Candidates switch gears during a coronavirus campaign season

‘Skills you have to organize a political campaign, it turns out, are really transferable to handing out hand sanitizer’

Jackie Fielder’s candidacy to challenge state Sen. Scott Wiener has been full of surprises since the beginning.

Between a last-minute launch in November 2019 and March 2020, the political newcomer reached 33 percent of votes needed to advance from the primaries to the general election. Her campaign had expected to ride the momentum in the months after by tapping more grassroots volunteers to knock on doors, and discuss issues with voters in person.

Instead, Fielder has redirected her focus and is mobilizing volunteers to hand out personal protective equipment in neighborhoods like the Fillmore and Visitation Valley during an unprecedented shelter-in-place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“The skills you have to organize a political campaign, it turns out, are really transferable to handing out hand sanitizer and masks,” Fielder said. “We’ve found that people are very appreciative to see people doing this for no other reason than to take care of their neighbors.”

In the virtual space, Fielder holds talks dubbed Social(ist) Distancing in a nod to her democratic socialist ideals with guests like Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, the creators of the film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Volunteers also regularly reach voters through virtual phone banking.

District 1 candidates also have switched gears from traditional campaigning to providing mutual aid.

District 1 candidate Marjan Philhour shops for those who cannot leave their homes. (Courtesy photo)

District 1 candidate Marjan Philhour shops for those who cannot leave their homes. (Courtesy photo)

Marjan Philhour has been recruiting volunteers to deliver groceries to Richmond District seniors, pass out meals, and urge The City to close off car access on some streets for pedestrians to safely spread out. She announced her candidacy on March 18, the second day of the shelter-in-place, and has activated supporters from her 2016 run against now-outgoing Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer.

“She really just immediately switched to using campaign resources and the team to really help people in this situation,” said Maggie Muir, a political consultant working with Philhour and Wiener’s respective campaigns. “It’s not about campaigning. It does feel like that’s not appropriate right now.”

Philhour also has hosted conversations with local merchants such as photographer Chloe Jackman and Jane Wilson of Jane’s Consignment while keeping followers informed about issues including mask requirements and ways to seek assistance. Wiener has held coronavirus-related town halls and lighter-hearted #MasksAreFierce competitions while preparing emergency legislation for when the California Legislature reconvenes on May 4.

Connie Chan, running for District 1 supervisor with Fewer’s backing, is calling on supporters to sign up for senior wellness check-ins, asking what groceries and other items they need, and texting tenants to make sure they know their rights to defer rent during the shelter-in-place. (Disclosure: Chan was once a columnist for the Examiner.)

“What feels good to everyone and what feels right is to channel our resources and our engagement into community service,” Chan said. “What COVID-19 has done is to further expose the policy gaps and income divides we had before.”

Chan has found that people very much want to hear from leaders, currently elected and/or those running, about how to move forward. She’s held Zoom talks with Fewer and Supervisor Gordon Mar to keep those conversations going.

Downballot candidates such as Alan Wong, running for City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees, don’t quite have the level of volunteers and resources that other candidates might at this stage. That’s kept his campaign in the strategizing stage while he talks to community leaders about how the crisis should shape the policies he’ll propose, such expanding CCSF credentials for health care workers.

Bringing ideas to voters after the shelter-in-place is lifted remains a moving target. There’s little certainty about the safety measures needed leading up to November as the threat of coronavirus is expected to linger for months, if not years.

“People aren’t going to want to talk to you in person,” Wong said. “For much of event-based type of campaign work, it’s wait and see, unfortunately.”

With strong social media presence, Wiener and Philhour have an advantage for the time being, as people now are sharing and receiving information in common spaces online, Muir said. She’s noticed that campaigns have taken a more genuine look, with selfie videos rather than professionally-made videos.

“There’s sort of a much more natural interaction with voters and people in general, and a sort of more authentic and real connection,” Muir said. “You just have to work that much harder and that much more creatively to make yourself heard online.”

But reaching voters through social media is tricky, for it’s hard to tell exactly who is engaging in posts. Jen Snyder, Supervisor Dean Preston’s campaign leader-turned-legislative aide, is still checking in on campaigns like Fielder’s as they figure out ways to reach voters without knocking on doors into the future — especially critical for lesser-known or challenger candidates.

On the other hand, while examining extensive data on different communities and their priorities would typically guide campaign operations, today’s uncertain environment may mean that testing big new ideas might be less risky than during normal circumstances.

“We all have this kind of saccharine hope that people actually take a moment to reflect during this time,” Snyder said. “Shit, they might even read the political mail right now.”

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