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Campaigning in a pandemic: COVID-19 presents challenge for both parties

REGION — After commenting on hot-button issues ranging from California’s AB 5 to the federal government’s COVID-19 response, Rep. Mike Levin paused a morning Zoom interview to make sure his first-grade daughter joined her online class.

“Alright she’s on,” Levin said, returning to his home office desk. “But she would not have been on had I not have gone over there.”

Since March, political candidates have been adapting to the pandemic era like everyone else — from guiding their students through distance learning to ordering takeout from local restaurants — but there’s one additional challenge: campaigning at a distance.

“I miss going door-to-door and canvassing,” Levin said, currently seeking reelection in the 49th district. “But I think it’s really important at this time that we follow the public health recommendations during this pandemic and we try to keep our volunteers, our supporters and our constituents safe.”

A commonality shared across party lines is the attempt to keep both election voters and young children engaged. As a mother of two middle schoolers, Melanie Burkholder, Republican candidate for the 76th Assembly District seat, launched a “Cooking with the Candidate” Instagram Live series as a way of sharing home cooking while answering voters’ questions.

“I thought to myself as a parent, as a mom cooking three times a day with the kids at home … that somebody else could probably use the help as well,” Burkholder said.

Burkholder also holds in-person and masked fundraising events, saying that “isolation isn’t good for anybody.”

Oceanside mayoral candidate Rocky Chávez, who’s a former state assemblymember and Oceanside councilmember, said this election cycle won’t consist of a campaign office equipped with coffee and doughnuts, and it definitely won’t include what he’s enjoyed most about campaigning: face-to-face interactions with neighbors.

“It’s changed a lot of things,” Chávez said. “In fact, I had already developed knocking sheets and had everything ready to go, but once COVID hit, people aren’t gonna be opening doors.”

But Burkholder, whose campaign has knocked on more than 4,000 doors, says “people wanna talk.”

“[There’s] been an opportunity to sort of expand outside of traditional campaigning, but there’s nothing better than knocking on doors,” Burkholder said. “That’s my most favorite thing to do.”

Out of an “abundance of caution,” Carlsbad City Council District 4 candidate Teresa Acosta decided to pivot to a virtual campaign.

“We have a lot of seniors in this community in South Carlsbad, and I don’t feel safe exposing anybody,” Acosta said. “I think safety first, for me anyway.”

Acosta consistently holds two main Zoom events: “Community Coffee Chats” and meet-and-greets.

“I actually receive calls from other candidates from all over San Diego County who have heard about what I’m doing and want to copy it, which I think is the highest form of flattery if other people want to do the same thing that I’m doing,” Acosta said. “It just came about through thinking, how can we best keep the conversation going without being able to get together physically.”

For “Community Coffee Chats,” Acosta gets input on what issues people want to cover, then holds interactive discussions with residents and local experts on topics from mental health to social justice.

Teresa Acosta
Carlsbad City Council District 4 candidate Teresa Acosta holds a virtual Community Coffee Chat on Aug. 14 to discuss residents’ visions for a Ponto Coastal Park. Photo courtesy of Teresa Acosta

“It’s been very energizing and exciting to have constant group conversations with my neighbors all over District 4 … talking about how we can each take action, individually but also collectively,” Acosta said.

As an incumbent, Levin’s volume of casework roughly doubled after the pandemic hit, as people searched for unemployment insurance, business loans and other relief.

On top of campaigning through mail and phone, Levin’s focused on maintaining communication with his District despite COVID-19’s barriers.

Since March, Levin’s held several virtual town hall meetings, providing COVID-19 updates and conversations with health experts. After holding about 200 in-person parties before the pandemic, large social gatherings have since shifted to a virtual platform.

“It’s different, but we’re hopeful that we’re going to continue to be able to communicate with people,” Levin said. “Hopefully everybody will vote and their voices will be heard.”

With candidates and voters alike flocking to social media for information and discourse, Levin says he worries about the “influence of social media on how we get our news.”

Some candidates are less concerned with the digital aspect of campaigning.

With 12 people running for mayor in Oceanside, Chávez said “it all comes down to name ID.”

After about 20 years of community involvement and leadership, Chavez’s name recognition in Oceanside is now around 60-70% according to polls conducted by his campaign. Now, Chávez says he continues to lead by example and grow personal relationships with those in his community, though at a distance.

 As the election gets closer, Acosta says she’s seen community participation increase — especially since people can join events from the comfort of their own home.

“I absolutely think that going virtual for local campaigns has opened a door to people paying attention and wanting to volunteer and become engaged in local issues,” Acosta said. “I think more than ever we are seeing that people want to be engaged, that they want to express how their experience has been and what their needs are.

“We wish that COVID-19 wasn’t here, harming people and disrupting our daily lives,” Acosta said. “It is here though, so we have to adapt and we have to look at the bright side and see what we can do to find the silver lining with the whole situation.”