By Kylie Marsh
Campaign season for local office in Chapel Hill and Carrboro is in full swing, and the pandemic has forced candidates to find new ways to connect with voters.
The indoor meet-and-greets and in-person candidate forums that have been a mainstay of prior campaigns are not happening as much this time around, so candidates—especially those who are running for the first time—have had to get creative.
Adam Searing, a first-time candidate who is seeking a seat on Chapel Hill Town Council, has been inviting town residents to join him on hikes through Town-owned woodland areas. “The forest hikes seemed a great way to make people feel comfortable gathering in a group during the pandemic,” he said, “while also creating an opportunity for people to talk to each other.”
Searing says the hikes are an outgrowth of the work he had been doing with friends prior to the campaign to inform people about the trails and beauty of publicly-owned Greene Tract. “We had a table set up at Carolina North where we were handing out maps and telling people about the Greene Forest trails before I ever thought about running for Council, and so the campaign hikes were an outgrowth of that.”
This Sunday afternoon, Searing hiked with masked voters around a 36-acre wooded property the Town purchased in 2016 from American Legion Post #6, which many townsfolk hope will become a new community park.
Searing says the COVID-related health and safety restrictions have posed a challenge to his campaign.
“Trying to meet people to let them know you’re campaigning and having more campaign events and going to places is really a key part of [running for a seat on Council],” he said. “And that’s just not happening.”
Robert Beasley, also a first-time candidate for a seat on Chapel Hill Town Council, knows the importance of maintaining proper health and safety protocols all too well.
Shortly after announcing his candidacy in July, Beasley came down with what he and his doctor were convinced was a bad sinus infection. At the time, he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and was starting to go out more and interact more with other people.
“I was being cautious,” he said, “but I certainly had dropped my guard compared to six months earlier when I wasn’t vaccinated.”
It turned out that Beasley’s ailment was not merely a sinus infection. Despite being vaccinated and having no underlying health conditions, he had contracted a breakthrough infection of COVID-19.
“I’m certain that if I had not had the vaccine and had become infected, it would have been much, much worse. I’m pretty sure I would have been hospitalized,” he said. “I think I probably would have ended up on a ventilator. That was a really rough two weeks illness-wise.”
Beasley, who has a lingering cough from the infection, is happy to attend virtual campaign events but prefers that face-to-face events be socially distanced with masks, regardless of individuals’ vaccination status.
“If you want to [host events] face-to-face, make sure the protections are in place. Make sure people understand there is still a risk of infection,” he says.
Other first-time candidates, such as Aja Kelleher, who is running for a seat on Carrboro Town Council, try to campaign as effectively as possible while remaining physically distant.
“I’ve been relying more on social media and updating my website and I’m doing a lot of questionnaires in lieu of canvassing,” she said.
Kelleher says it feels like almost every group out there has sent her a questionnaire on the issues important to them. “That’s another way of getting information out there without doing face-to-face [events] during the pandemic,” she says.
As for not being able to meet folks in person, Kelleher says “it’s definitely been more challenging.”
The COVID-related health guidelines have also proved challenging for Vimala Rajendran, a first-time candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council. Many of her pre-planned campaign events had to be cancelled. While virtual campaign events are an option, Rajendran knows that by now many people have Zoom fatigue. Instead, she looks for opportunities to connect with voters when they come to dine—outdoors—at her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.
“When people come [to the restaurant] and ask me how my campaign is going, I ask them what questions they have of me or what ideas they have for me,” she says. “While I don’t initiate the topic of my candidacy with my guests, people have been very forthcoming about giving me ideas of what they would like to see different on the town council.”
Rajendran’s team has written up their own COVID protocol for canvassing. Like other candidates, she opts just to leave a postcard or literature at the front door of residences instead of knocking.
Though this is Rajendran’s first experience as a candidate for office, she has worked on other campaigns in the past. This time, she says, “it’s very different.”
Also vying for a seat on Chapel Hill Town Council is first-time candidate Camille Berry, who said it was challenging to meet team members for strategy meetings.
She experienced similar hardships while canvassing for the presidential election last year, when the pandemic hindered her ability to interact with community members in person.
“The challenges that we’re facing as candidates about how to communicate won’t stop with the election, and in fact they preceded the election,” Berry says. “Finding ways to communicate with the public is going to be an ongoing challenge that we need to address, and I welcome the fact that we have ways to communicate that we didn’t really utilize before the pandemic.”
Berry points out that, while COVID definitely makes campaigning more difficult, the technology available to us today creates opportunities for community outreach at a distance that were unimaginable to previous generations.
“During the last pandemic [in 1918],” she said, “most folks didn’t even have telephones.”