Walters: Candidates retool in a time of social distancing 

Brenda Siegel and son
Brenda Siegel, a candidate for lieutenant governor, and her son Ajna make French fries on a Facebook livestream.

John Walters is a political columnist for VTDigger.

Brenda Siegel is in her kitchen, making dinner with her son Ajna. What’s on the menu? Egg tacos with a side of homemade French fries, and sugar on snow for dessert. They chat through the preparation and briefly debate the merits of ketchup. Essential, says Mom. Not for homemade fries, insists son. Throughout, Siegel mixes in brief policy discussions on health care, education, economic development and more.

This is “Cooking With Ajna,” a Facebook video livestreamed Tuesday afternoon at 4, and available for rewatching on the campaign’s Facebook page. It’s only part of Siegel’s extensive list of online offerings, designed to replace – at least in part – the in-person activities that are the usual bread-and-butter of political campaigns. Siegel is one of four Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. Like other politicians, they are struggling to adapt to the Age of Social Distancing.

“Nobody has ever campaigned in place before — except [former New York City mayor Mike] Bloomberg, and he had billions of dollars,” Siegel said in an interview after wrapping up her Facebook show.

“The day after we suspended in-person campaign activities, we decided to start a statewide mutual aid effort,” Siegel said. Her campaign website prominently showcases the effort, which provides opportunities to volunteer and request help. “Then we started thinking, ‘What else can we offer our communities to provide some kind of respite?’”

The result is a series of issue-based forums, open community chats, cooking classes, and more, streamed on Facebook or conducted via Zoom, the online meeting app. A Wednesday evening roundtable on COVID-19 drew more than 500 people, she said.

At this early stage, Siegel has been the most creative in responding to life under sequestration. But all are pondering how to conduct their campaigns if current restrictions stay in place for weeks or even months.

Well, all but one. “One hundred percent of my time and effort is dedicated to addressing the current health and economic crisis,” wrote Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, in response to a texted inquiry. Understandable.

“My first priority is my role in the Senate,” said Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden. Still, she’s been talking with her team about opportunities through social media, including virtual town halls and house parties. “We’re almost five months out from the primary,” she noted. “Hopefully before then we’re going to be able to meet people in person.”

She sees one tiny advantage to social distancing mandates. “It’s easier to reach people by phone,” Ingram said, since they’re almost certain to be home.

Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray, a first-time candidate, believes she has a small edge. “We don’t have any bad habits to break,” she said. And while she agrees that COVID-19 comes first right now, she also observed that “democracy still needs to prevail.”

Molly Gray, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gray points to her several years working for the International Red Cross as preparing her for addressing unexpected developments. A socially distanced campaign, she said, is “a chance to show how I can adapt.” But she was reluctant to discuss specifics: “I can’t give away all our strategies,” she said.

On Monday evening, the Washington County Democratic Committee held a meeting — but it was via Zoom, not in person. The three Democratic candidates for governor had been invited to speak. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe took part by video; Bennington attorney Patrick Winburn appeared by phone. Each candidate was given a chance to speak to the committee; there was no opportunity for debate.

Content-wise, it unfolded pretty much as it would have in a traditional setting. There were the occasional glitches and skips in the audio, and it was apparent that participants are still getting used to communicating through a digital intermediary. If this continues for very long, candidates will doubtless give more thought to lighting, backdrops, and other elements of their presentation. And learn to be mindful that unless they turn off their video feed, they might be on screen at any moment. No nose-picking or eye-rolling.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Holcombe. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Aside from taking part in digital versions of campaign staples, Zuckerman and Holcombe are trying to pivot to new realities. “We’re building, experimenting, trying things out,” said Holcombe. “My interns grew up on social media. They have lots of ideas. So far, I’ve resisted their suggestions for TikToks.”

Zuckerman sees his long track record as an advantage. “My email list is big,” he said. “We’ve always had a strong grassroots presence. Door to door has been eliminated from the equation, so we’re working to create personal connections with Vermonters.”

Zuckerman has begun to hold digital forums, such as a telephone town hall Wednesday afternoon on coronavirus. But like Gray, he’s shy about revealing future plans.

The pandemic gives an undeniable edge to incumbent Gov. Phil Scott, who appears in the news almost daily with coronavirus updates, but his challengers don’t begrudge that. “We have to want Gov. Scott to succeed,” Holcombe said. “I support him in communicating with Vermonters as much as possible.”

Zuckerman agreed, and noted, “There will be time to discuss the issues.”

Brookfield farmer, attorney and writer John Klar, the other Republican candidate for governor, says Scott’s prominent role is a mixed blessing. “A lot of people haven’t been pleased with his handling of the situation,” Klar said. “But it’s not my desire to attack him right now.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Klar heads a slate of tradition-based, rural-oriented candidates, mounted as a challenge to the three established parties and Scott. Klar believes his grassroots, low-budget campaign is in tune with the current situation. “In a time of crisis, people will be listening more to our message of making Vermont more sustainable and self-sufficient,” he said. Besides, he added, he’s used to making do. “I’ve been de-platformed by the mainstream media, so we’ve known we have to depend on alternative channels.”

Scott’s office did not return requests for comment for this story. He’s rather busy, after all. And even before the crisis, he was insisting he wouldn’t decide his intentions until May.

There’s one area of political activity that’s especially touchy right now. “We’re struggling with the ethics of fundraising at a time when people are in danger of losing everything,” Siegel said. Gray said her campaign has virtually ceased active fundraising, although it does accept the donations that come in.

“We’ve pretty much canceled fundraising for the last couple of weeks,” said Zuckerman. “Pretty much,” but Zuckerman’s telephone town hall did include a pitch for contributions. And a recent missive from Siegel included a brief, toned-down request for small donations of $15 or so.

Because crisis or no, as Zuckerman observed, “It does take money to connect with people.”

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