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A person by the name of Hugh Jass arrived five minutes late to a Zoom video happy hour last Friday. But considering the new guest’s name, tardiness was the least of at-large D.C. Council candidate Marcus Goodwin’s worries.
It was shortly after 5:30 p.m., and roughly 25 people were already virtually mingling while they waited for Goodwin and his co-host, former mayoral candidate and Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal, to kick things off.
Immediately suspicious of the cheekily named latecomer and well aware of the widespread form of internet trolling known as “Zoombombing,” Goodwin booted Jass from the gathering, but more users like him kept coming back. For the next 20 minutes, anonymous trolls inundated Goodwin’s campaign event with pornographic videos and racial slurs spewed at the Council hopeful.
“You kick someone out, and they’re gone, but it was every minute, for like 10 minutes, a new person would join,” Goodwin says.
The 30-year-old real estate developer, who is making a second play for a Council seat after challenging At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds in the 2018 Democratic primary, ended the call before 6 p.m. He emailed the list of registered attendees that he would try again later that night on Instagram Live.
“Luckily people don’t have a lot to do on a Friday night,” he says. “Andy is very technically savvy and has done popular Instagram Live videos and has a big social media following, so it worked out.”
Zoombombing, a relatively new phenomenon in which anonymous trolls flood Zoom video conferences with offensive content, has penetrated just about every kind of virtual meeting out there, as Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7B can attest.
But lewd interruptions are just some of the hurdles candidates for elected office face during the coronavirus pandemic. The DC Board of Elections announced two weeks ago it will hold the June 2 Democratic primary election as scheduled. Early voting is slated to start May 22 at 20 voting centers spread throughout the District—at least two in each ward. They will replace the 144 precincts typically open on Election Day. The D.C. Council passed legislation this week directing BOE to send mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter in the District, in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to vote by mail.
During a time when some of the most effective campaign strategies—door knocking, hand shaking, in-person meet and greets—are essentially forbidden, local candidates are shifting to more hands-off approaches. That means lots of phone calls and a robust direct mail campaign, if you can afford it, candidates and campaign advisers say. And since most conversations with potential voters these days focus on COVID-19, candidates are trying to keep up with the constantly changing guidance as they become de facto sources of information for the thousands of people they’re talking to.
According to Sean Metcalf, who’s managed local campaigns and worked for former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the pandemic could give incumbents an extra advantage.
“They thought they could go to all these town hall meetings, and sit in front of the Social Safeway and get voters,” he says, speaking in terms of the Ward 2 race. “And now they can’t. So now they’re relying on their lists. And if you’ve never ran a campaign before, you probably don’t have a very good list.”
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Like Goodwin, many of the younger candidates who spoke to LL are using technology to schedule virtual meet and greets and connect with voters.
Janeese Lewis George, who is running to the left of Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, says she has scheduled virtual town halls every Tuesday, but phone banking is taking up the bulk of her time. George says some of her meet and greet hosts have been apprehensive of virtual gatherings, either because they’re unfamiliar with the technology or they don’t believe guests will show.
The pandemic has shifted her messaging when she talks with voters. Rather than immediately launching into a spiel about paid family leave or listing her endorsements, she (and just about every other candidate LL talked to) asks whether people need help getting groceries and other essentials, navigating the unemployment benefits application, and requesting a ballot.
Todd has yet to attend a virtual meet and greet, though he says he has one scheduled for next week. “I have been flooded with phone calls coming directly to me, aside from calls to my office, from small businesses who are petrified of their future,” he says.
Both George and Todd say they’ve made deliveries to people who are unable to shop for themselves, or for whom going out in public is too dangerous. Todd does so largely through his Council office, not his campaign apparatus.
Asked whether she would participate in a virtual debate, another victim of social distancing, George mentioned that the last in-person opportunity was a mid-March panel discussion for all Council candidates hosted by the political action arm of the Washington Metropolitan Council AFL-CIO.
Todd confirmed that he would attend, according to the event’s online registration page, but never showed.
He tells LL he must have had a scheduling conflict. “I’m always interested in talking about the issues that matter most to Ward 4 residents,” he says of a possible virtual debate in the future.
In Ward 2, candidate Brooke Pinto says she’s making about 3,000 calls per week. But as a political newcomer with little name recognition (or face recognition for that matter) she’s at a disadvantage in an eight-way race against opponents who have plenty of both. She’s scheduled some video meet and greets, and she’s also making videos of herself that she emails to voters.
“I was talking to one lady today,” Pinto says. “She said she had read about me, but was having trouble because she hadn’t seen me, and the video helped.”
Jordan Grossman, another Ward 2 candidate, canceled his in-person events in mid-March after Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency. About a week later his wife gave birth to their first kid. When he spoke to LL last week, Grossman was still organizing his digital campaign—calls, texts, video calls—while navigating life as a new parent.
He wasted little time enlisting his son, Jesse, into his campaign. A few days after Jesse was born, Grossman introduced him on Twitter as a fighter for the little guy who “strongly supports Naps for All.” The last tweet in the thread asked for volunteers to send texts and make calls for the campaign.
Kishan Putta, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Burleith, assembled a coronavirus advisory team that includes Obama administration Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and is planning a virtual town hall specifically about the crisis.
Jack Evans, meanwhile, is taking a different approach. The 66-year-old former Ward 2 councilmember, who resigned before the Council could kick him out for violating ethics rules, is, by his own admission, “not good at email,” “not good at computers,” and “can’t type.” If he does any video conferencing, it likely will be with smaller groups, not town hall style, he says, though none are currently planned. Joe Florio, Evans’ most recent former communications director, is working for the campaign and is good with the internet and social media, Evans says.
Without the traditional strategies he’s used in the past, Evans has focused on working the phones.
(Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, a 77-year-old entrenched incumbent, is relying on the same strategy. “Oh yes, I have lists from previous campaigns that I go through,” he tells LL in a phone interview. “This one list alone has 70, 80 people on it. And I use email and text, too.”)
Evans says his other focus is analyzing the District’s financial situation in light of its response to COVID-19.
“That’s my expertise,” he says. “I’ve been through every crisis the city’s had—’96, 2001, 2009— and was a helping hand along with others getting us through very, very difficult times.”
He’s also written an op-ed on the subject but declined to share it with LL for the time being. He did, however, offer a peek into his thinking by raising several questions, such as: What will Mayor Bowser’s budget look like? Where will the government cut spending? Should they raise taxes? On who? And how will the District recover?
Evans doesn’t have answers to those questions, saying he is waiting for CFO Jeffrey DeWitt’s assessment, which is expected on April 24. “I have ideas that I’ll share with people,” Evans says. “But I don’t have any answers right now.”
During a phone interview last week, Evans described himself as “one of the, if not the most, financially experienced person in your government.” (LL notes that Evans is actually outside the government after resigning in disgrace earlier this year.)
Asked on Monday about Evans’ self-portrait, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson furrowed his brow and cracked a slight grin. The chairman, who also fancies himself a more than proficient steward of D.C.’s finances, declined to comment on the record.
Metcalf, who has worked in the past as Evans’ communications director, suggests that the media’s focus on COVID-19, rather than the ethics scandal that forced Evans to resign from the Council in disgrace, as well as his longevity, give him an advantage.
“We’re not talking about anybody being in trouble. We’re just talking about COVID-19, and that’s it,” he says. “[His opponents] want to bash Jack at town hall meetings. Well that’s kinda gone by the wayside. So for elected officials who may have had problems, the news cycle has changed, and that’s to their benefit.”