In the days before the coronavirus, “call time” for political candidates meant the humbling task of calling up strangers and asking them for money.
Now, Andre Del Valle carves out a few hours each day, pulls up the list of registered Democrats in his East Kensington neighborhood, and asks them what they need.
“Hi it’s Andre Del Valle, running for state rep here in the area, just calling to check in on you and your family to see how you were holding up and if there was anything we could assist you with at the moment?”
For most people on the receiving end, the instinct to hang up on a political call melts at the mention of help.
My niece’s family doesn’t have enough food.
I haven’t gotten my unemployment check.
How do I get a mail in-ballot?
In Pennsylvania and across the country, candidates running for office — particularly challengers — have adjusted to a new political landscape. The pandemic has wiped out the traditional retail politics of door-knocking and handshakes at community centers. News coverage, which never spent much time on local races, has even less bandwidth now. And people’s concerns are all COVID-19, all the time.
Asking for money feels insensitive. Asking “How can I help?” feels good. It’s also politically savvy.
Several local campaigns for state representative in the June 2 primary have shifted their focus to social services, finding ways to get people food or connected to agencies and programs they need. Candidates hope the help — sometimes quite time consuming — will mean a vote for them later.
“We had a whole playbook that essentially went out the window,” said Del Valle, one of three Democrats challenging State Rep. Mary Isaacson in 175th legislative district, which includes Kensington, Chinatown, and Society Hill. “It’s become how do we help residents in this time? It does take time and that’s something that I guess at the end of this, I’ll see if it worked — but that also matters less, because at the end of the day we’re here to serve people.”
Del Valle estimated that he’s reached more than 1,000 people in the last eight weeks through word of mouth and direct calls. The most common question he gets is how to safely get food.
With many senior centers closed, elderly people are more in need of help, or sometimes just conversation. “I talk to people who are saying, ‘I normally see family once or twice a week. Now I don’t have anyone,’" Del Valle said. “Some are battling depression and anxiety.”
Del Valle, having worked as a legislative aide for City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, was able to pivot his campaign somewhat naturally into constituent services. On Thursday, he partnered with Greyhound Cafe to deliver 50 meals to nurses and doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Rick Krajewski, who is running for state representative in West Philadelphia’s 188th district, has similarly revamped his campaign into an aid squad that he hopes pulls in supporters.
“Mutual aid only exists when our society and our government doesn’t guarantee that for our society already," Krajewski said. "We’re doing all this food and [personal protective equipment] stuff because people feel they can’t go to their officials to get it.”
Krajewski, who started his campaign last fall, estimates his operation has completed more than 100 constituent “cases.” He started by filtering the voter registration lists he had by Democrats who are seniors, though he’ll help anyone who asks for it.
The hope is that people feel genuinely supported and tell their friends, Krajewski said. One woman he helped to get a box of food called to thank him and the two got into a conversation about mass incarceration. The woman said her nephew had been wrongfully imprisoned. Krajewski worked as a criminal justice organizer for the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia before launching his campaign, and he told her about some of his ideas for reforming Philadelphia’s prison system.
“Once people’s immediate needs are taken care of, then that frees you up to talk more about the issues,” Krajewski said. “Part of campaigning right now has been making that connection around the problems we are dealing with during this pandemic that have always existed in the political structure.”
Most candidates are using social media to connect with voters. Nikil Saval, who is challenging state Sen. Larry Farnese, opens his live-streamed town hall meetings by asking people how they are feeling and coping — a therapy session with a side of “vote for me.”
Danyl Patterson, a lawyer running to represent West Philadelphia’s 190th District, hosts Q&As on Facebook Live. On Thursday, she hosted a chat about the requirements of the Philadelphia Emergency Rental Assistance COVID-10 Program, breaking down in detail the funding resources, eligibility requirements, and documents needed to apply.
Distributing information, food, or masks while running for office is perfectly legal, said Pat Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy watchdog group. “It’s important and valuable right now,” he added. The trouble starts if there’s even a suggestion that the aid comes with the expectation of a vote. "Federal law is very clear about that not being OK,” Christmas said.
For incumbents, the advantages are huge this year. Their offices are already equipped to handle constituent service requests and continue doing so. Their campaigns usually have more money and name recognition.
“I’ve never seen a situation tilt so far away from challengers before," said Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia political and nonprofit consultant. “The best way for elected officials to demonstrate how they would manage a crisis is to do so and many of them are. Challengers, they can show they understand how the process works and help people where they can, but I think in times of uncertainty like this, people are going to reach out to the constant they know: their current elected officials.“
Incumbents also have an advantage with messaging.
Thanks to a change made to state law in March, lawmakers can use taxpayer money for digital communications related to the coronavirus. Previously, there was a 60-day blackout on such communications ahead of an election. The messaging is limited to “directing constituents to public and private resources and services” related to the pandemic." But some of the messages seem more performative than informative.
At least six Pennsylvania House Democratic lawmakers facing opponents in the June primary launched ads that do little more than brag about their accomplishments, the Pennsylvania Capital Star website reported.
“When it’s all about, ‘look at what I’ve done to handle the crisis,’ and less ‘here’s how to help get through the crisis,’ I think that information is of less value to the public," Christmas said.
As uncertain as the strategy for how to campaign during a pandemic may be, so, too, is how a changed voting system will affect the outcome.
More than 100,000 Philadelphians have requested absentee ballots, compared with about 6,000 in 2016, when the presidential primary contest was still going on. City voters will also see far fewer polling locations this year, which could mean long lines and have an impact on who votes. Absentee ballot requests are higher in some of the districts with contested races, a sign that campaigns are reaching voters in those areas.
“Anyone who can say they have predictions about this moment is being dishonest,” Krajewski said. “We’ve never encountered vote by mail at this level, drastically reduced polling places, we’ve never been in a political situation like this before. The bottom line is, talk to as many people before June 2 as possible and hope it works out.”