By Dawn DeSart
DuPage County Board Member
and ACE Leadership Team Member
Running for political office during normal times is exhausting, exhilarating work. There are doors to knock and neighbors to meet. There are forums and debates and places to go meet the voters “where they’re at.” You’re shaking hands and hugging friends who host neighborhood meet-and-greet coffees for you. You’re up in the dark hours of the morning meeting commuters at the Metra train stations. As a candidate, you are quite literally “pressing the flesh” at every opportunity.
Then a hundred-year global pandemic strikes, and you are told to stay home, avoid crowds, and keep yourself six feet away from other people. But how does a candidate campaign for political office by avoiding people? How can candidates get their message across to voters while social distancing? The challenges are great. The opportunity for creative networking must be even greater.
‘There is nothing more important right now than the election,” says Thomas Craighead of the Naperville League of Women Voters. “Whether it’s the national election, the local election, or your own personal election, this is an important moment in our history.”
Most of the local campaigns are organizing at-home phone banks to get their messages out by calling voters. “Days of Action” include lit drops by campaign volunteer workers. Gone for now are the days when volunteers walk door-to-door, ring the doorbell, hand the voter literature for their candidates, and speak to voters about their preferred candidates. In these days of COVID-19, volunteers must now just do a lit drop, dropping off candidates’ literature at the doors of voters, and hope that the voters take the time to read the literature, rather than dumping it directly into the recycle bin. Face-to-face selling a candidate is—for now—a thing of the past, in most cases.
“COVID-19 has changed how candidates reach constituents,” acknowledges Cynthia Borbas, Democratic Party of DuPage County (DPDC) chairwoman. “Previously, there was a heavy focus on conversations at people’s doors. Some candidates are still attempting to go to the doors and having conversations while socially distancing and wearing masks, but some candidates and volunteers are nervous to do that, and many neighbors are also concerned when people are at their doors during COVID.”
Ken Mejia-Beal is a candidate for Illinois state representative in District 42. Mejia-Beal is one of the few candidates still knocking on doors, despite the pandemic, “I’m wearing a mask but I’m still going door to door. Wearing a mask is challenging. In year’s past (when I’ve campaigned), during the summer months, I’d go knocking on doors no matter the heat. This year, wearing a mask makes it feel hotter, and I had to cut back on door knocking if it’s over 80-degrees. It just gets too hot. But if I can’t go door to door, I am phone banking, always trying to reach voters. And because there are still people afraid to open the door, even to someone wearing a mask, I try to stay connected (to voters) through lots of emails.”
Despite COVID-19, or more accurately, because of COVID, Mejia-Beal has re-discovered the beauty of human contact. “When I go door to door and talk especially to senior citizens, I find that a lot of people haven’t spoken anyone…no one…but maybe their mail carrier since March,” says the candidate. “A lot of people out there are so incredibly lonely. Too many have no one.”
Mejia-Beal recalled an incident that happened while he was out campaigning. “I was talking with one lady, when halfway through our conversation, she started crying. She hadn’t spoken to anyone since March,” he says. “She has no kids and her husband died last year. She was alone. Completely alone. I was the first person she had spoken to in months! It brought her to tears.”
Many other candidates are avoiding knocking on doors altogether during this period of social distancing.
“We are trying to find any silver lining possible during this pandemic,” says Lynn LaPlante, candidate for the DuPage County Board, District 4. “For example, the fact that I had the virus in March, was quite sick, but have recovered—what a thing to be grateful for! The same comes to campaigning during a pandemic—I’m looking for the silver linings and reasons to be grateful.”
Most candidates in this election cycle agree that campaigning ‘ain’t what it used to be.’
Some candidates are also facing the reality of remote learning for their school-aged children and having to be home to monitor their progress.
“I have four school-aged kids at home, and while campaigning as a Mom is definitely a challenge, I am grateful most of the work can be done remotely from home,” said LaPlante. “I can be here working on my campaign, while also helping my kids with their e-learning. I can make dinner in between zoom calls, and then, we can sit down to eat together as a family, since I am not out driving to deliver a speech. Instead, I can give a candidate speech into a camera downstairs, and just walk upstairs to read a book with my youngest as I tuck her in and be there to help the older kids with their homework. I am focusing on these silver linings while we all navigate these uncharted waters. Campaigning during these times just adds an extra layer of uniqueness.”
“The challenge for me is shifting to digital,” says Amy Chavez, candidate for the DuPage County Board, District 5. “It’s a challenge using FaceBook and the website videos, figuring out how you can make a true, personal connection with voters without seeing people face to face. Everything has shifted to digital.”
Chavez and DuPage County Forest Preserve, District 5 candidate Barb O’Meara are teaming up for many events to reach voters. On September 16th, they hosted a Zoom fundraiser together, with special guests Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois’ 11th District and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood of Illinois’ 14th District. The event was a success with nearly 30 voters at the virtual fundraising event.
“I’ve been helping folks, and they are making more phone calls (this year),” says Illinois State Representative Stephanie Kifowit, of the 84th District. Kifowit does not have an opponent this election cycle, but she says that when volunteers are knocking on doors, they step back, “and are standing more than six feet away to talk to people.”
Most candidates who have run for an elected position or have walked door to door for other candidates previously say they miss the people, and the opportunities in the past that have allowed them to meet voters.
“COVID-19 has changed the campaign plan I had because I want to always put residents’ health first. Therefore, we are mostly just lit dropping and missing out on talking to people to find out their concerns or questions,” says Paula Deacon-Garcia, candidate for DuPage County Board, District 2. “I am relying on feedback on social media posts and having people share with their friends to get my name known. Also, fundraising has been tricky. (Candidates at all levels need funding) to pay for literature, and I do not want to burden people already struggling during these difficult economic times. So Zoom meetings, literature drops, and social media is 2020 campaigning.”
Jeff Jacobson, is a candidate for 18th Circuit Court Judge in DuPage County. Jacobson has been given a unique opportunity to get name recognition during his campaign for judge. He’s been invited to be an expert legal analyst at various Chicago media outlets. “I have been using webinar software to campaign,” says Jacobson. “It allows me to spend time with voters safely. Also, I have been fortunate to be a guest on air on NBC, ABC, and a couple of times on the WBBM Business Hour.”
Most candidates in this election cycle agree that campaigning “ain’t what it used to be.”
“There has been a shift in our campaigning to rely more heavily on postcards, letters, lit drop, texting, phone banking and social media,” says DPDC Chair Borbas. “All these approaches can be personalized and targeted, so while we aren’t necessarily having those face-to-face connections, we are still connecting with voters on the issues that matter with a personal touch.”
“The challenges, of course, are the limitations on direct interaction with voters,” says Bill White of Downers Grove, candidate for DuPage County Auditor. “For example, I love campaigning in the crowds that gather at Metra stations for the morning commute to work. But with COVID-19, that’s not safe, and Metra ridership has been massively reduced. Knocking on doors is more problematic. Some people are perfectly okay with talking with canvassers, but you never know if an elderly person or someone with a compromised immune system is at a particular house. The last thing we want to do is inadvertently spread the virus.”
“Because of this, I am spending a lot of time dropping literature, in coordination with other candidates,” White continues. “Our literature bags typically include cards from seven, eight, or nine candidates, so we are in effect endorsing each other. Our message is simple: ‘Vote blue on the entire ballot’.”
“Because of these unprecedented times when it’s become more difficult to meet voters personally, candidates are counting on supporters to get their message out to even more people. Those involved in the democratic organization have been incredible in urging friends who vote,” says Jacobson. “The major challenge is not being able to personally meet voters. Voters want to personally meet the candidates.”
“As we head into the final weeks, I very much hope that all Democratic candidates and campaigns will support each other, especially given the challenges we all face,” says White. “Hopefully, we can all demonstrate that we take the virus seriously; we all understand the need to be creative; and we are committed to working as a team.”
Dawn DeSart is a member of the DuPage County Board representing District 5. She has spent her career as a journalist working in every field: newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. While at NBC5 in Chicago, Dawn earned five Emmy Awards for excellence in journalism. A graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, she has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.