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The 2020 election season officially begins tomorrow with the start of absentee voting for the August 11 primary (learn more about how and where to vote). There’s only one West St. Paul primary race, but campaigning has already started for all races for the November election. However, like everything else, COVID-19 has changed campaigning.
“When we try to adjust for coronavirus, it’s important to think creatively about how to connect with people,” says Ward 2 candidate Robyn Gulley.
And candidates are getting creative.
Front Yard Campaigning
Several candidates have hosted small outdoor gatherings to connect, usually wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
“Former Council Member Darlene Lewis hosted a visit in her driveway for me where folks brought their own beverage and their own chair, and we all got to know one another better,” says Ward 3 candidate Lisa Eng-Sarne. “We’ll be doing more of these. If anyone wants to host one, reach out and I’ll be there with my camp chair and cooler backpack.”
Gulley sets up in her front yard for open “yard hours” when people can ask questions (she’s been known to share space with a lemonade stand). Gulley has also been invited by volunteers who want to host Gulley in their yards.
“Yard hours are fun,” says Gulley. “People stop by to chat and I’ve definitely had people come by who didn’t know about my campaign.”
Mayoral candidate Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson hosts what she calls Lawn Chair Conversations in local parks. More than 20 people attended her first one in Marthaler Park on June 14.
“Social distancing practices are highly important to KaeJae and the campaign team,” says Johnson’s deputy campaign manager, Sarah Kohlmeier. “We consistently ask people to wear masks, provide extras, and always have hand sanitizer available at events.”
Being online has become a necessity in recent years. In 2018, the three West St. Paul candidates who did not have an online presence all lost. COVID-19 will push even more candidates online. Social media, text messages, and websites will all be more prevalent.
“We are adjusting our campaign by working on providing more information on a campaign website, which will be live by the end of June,” says Morgan Kavanaugh, the campaign manager for Ward 1 candidate Bob Pace. “When Bob ran four years ago, he did not have a website, but we felt like this year that was necessary since direct and prolonged interaction with voters will be difficult.”
Gulley is even experimenting with TikTok, a video-based social media site. So far she’s only posted one video where she was trying it out with her kids, but she’ll likely use it for her campaign as well.
Alternative to Door Knocking
One candidate getting especially creative is Ward 3’s Eng-Sarne: “With door knocking currently out of the question, I have been putting on my roller skates and hitting the roads,” she says. “I’ve developed new relationships this way, strengthened old relationships, and have a closer familiarity of the conditions of our roads and paths!”
Instead of door knocking, Johnson is scheduling “Porch Meets” to connect with people when it works for them.
“Bob [Pace] has been out walking Ward 1 and talking to folks that are out in their yards to talk to from a safe distance rather than door knocking up close,” says Kavanaugh.
COVID-19 doesn’t completely rule out door knocking, but it’s going to require a unique approach.
“I’ve been door knocking for 20 years, so I have a good idea of the normal reaction,” says Gulley, who will wear a mask, have hand sanitizer, and explore other ways to reduce risk. “I want to try it and see what makes people more comfortable. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try something different.”
Experimentation, creativity, and safety are going to define the 2020 campaign season.
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