Coronavirus: How Silicon Valley candidates are campaigning while social distancing
The polls are open at the Register of Voters for those who want to vote early. File photo.

    Door-knocking, shaking hands and kissing babies is off the table for Silicon Valley political candidates during the coronavirus crisis.

    And with stay-at-home orders extending through May, candidates are now devising new strategies to reach voters in a digital campaigning landscape as the November election draws near.

    A side effect of shelter-in-place, according to San Jose City Council candidate David Cohen, is the cancellation of events where politicians would normally go to mingle and interact with the community.

    “To have events cancelled, like our Berryessa Art and Wine festival that was supposed to happen the first weekend of May, and to not have that opportunity to interact with the community and see everybody … is hard,” said Cohen, who is running for the city’s District 4 council seat.

    With the California primaries in March, there’s a “natural low” in campaigning, Cohen said.

    “We don’t know what the landscape’s going to look like in September and October, which is really where the bulk of the campaign happens, so we have to be prepared for everything,” Cohen continued. “At this point, it is hard to know how to continue to widen your circle and meet more people.”

    District 4 Councilmember Lan Diep could not be reached for comment.

    David Cohen is seen speaking with District 4 voters in this file photo. Photo courtesy of David Cohen.

    Councilmember Dev Davis who is fending off challenger Jake Tonkel in November said her campaign is in the process of planning for the “new digital age.” But being a councilmember, Davis said, comes before being a candidate.

    “I’m much more focused on making sure my residents are safe and healthy and understanding orders that the county has put in place,” Davis said. “The whole world turned upside down and we’re figuring it out.”

    Like several of her colleagues on the San Jose City Council, Davis has hosted online office hours, including a discussion with SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia about public safety last Wednesday.

    Tonkel is doubling down on social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor, to reach voters — a cornerstone of his campaign strategy even before the contagious virus shut down Silicon Valley.

    Tonkel’s campaign has been hosting digital town hall meetings to reach the community.

    “One of the fortunate pieces about being in the digital generation is we’re able to connect,” Tonkel said. “We understand you have to build trust and relationships and build community over all types of avenues, and this is no different.”

    Non-digital strategies 

    Not everyone is campaigning to fit the era of Zoom meetings.

    California Senate Candidate Ann Ravel instead is keeping in touch with voters and supporters via handwritten thank-you cards. So far, Ravel said, she’s penned 300 personalized cards.

    “I felt like I had to write to people who were my volunteers, who were my supporters,” Ravel said. “I know that when you get a personal ‘thank you’ note from someone that you don’t expect, it’s very meaningful. I think it’s much more personal, rather than having your campaign send out some card statement that is exactly the same thing for everybody.”

    Dave Cortese and Ann Ravel, both vying for the State Senate District 15 seat, participate in a forum hosted by the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    For Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who is running against Ravel for the District 15 Senate seat, his current job involves plenty of personal interaction — as does his campaign.

    “What would ordinarily be a 65-hour week on the Board of Supervisors is now… around the clock, seven days a week,” he said.

    And while his campaign efforts are still moving along with mailers, emails and endorsement announcements, Cortese said his priority is the job he was elected to do.

    “What’s the point of being in office, if you’re not going to help people during a crisis, during a pandemic, during the health emergency?” Cortese said. “I’ve been in office representing people during some pretty significant times, but this is by far, by order of magnitude, the most significant.”


    The sudden economic downturn in the past two months also begs the question of whether fundraising in election campaigns will be as robust as before. Fundraising numbers from the latter half of 2019 reached staggering totals among San Jose City Council candidates.

    Bob Brunton, California Assembly candidate, makes sure to ask potential supporters whether they’re healthy and doing well financially.

    “It seems there’s huge differences in how this pandemic is affecting people,” Brunton, who’s running for District 25’s State Assembly seat, said.

    Alex Lee, Brunton’s opponent, predicted that fundraising numbers would decrease for his campaign, which does not take money from corporate donors.

    “We relied very heavily on individual small-dollar donors,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “As the impact of the recession might be hurting a lot of families, it might be something that impacts our fundraising efforts a lot — but we’re still going to try.”

    What the future holds

    Despite uncertainty surrounding the November elections, lawmakers expressed relief that Santa Clara County voters don’t need to head to the polls physically. Santa Clara County this year rolled out all-mail elections to comply with California’s Voter’s Choice Act.

    “I’m glad we went to mail-in ballots prior to any of this happening,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “I feel like our county has been, at least elections-wise, prepared.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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