COVID-19 crimps political campaign process
Molly Gray, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, speaks to a socially distanced gathering in Putney on July 11.

COVID-19 crimps political campaign process

With primary election looming and early voting underway, candidates eager to introduce themselves to potential voters must adapt to a socially distant world — one cut off from handshakes, door knocking, or parades

BRATTLEBORO — In a normal July during an election year, candidates would be marching in parades. They'd be shaking hands and talking face-to-face with voters at farmers' markets, fairs, and festivals. They'd be knocking on doors and doing “honk-and-waves” at busy intersections.

This isn't a normal July.

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected virtually every aspect of daily life in Vermont, and political campaigning is no exception.

Instead, candidates say they confine their campaigning to telephone town halls and video conferencing. Direct connections with voters have given way to email blasts and social media.

A number of candidates who talked with The Commons say they are not happy with the situation. But are doing what they can do - make the best of it.

“I wonder if someone will put together a campaign guide for future candidates on how to campaign during a pandemic,” said Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray of Newbury, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. “This is definitely different for all of us.”

Next best thing to being there?

This year marks the 12th run for the Vermont House for state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham. Since her first House campaign in 1998, Partridge set a goal of knocking on every door of every home in her district. That's something she learned from her longtime friend and colleague, former House Speaker Mike Obuchowski.

“That's not happening this year,” said Partridge, “and that really breaks my heart.”

Partridge, in a three-way race for the two seats in the Windham-3 district, says social distancing will make it a little more difficult to run for re-election. It will also make her rely more on phone calls, emails, and videoconferencing.

“I was on Zoom 12 hours a day while the House was in session, and it was exhausting,” said Partridge.

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, is also in a contested race for his Windham-4 seat. Like Partridge, Mrowicki said he would normally be knocking on doors this time of year.

But “people seem uncomfortable having door-to-door campaigning happen,“ he said. “Vermonters have been pretty good about distancing and wearing masks, so it's not something I want to push.”

Mrowicki said that he instituted regular online meetings for constituents to update them on legislative work and current issues after Gov. Phil Scott issued his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order in March.

“I do miss the door-to-door,” Mrowicki said. “There are times when folks start telling the story of their life, the joys and troubles, and it's such an honor to be trusted with those personal reflections. I miss that. For now, phone calls are pretty much our substitute for door-to-door campaigning.”

Campaigns in cars

At the same time, statewide candidates say they appreciate how much time and energy they are saving by making their campaign appearances virtual.

“I had an event in Wilmington, and it took me less than a minute to go to my computer and get there, and a minute to leave my computer and be back in my living room,” said Lt. Gov David Zuckerman of Hinesburg, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. “I think online campaigning can help candidates reach every corner of the state and get more people involved.”

Some candidates have gotten creative. A few weeks ago, Zuckerman held a drive-in rally in a field on a farm in Williston. More than 100 vehicles, safely spaced, filled the field.

“It went great,” he said.

Gray has done drive-by meet and greets in the Burlington area.

“But there's no substitute for meeting people where they live,” she said.

Gray and Mrowicki did try an outdoor mini-rally on the lawn of the Putney Tavern on July 11. About 15 people showed up, all properly masked and distanced.

Having to settle for contact via videoconferencing “only works if you have good internet, and 25 percent of the state doesn't have that,” Gray added.

Other candidates are more cautious about getting out to do in-person campaigns. Brenda Siegel of Newfane, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, has mostly confined her in-person campaigning to attending Black Lives Matter rallies and marches.

Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has also been cautious about in-person campaigning.

Holcombe, Siegel, and Zuckerman were the first to suspend their campaigns in March, when the first spike in COVID-19 cases emerged.

“I really loved meeting with people in their living rooms and hearing the concerns of Vermonters face-to-face, and that simply is not possible now,” Holcombe said. “It is an unusual time for all us.”

Siegel said she threw her energies into establishing “mutual aid” groups to band neighbors together to look out for one another and help as needed during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It was more important to focus on the well-being of people around the state, particularly the vulnerable, than it was to run a campaign,” Siegel said.

Getting your name out there

Holcombe admits that the flip side of being safe campaigning during a pandemic is reducing your visibility and name recognition. That makes it particularly tough when it is your first run for statewide office.

Attorney Pat Winburn of Bennington is, like Holcombe, a first-time candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“It's definitely not a normal political year,” said Winburn, “but there are ways of getting your message out, even when you can't press the flesh.”

Winburn was the first gubernatorial candidate to have lawn signs up before the pandemic and the first to do lots of print and online advertising. “I've been fortunate to have a lot of volunteers, and that support helped to raise visibility in southern Vermont,” he said.

With about 20 years in elective politics and wide contacts across the state, Zuckerman said he is not worried about name recognition.

“The hill is less steep for me,” he said.

Power of incumbency

Pandemic or not, incumbency is king in politics, and even though Republican Gov. Phil Scott has not actively campaigned for re-election, his Democratic rivals say his thrice-weekly COVID-19 televised news briefings - recently cut back to twice a week - have served as an effective replacement for being out on the stump.

It has also, they say, narrowed the political debate.

“Gov. Scott certainly deserves the accolades for the work he has done on COVID-19, but a lot of people are telling me that there are other big issues to be dealt with that aren't being talked about,” said Holcombe.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, said that COVID-19 “made all of our long-term problems worse.”

Ashe, who worked with Scott in helping to develop an effective response to the pandemic, said that while Vermont's economic outlook was “gloomy,” he is impressed that “voters grasp the situation and understand the top priority is getting this state back on its feet after the pandemic.”

If anything, said Siegel, the COVID-19 crisis “has taught us a lot about our nation, and how we live in an empty shell of country.”

“There is such an opportunity for change right now,” she said. “We just need regular people to step up to lead.”

“The decisions that will be made in this moment matter, and will affect us for years to come,” said Gray. “COVID is just the warm-up for a lot of other big crises ahead.”

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