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Campaigning During COVID-19

Image by Alhambra Source.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The November 2020 election has turned out to be one of the more interesting elections the United States has seen in many years: a country highly engaged in national politics after months of protests over the violence against men and women of color, the coronavirus pandemic, an economic recession, mass unemployment and an unemployment benefits system that barely works – and all that is just in the last seven months.

Alhambra’s local politics are also seeing a renewed level of engagement. All five of Alhambra’s City Council or Board of Education incumbents up for reelection have challengers.

Due to the pandemic and physical distancing guidelines, campaigning is not what it used to be. No campaign headquarters. No stump speeches. No fundraisers. Alhambra candidates have taken to the internet and their network of supporters to get their faces, names and platforms to voters in new, often more creative ways.

“It’s been very challenging to replicate the game plan from my first campaign in 2016,” City Council member Jeff Maloney said. “Many people who came out to help knock on doors and do canvassing are understandably hesitant to do so this year.”

Maloney, an environmental lawyer with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, has taken to video meetings like Zoom to meet with supporters or strategize for events and connect with voters. He and most candidates are actively campaigning on Facebook and social media.

Maloney’s challenger, Chris Olson, who writes fund-seeking proposals for institutions like non-profits, foundations or government organizations, said she began planning her campaign strategy last fall. Through early March, Olson and her supporters held various events and “postcard parties” where they handmade postcards to friends and families in Alhambra.

Olson, an avid walker, had a plan laid out to walk every district and meet every voter, saying she “really expected that door to door canvassing would be one of the most powerful parts of [her] ‘get out the vote’ endeavor.” Now, she has scaled back, canvassing with a few neighbors, actively posting on social media and phone banking.

Although City Council members represent individual districts, they are currently elected citywide. An amendment to the city charter is also on the ballot so that council members will be elected by voters in the district they represent.

Mayor David Mejia, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, is being challenged for his seat by two people, Sasha Renée Pérez, a member of the city’s Housing and Community Development Advisory Committee member, and Karsen Luthi, Arts and Cultural Committee member.

Pérez, a staff member at the Campaign for College Opportunity, said she began her campaign last year and planned many in-person events including backyard discussions over lunch or dinner to hear neighbors’ concerns or parties at historic homes in Alhambra. Now Pérez’s campaign is partially digital – a follow-along cooking class fundraiser, Zoom meetings, policy surveys – but “nothing beats in-person events,” she said.

The video chats and social media can only reach a limited audience, so Pérez has been giving out her phone number while volunteering. “I knew that the only way I would reach these communities would be by getting out there and checking in on them,” she said.

Mejia said he decided to make his personal campaigning less of a priority and instead “ensure the city is being taken care of above everything else,” prioritizing aid for Alhambra residents, including any non-voters, and highlighting a focus on renters and struggling businesses. He said his focus has been on the community’s needs that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

When he does campaign, Mejia and his wife are running an active social media campaign, and practice social distancing when in the community speaking with residents. “If we do a door knock, we’ll knock on the door and step 10 feet back,” Mejia said. “Sometimes they open the door and sometimes they don’t. You just have to think outside the box a little bit.”

Luthi, a retired civil servant and businessman, has a website promoting his campaign.

Just as the City Council candidates, the six Alhambra Unified School District Board of Education candidates are overcoming the same physical distancing hurdle, but with a slightly more specific audience: not every voter in Alhambra follows school board meetings nor every parent.

The candidates have taken an us-or-them campaign style. The three challengers are campaigning together, cohosting events and coordinating literature and signs, and the three incumbents are campaigning together too.

The challengers are Marcia Wilson in district one, Ken Tang in district two and Kaysa Moreno in district three. As with the City Council, school board members represent individual districts but are elected at large. They appear on video meetings frequently, with their Friday Forum with the Candidates on Friday evenings and Coffee with the Candidates on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Wilson, Tang and Moreno are all educators. Wilson teaches at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and is the Dean of Pathway Innovation and Institution Effectiveness at Los Angeles Trade-Technological College. Tang is an elementary school teacher at the Garvey School District. Moreno teaches math at El Camino College.

Wilson and Moreno both say they have leaned into the digital campaigning, phone banking and dropping off campaign literature. Tang also does some informal canvassing and volunteering. He said he talks to “anyone who gives [him] eye contact,” drives around with a magnetic sign on his car and hands out masks with campaign buttons.

Wing Ho, Jane Anderson and Patricia Rodriguez-Mackintosh, the incumbents, are using word-of-mouth, lawn signs and occasional social media campaigning.

Ho, an architect and construction project manager, has an active presence on Facebook, which he uses to share district information for parents and the occasional campaign post.

“I’m the kind of person who likes my work to speak for itself,” Ho said, “For me, it’s different because I’m doing the current duty to serve our community and the mission I set myself when I was assigned to the board 22 months ago.”

Ho said that though campaigning online is most cost-effective, voters cannot listen to the candidate. Messages can get reinterpreted and an honest message will not reach voters.

While the incumbents have been vocal about being at farmers markets for board member duties, Ho said that this is not a time for political campaigning. The job of school board members is to advocate for the school district and push the district to be proactive if there is a problem, he said.

Ho pointed out that not everyone has access to technology and social media and some voters as a consequence are missing digital campaigns completely.

Candidates acknowledge the same problems across the board. How do you deliver a clear message with no face-to-face interaction? How do you project that message? How do you connect with new voters or hard-to-reach communities? How do you do it safely in a pandemic?

Longtime resident Barbara Messina knows a thing or two about elections — both she and her husband Mike Messina sat on Alhambra’s City Council, though never in a pandemic, and campaigned a lot over the years.

The candidates have “a real challenge,” she said. If she were running, she said she would be sending follow-up mailers right now for all the contacts she had made, especially because vote-by-mail ballots are received the first week of October.

“This is a really critical election for Alhambra,” Messina said, “It will decide what kind of Alhambra we will have going forward.”

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