people in need due to the pandemic.

STATE LEGISLATIVE candidate Darisha Parker is one of many candidates who still finds ways to work the streets even in a season of shutdown. From her Facebook page

In the 198th, Parker and her team have been walking the streets, showing people how to register to vote. Coming up, Williams is planning an outdoor “Bar-B-Q Grab & Go” at a playground.

In the 185th District, State Rep. Maria Donatucci’s (D-S. Phila.) challenger Regina Young has staged motorcades around her part of Delaware County that lies within that district, which is far from Donatucci’s base in Girard Estate.

The last stage of COVID-era campaigning is planning for election day and its runup. This remains murky for campaigns large and small because people are still scratching their heads over the logistics of the newly limited polling places under social distancing. This is a work in progress that City Commission, campaign managers and labor organizers are still sorting out.

Indeed, the entire deed of pandemic political work is something no campaigners are prepared for. “I’ve taught history,” commented Roebuck, a former professor. “No one has thought about a major epidemic in a long time.”

All campaigns must cope with the reality that voting is not the first thing on ordinary voters’ minds these days. “COVID has truncated that. Everybody can’t wrap their head around an election. Step cautiously, make sure you are listening,” counseled Ahmad.

“Anyone who tells you they have it all figured out is delusional,” said Sugarman. “The key is being deliberate and measured. Candidates need to be aware of their humanity first. They must avoid being tone-deaf.”

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