How to win an election during a pandemic: Candidates for local offices get creative

Portland City Council candidate Kate Sykes steps back after ringing the doorbell at a home in Deering Center on Friday. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many candidates are connecting with voters on Zoom and in other indirect ways. Sykes is one of the few candidates bucking that trend. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Andrew Zarro did his best to remain focused on introducing himself to prospective voters as the distractions mounted. A crying baby. Someone chewing loudly into a microphone. A cat hopping up on its owners lap. And child popping her head into the frame to say hello.

Such is life on the campaign trail in the middle of a pandemic.

Zarro is running for a seat on the Portland City Council. But instead of the traditional way to run for local office by knocking on doors and speaking to voters face to face, this candidate meet-and-greet was occurring virtually over Zoom, a video-conferencing platform that has exploded in popularity since the coronavirus began disrupting our daily routines.

“Campaigning right now isn’t really a thing,” Zarro told his audience, which topped out at 14 people. “This is a community engagement session that we would be having in someone’s backyard if it weren’t a pandemic.”

The pandemic has already made it more difficult for legislative candidates to gather signatures to qualify for public financing of their campaigns. And candidates and activists all have struggled to get the required signatures for their names and initiatives to appear on ballots in November.

But Labor Day marks the traditional start of the fall campaign season, when candidates and their supporters would normally be fanning out to knock on doors and speak to prospective voters on their front porches or in their living rooms and kitchens. House parties would be hosted to help candidates raise money. And neighborhood groups would be hosting candidate forums.

This campaign season, the coronavirus is forcing candidates and their campaign volunteers to come up with creative ways to introduce themselves to voters and better understand their concerns – something that is particularly important to lesser-known candidates or people looking to pass referendum questions.

“Anyone who is doing door-to-door campaigning and knocking on doors is really just pushing the envelop and it’s totally not appropriate,” said 69-year-old state Rep. Anne Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, who is running for mayor. “Right now a lot of my constituents are elderly. They have literally been in their homes for six months, only going out for things they absolutely need and the last thing they need is someone coming to their doors.”

Claude Morgan, who is seeking his fourth nonconsecutive term on the South Portland City Council, said he noticed people’s discomfort with door-knocking while gathering the signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot. So he wound up calling people he knew and scheduling individual appointments to get signatures at convenient meeting spots. He got a few signatures at a small backyard gathering hosted by a friend, then was referred to a couple next door for two more. He and another candidate shared two groups of neighbors on different streets who agreed to stand curbside and sign each candidate’s petition.

Portland City Council candidate Kate Sykes talks with Scott Perry outside his home in Deering Center on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I realized early on that it was making people uncomfortable, and that’s the last thing you want to do as a candidate,” Morgan said. “This pandemic opens a whole lot of questions about the electoral process. We’ve lost opportunities to connect with people, hear what’s on their minds and shake hands. I have to rethink everything I know about campaigning. I’ll be relying a lot on social media, and that’s really the last thing I want to do.”

Portland City Councilor Justin Costa, who is seeking an at-large seat, said having 17 different candidates for city office knocking on doors throughout the city is “an undeniable public health risk.” He tried to convince other candidates to agree to a set of campaigning ground rules to prioritize public health, but it was not well received. Still, he plans to skip the door-knocking and place a greater emphasis on online advertising.

“It’s a really unique and frustrating time as a candidate,” Costa said. “Going around and talking to people in person has always been a big part of my campaign in the past. It’s something I enjoy doing and it gives you a much deeper sense of where people are on their views on a variety of things. But this time around I feel really strongly we shouldn’t be doing that.”

That approach is much easier for candidates with elected experience and who are well-known in their community, however. Those who lack that name recognition are looking for creative and safe ways to have that personal engagement.

Kate Sykes is one of the few candidates bucking the trend. She’s running for the District 5 seat on the Portland City Council against two candidates with significant name recognition: former state Sen. Mark Dion and former Councilor John Coyne. Sykes is philosophically opposed to using Facebook for her campaign and does not plan to raise a lot of money. Having personal voter contact is central to her campaign, so she’s planning on knocking on doors.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t have any unique guidance for political campaigns. Spokesman Robert Long said campaigns follow the same guidance offered for public interactions – remain 6 feet apart, wear a face covering and practice good personal hygiene, especially frequent hand-washing.


In addition to following those guidelines, Sykes said she also is getting advice from her husband, who is a physician. She hopes to let neighborhoods know when she’s going to be around, so residents are not surprised to hear someone at the door. And she fully expects that some people, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, may not come to the door.

“It’s possible to do this safely and respectfully,” Sykes said, adding that she plans to wear gloves and use hand sanitizer. 

Progressive-minded candidates in Portland, such as Sykes, Zarro, who is running in District 4, and April Fournier, who is running for an at-large council seat, are teaming up to help get each other’s names out. The group planned to hold an online coffee talk to discuss their stances on the issue and meet potential voters.

Fournier said she plans to focus a lot of attention on social media this fall (she’s already begun rolling out endorsements). But she’s also looking for ways to connect with voters who do not have access to reliable internet, or simply don’t spend much time on their computers.

“I would like to have some open-air forums in people’s neighborhoods,” Fournier said. 

Rosemary Mahoney, who is also seeking the District 4 seat in Portland, said campaign signs and an online presence will be especially important this year. She also plans on doing phone banks to connect with voters and walking her district, though she may not knock on doors.

“That part of the plan is going to remain fluid,” she said. “I would prefer to have incidental encounters with people who are outside working in their gardens or sitting on their porch.”

While candidates have the ability to market their personalities during their campaigns, activists who are trying to pass five citizen initiatives in Portland don’t have that luxury, according to Em Burnett, digital communications specialist and volunteer for People First Portland, a campaign organized by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America.

Burnett, who helped Kate Snyder win her citywide race for Portland mayor last year, said the pandemic may prevent the campaign from mounting an aggressive door-knocking effort, even though such an effort is imperative to educate voters about ways the ballot initiatives, which include tenant protections and a $15 an hour minimum wage, will help them. The campaign may still canvas neighborhoods and drop literature at people’s doors.

Burnett doesn’t think the campaign will be able to break through the online noise of a presidential campaign and the closely watched effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Susan Collins by purchasing online ads and producing slick videos.

“Luckily, we have folks on our team, myself and others, who are pretty versed in online communication and doing that in a way that’s ethical and in a way that’s a real conversation and being aware that people are just being bombarded in that very same arena with political ads,” they said.

The campaign is getting creative. Recently, activists held a City Council bingo game when the council was taking up their referendum proposals. Burnett said some gamers have expressed an interest in building some sort of augmented reality game to help the campaign, and artists have been contributing artwork for campaign literature.

“We have so many ideas. I hesitate to share, because we may not follow through, but once you break into that ‘maybe we can do a campaigning differently,’ it opens up,” they said. “This is not us in a strategy session. There are these young folks who are really passionate about these people-first policies and know how to make these games.”

Candidate forums also raise challenges, although some are in the works.

Mastraccio said one candidate night will be held in Sanford. It will be held in the performing arts center and broadcast on TV, rather than taking place at City Hall before a live audience, which in the past could draw 30 to 40 people.

It’s unclear whether any groups in Portland will host any candidate forums. So Zarro says he plans to host a few more Zoom events, engage social media and work with other candidates to get information to voters.

“I would love to see some more collaborative conversations happening, even if we don’t agree with each other,” he said. “I just want to see all of us lifting each other up.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report. 

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