Twelfth in an ongoing series, “Notes from a Plague-Time”
First, the good news: The unexpected bonus of running for office in a plague-time? When you “dial for dollars,” to ask for a donation, more often than not you will reach the person you’re calling, because: “Sheltering in place,” people are at home and they are answering their phones.
I start with this good news, because there will be more elections and, as epidemiologists tell us, there will be more pandemics. Keeping American democracy going through whatever comes at us in future is vital — and knowing there are actual benefits to running for office may enable you to raise your own hand, throw your own hat in the ring.
I report all this from close observation: My husband is running for County Executive. A Democrat, he is running against an incumbent, a Republican. The following is meant not as a testimonial to the virtues of my husband or Democrats, but as a candidate’s guide to the circumstances of conducting a campaign during a pandemic. And I post this on Election Day, so as not to electioneer beforehand (and also while my husband and I can still hope for victory). Still, if you live in Pierce County, WA, and object to electioneering, stop reading now. (Washington state is 100% mail-in balloting, with the majority of ballots reported already mailed.)
Larry discovered this bonus connectivity with the voter immediately. Not only do people answer their phones in a pandemic, they are ready to talk, often at length, both about their issues as well as their insights gained from the pandemic. With the County Exec being in charge of pandemic management at the local level, these voter insights are invaluable (ex., need for coronavirus testing, parents’ difficulties with home-schooling, etc.). As to connectivity, Larry has a basis of comparison, having served four terms in our state legislature, pre-pandemic, when he campaigned in person: He feels he has gleaned as much as if not more from his pandemic phoning than standing on people’s doorsteps. As for dialing for dollars: One might expect that spigot to shut off entirely in a pandemic, but the dollars have kept flowing — an indicator of implicit faith in the economy recovering.
Of course, there are challenges to campaigning in a pandemic. The major one: getting your message out and reaching the voter, when the traditional in-person methods — meet-the-candidate events in people’s homes, town halls, community conversations, debates — are no longer possible. However, I have been impressed how much of traditional in-person campaigning can migrate to online — and translate well, thanks to Zoom technology. Town halls, for one: Larry has convened town halls of up to 50–75 people logging on. As I pass his office, I can see a gallery of faces filling his computer screen. Again the connectivity remains: Judging by the sound of voices, these town halls are as lively as they were pre-pandemic. Same for debates: Close-ups on the candidates’ faces bring the viewer closer.
Still, outreach is the challenge in a pandemic, and the bigger your electoral map, the more challenging it is. Our county is eight (8) times the size of the legislative district Larry represented; there are huge swaths of the county he knows he’s not touched at all. Much depends, then, on the tech-savviness of your campaign team. Larry’s team, young and tireless, is extremely so. (Being of retirement age, he says you haven’t lived until you’ve been directed by your 20-year-old campaign manager in a TikTok video.) Texting turns out most cost-effective, as it is comparatively inexpensive and allows for voter feedback. Voters do feed back.
It is in a pandemic that the reality of a “news desert” becomes manifest: In too many areas in America, local newspapers have run dry of financing and shut down, leaving coverage of local campaigns scanty if not nonexistent. To his disappointment, Larry’s many detailed position papers elicited little to no response from the press — because the press is not much there anymore. Even a matter as important as his discovery (thanks to a whistle-blower) of a local dam polluting the water went nowhere(!). This reality of news deserts should cause all conscientious Americans to ask: What dogs are not barking?
News deserts notwithstanding, some venues remain, and it helps to get editorial board endorsements. Larry did not get the endorsement of our major remaining news venue, in Tacoma, The News Tribune, which endorsed the incumbent. Our Democratic politician friends believe it was because the board, endorsing so many Democrats in our politically split county, felt the need to endorse at least one Republican, but who knows? In another sign of the times: Larry’s young and tech-savvy campaign team, who get their news from digital sources, assures him endorsements from newspapers don’t mean much anymore. Our main hope: Larry got 44% in the primary, ensuring continuing donations and other endorsements (unions, politicians, citizens, other County Execs). Historic Democratic turnout today would help.
Finally, I end with two other bonuses to running for elective office in a pandemic, which come under the general heading of ballast.
One: the sheer nerve-saving benefit of keeping busy — staying engaged — during a time of fear and deadly danger. Thus I chose, as throughout my “Plague-Time” series, the image of Doctor Plague, above, and not of my husband (still I await the wag saying, “That doesn’t look like Larry at all”): Doctor Plague reminds that this pandemic is deadly (the U.S. is entering its third surge), novel (the virus is mutating) — and likely to remain with us well into 2021. In this context, then, being engaged in something beyond fear and nerves is downright salvific. Our opportunity arose when Larry, over dinner, mentioned a Tacoma City Councilmember, “acting on behalf of” others, proposed that he, Larry, run. I, knowing full well the campaign experience (the late dinners), but also sensing salvation, instead of saying “Absolutely not,” I said, “That’s interesting, let’s talk about it.” Larry is at it, campaigning from early morn til late at night; I am at it, reading, writing commentary. As I tell friends, we are “crazy-busy,” but we are contented.
Two, and related: the necessity to live in the Realm of the Possible, to put out a positive message. Even in the hyper-nasty politics of the Trump era, voters ultimately (we should hope) still respond to the constructive — solutions, not insults; analysis, not ideology; and especially in what seems unending calamity, a vision of a New Day. This positivity works both externally and internally: This household has no time (well, almost none) for lamentation or high dudgeon; instead, we brainstorm the issues together, then put out, to the public, messaging that accentuates the positive. This positivity is not Pollyanna, but Emerson: “fronting” the dire times — pandemic, hyper-nasty politics, possibly The End of American democracy. Yes, we are tired, but not too; more, we feel grateful and full of purpose. It is why the pulse in this household during these dire times has remained steady-state. And while I have the occasional sleepless night, the Candidate sleeps deep.
So: When you get the call sounding you out about running for elective office, even in a plague-time — most especially in a plague-time, I’d say — vote Yes. You have no idea — and I mean that in the best possible way. As Teddy Roosevelt knew, there really is no place like being “in the arena.”
Image: Plague doctor, circa 1656, during bubonic plague, Rome.