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Campaigning in the year of COVID-19 brings difficulty, opportunity

Republican Assemb. Nicole Malliotakis, center, with a campaign

Republican Assemb. Nicole Malliotakis, center, with a campaign worker, left, and a volunteer, tries to drum up votes from among likely supporters in Staten Island on Oct. 8. Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

ALBANY — Political campaigning during the COVID-19 emergency has taken its toll on many of the iconic scenes of election years, including the canceling of fundraising dinners to introduce candidates, rescheduling in-person debates into online sessions, re-imagining door-to-door canvassing, and planning victory parties without packed ballrooms, said political operators and candidates from both parties.

"It’s a completely different situation for sure," said Anthony Palumbo, an Assembly member from New Suffolk who is running for the 1st Senate District seat against Democrat Laura Ahearn. "No more retail politics like you’d normally do this time of year. If any events are in person, they are much smaller. We’re doing Zoom for most debates."

The list of must-attend events that have been canceled or restricted would seem unimaginable in past election cycles. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan, a mecca for politicians seeking electoral and financial support at fundraisers planned around the event, was canceled, along with several of the St. Patrick’s Day parades on Long Island. Rep. Tom Suozzi’s September campaign rally with fellow Democrats that would normally energize the troops for a final push became an online affair.

In Brooklyn, the Memorial Day parade that has been a staple for politicking since 1867 was canceled because of virus concerns as was New York City’s Columbus Day parade. But perhaps the most glaring example of how politicking has been altered in the year of COVID-19 is the change to the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. For 75 years it has been among the hottest tickets in politics, but this year it went online. Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden provided speeches by video.

At the local level, Democrat Nancy Goroff made her Southampton rally a virtual event as she takes on Rep. Lee Zeldin in the 1st Congressional District race. Republican Assemb. Joseph DeStefano’s bowling fundraiser had to be limited to 96 spots this month because of COVID-19 restrictions and the Brookhaven Town Republican Committee’s Halloween party noted that "due to COVID restrictions there is no mingling between" the $125-per-ticket Dracula Room and the $100-per-ticket Frankenstein Room at a Holbrook restaurant.

The League of Women Voters of New York State changed all its debates and candidate forums to virtual events and had a surprising result, said Laura Ladd Bierman, the organization's executive director.

"We have had a significant increase in those who watch them compared to those who attended them," she said. "We have learned, therefore, that even if we host them in person in the future, we should livestream them as well to increase the number of viewers."

Candidates and political advisers said there also were other detours on the usual rough-and-tumble campaign trail in New York this year. Candidates in the beginning of campaigns found themselves with organizations of energetic staff and volunteers, but with little to organize. Voters had far more pressing concerns as the virus hospitalized thousands and killed hundreds each day statewide from March into early summer.

"We were in the thick of the primary and we saw the human catastrophe," said Ahearn, a Democrat in her first race. She is seeking the 1st Senate District seat in a battleground district long held by Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who is retiring. "We shifted our campaign to make sure everyone had food."

Meanwhile, her opponent, Palumbo, used his staff to help process hundreds of unemployment claims each week and to help local health care professionals find scarce masks and gowns.

"Overwhelmingly, constituent issues were on the front burner," Palumbo said. "They always were, but they exponentially increased."

Jessica Proud, a seasoned Republican strategist who is also spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said contacting voters quickly turned into checking on neighbors.

"There was a large retreat from campaigning and more delivering of food to first responders and helping out in the community," Proud said of the statewide experience. "I think there was a collective effort that politics can wait."

Sen. Philip Boyle (R-Sayville), said his 4th Senate District reelection campaign was also turned over to help his Senate staffers navigate the changing state and federal unemployment programs and other services.

"They say good government is good politics, but there was very little interaction on the campaign trail," Boyle said.

His opponent, Democrat Christine Pellegrino of West Islip, a former Assembly member, spent those early months of the 4th Senate District campaign boxing food into trucks and distributing sanitizer at outdoor tables. But as urgent needs subsided, she and other candidates began navigating the campaign trail with some different tools and with different rules.

"We moved onto Zoom and away from in-person contact to protect our volunteers and our community," Pellagrino said of the gradual switch-over to political outreach that continues in many campaigns.

Voters were tentative at first to answer the door to a stranger in a mask, but candidates and campaign workers found ways to adjust, political operatives said. Often the process was a kind of two-step of knocking on the door, then stepping back to be sure they were 6 feet apart to safely social distance. Some voters would only wave through a window.

"I’m not really knocking on doors as much," Boyle said. "What I do is leave a door hanger, or leave an insulated shopping bag with some campaign material in there."

Kim Devlin, a veteran national political strategist who has advised Democrats including Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), said the year has been filled with "Zoom, Zoom, Zoom," and innovation.

"Candidates are holding town halls on Zoom, participating in debates on Zoom and even using the platform to meet with newspaper editorial boards," she said. "Congressman Tom Suozzi holds a Zoom every Saturday for his supporters before they phone-bank for him, and he plays music, sings, and his supporters even dance in front of their computer screens. It's as close to being at a campaign rally as you can be during a pandemic! It's a different way, but it works."

Today, campaigns are getting back to near-normal campaigning, although with masks and social distancing and without indoor rallies to rev up supporters.

"You continue to have to contact voters, but it has to be safe," Ahearn said. "I do be believe we’ve become even more engaged because we’ve gone through this crisis together."

This new politicking was weird for voters, too, but Proud, the GOP strategist, said "by and large, voters were OK with it."

"It evolved," she said. "That has been difficult. But the show must go on, albeit with modifications."

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