NORWALK, Conn. — Lawn-banking. Zoom town halls. Door-knocking with masks and materials in plastic bags. These are just a few ways candidates running for State Representative in Norwalk and the surrounding areas are trying to reach voters.
“Really the virus really defines how we can and cannot campaign so certainly no events and meetings—person-to-person meetings or forums or things like that — really just aren’t feasible,” said Fred Wilms, a Republican running for State Representative for the 142nd District, which includes Norwalk and New Canaan.
Stephanie Thomas, a Democrat running for State Representative in the 143rd District, which includes Norwalk, Wilton, and Westport, said she’s taken to moving her campaign activities outdoors.
“These events always happened; now they’re just outdoors,” she said. “I’m learning all events need a rain plan and you know, I borrowed more tents and chairs than I ever thought I would during my lifetime, but otherwise it really is the same strategy. It’s telephones, it’s either virtual or in-person meet-and-greets, Q&As—it’s just moved to Zoom and Facebook and other conduits.”
Altering their plans
Incumbent State Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-142nd, who is running to keep her seat against Wilms. her campaign has tried a few new things during the COVID-19 pandemic including moving traditional phone banking events outside; hence the term “lawn-banking.”
“You’re all out in their garden or wherever, but socially distancing and making telephone calls,” she said.
Not only is it nice to be in a group of people all working on the same initiative, Dathan said, “like being with my volunteers so if they talk to a constituent who has a question or wants to speak to me directly, I’m right there.”
Patrizia Zucaro, a Republican running against Thomas for the 143rd District, said her campaign has pursued “flexible strategies” to reach voters.
“In-person activities are very important to campaigns, and without full access to these activities we are pursuing campaign strategies that are flexible,” she wrote in an email. “My campaign strategy includes both virtual interactions and social media. It is important that even though we are working in a limited access campaign season that this campaign stays connected to its constituents.”
Wilms, who held the 142nd seat from 2014 to 2018 before being Dathan defeated him, said he’s resumed door-knocking this summer, with a few extra precautions.
When canvassing, Wilms said, he wears a mask and steps back at least six feet from constituents’ front doors to chat. Rather than have direct contact, he leaves his card in a clear plastic bag on the pavement, steps or porch.
Wilms said people seem happy to see him, even if they have to be more distant or listen to him talk with a mask on.
“I’ve really just been encouraged by the reactions from the people,” he said. “They’re very happy to answer the door, very happy to see me and (they’re) certainly engaged in conversations.”
Dathan has also resumed limited door-knocking, although she said she’s heard from her constituents that they were a little nervous about having someone come to the door.
“When I talk to people on the phone I ask them, ‘How receptive would you be to have someone come to your door?’ And I’ve had some people say, ‘I really don’t want to talk to anybody right now,’ so I’ve been doing door-knocking on a limited basis,” she said.
Dathan said she’s had a decent amount of success with some Zoom events, including a program with Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz for senior citizens.
Making the connections
Despite all the adjustments they’ve had to make due to COVID-19, all of the candidates said one of the most important things was still connecting with people.
“I think campaigning, for me anyway, has always been on how do I connect with voters, hear what’s important to them, and tell them a little bit about my campaign and answer any questions they have,” Thomas said. So, as I’ve evolved over the last few months, I realized that piece of it has not changed. We’ve just had to change our tactics a little bit and there’s nothing about door-knocking or a live event that is a special way to achieve that end, so I’ve just started doing other types of things.”
Thomas said that she’s used everything from Facebook Lives to personal text messages to still connect with people.
“I feel like I’m across every channel, so the engagement feels slightly deeper,” she said.
Wilms said he believes it’s human nature to want to connect, so after having to be isolated, people are willing to engage with him even more.
“I found that just speaking with me on the phone, or communicating directly via email, or just in person, I think people have found it comforting,” he said. “It’s good to know there’s someone else out there and we can share stories with how our families, respective families, are doing, just keep that connection going.”
Zucaro said she’s listening closely to voters’ concerns.
“When I am able to talk to voters the pandemic is always on their mind,” she said. “The concerns range from vaccines to getting back to normal and everything in between.”
Dathan said that during late March through May, when she got people on the phone, the conversations could last up to 50 minutes, as opposed to the few minutes candidates usually got.
“Usually, when you call voters during campaigning time, you call people and these phone calls last like a minute or so if they pick up the phone, but during that time, I reached and talked to so many voters,” she said. “I had one conversation with a lady that was 50 minutes long and she was lonely, and so not only was she worried about the virus, and all the stuff that was associated with that, she was also feeling isolated.”
All the candidates said they wanted to make sure people felt safe voting in November, regardless of the format they decided to do it in.
Dathan, who advocated and voted for expanded mail-in ballots, said she heard from many voters about their importance.
“If you looked at my State Rep email, and what people emailed me about, one of the key things I heard the most during the time of COVID was about mail-in ballots,” she said. “This was something that was not a Democrat or Republican point of view. It was, ‘I need to ensure that I’m safe.’”
Thomas said that she was glad the Connecticut House and Senate approved the measure, which allows any voter to obtain an absentee ballot.
“I know plenty of people have said they will go in person and I respect that right, they should be able to, but for those who are concerned about their health, I really hope they have the option to vote absentee, because a lot of people when I called in the earlier months were very concerned about going out in that way,” she said.
Wilms said that while he had some concerns about absentee ballots, he felt it was the “pragmatic” thing to do during the public health crisis.
“Voting is a key, central component of our democracy and now the House just did vote to expand absentee ballots and certainly, while I’m always concerned about malfeasance, but I think it is a pragmatic accommodation to what we’re facing,” he said.
Zucaro said she had confidence the state would hold safe elections.
“Connecticut has been very good thus far regarding numbers and protecting residents from COVID-19,” she said. “I do not believe anything will be different if someone chooses to vote in-person. Mail-in ballots are an important option for individuals who are concerned about their health.”
Keeping it local
Zucaro also emphasized the importance of focusing on local issues.
“I want voters to know that this campaign is about Wilton, Norwalk and Westport and what is right for the people who live here,” she said. “I will listen to and focus on the needs of my constituents. I will advocate for policies that will balance public health with economic and social imperatives in order to preserve their safety and future here in Connecticut.”
Thomas said she’s been listening to her voters, many of whom have concerns about COVID-19 and its effects, but she’s also listening to her younger voters who are concerned about the environment and gun violence.
“For our campaign, it’s really been about people and constituent relations, and we’ve always focused on that, so it’s felt the same to me even though I’ve had to master some new platforms,” she said.
For Wilms, he said that people are appreciative of his efforts to reach them during this difficult time.
“In all my state campaigns, I’ve been getting the best reactions by far this time. I’m just incredibly encouraged by people’s enthusiasm for me running again to reclaim the 142nd seat,” he said.
Dathan said that she’s trying to use her role as a State Representative to get people the resources they need.
“I talk to people who needed help with business loans and resources and the ability to still go after these PPP loans, so really providing constituent services even during campaigning. People will call me or I’ll be talking to someone during the campaign, and people will say, ‘Oh I need some help with this’ and then I’m able to help them as well or put them in the right direction at least,” she said.