Tomas Ramos canvassing with constituents. Courtesy of Campaign Facebook

Coronavirus fears alter political campaign strategies

Candidates in the race for Congress in the South Bronx are shifting  the way they run for office, amid fears stoked by the coronavirus pandemic and after Mayor Bill de Blasio urged candidates on Thursday to suspend all door-to-door canvassing in a Queens race.

The Democratic primary race to fill the seat of Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano has been heating up since last year, when Serrano announced he would not seek reelection, citing health concerns. Now, candidates for that office are concerned about keeping their volunteers and constituents healthy and safe.

“Since the first day that we heard that the coronavirus has been here in New York, every single petitioner carries at least one hand sanitizer, and after every interaction with someone, they use it,” said Tomas Ramos, who is running to fill the seat.

Ramos said that while he’s not concerned about his volunteers dropping off, canvassing in the South Bronx has changed amid fears over the COVID-19 virus.

“We’ve been having trouble with people stopping to sign our petition,” Ramos said, adding “there are just not as many people in the street as before.”

Candidates seeking a Democratic nomination for any office in New York are required to submit petitions to the New York City Board of Elections with signatures of 5% of the total electorate.

In the Bronx, the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot is around 1,500. That can be a difficult target to meet, particularly now that the public is increasingly reluctant to speak to strangers on the street.

“We’ve been campaigning pretty aggressively on the doors, so this has definitely impacted us.” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, former New York City Council chair.  “Petitioning requires face-to-face contact and bodily contact to get them to sign the petition, which is a legal document.”

Since the outbreak, candidates say they are now looking for new ways of campaigning, including reaching voters online.

“The response has been people are now hesitant to door-knock,” said South Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake. “You have to be much more creative with your digital outreach now.”

Blake said he has experienced a dip in volunteers since the virus emerged, and he hopes that switching to an online strategy will give him the energy he needs to continue through the outbreak.

Other candidates have been using their campaigns’ online presence to distribute public information to their constituents.

Mark-Viverito say she has been distributing public health information and pushing city officials to distribute the information in multiple languages.

“There should be an effort to figure out how consistently you’re putting out information through ethnic media and through texting,” Mark-Viverito said. “I’ve been putting out a lot of information in both English and Spanish, which are big languages in the South Bronx.”

While campaigns have a long time before the primary on June 23, candidates are concerned about meeting their April 2 petition filing deadline.

The New York City Board of Elections, which handles taking petitions for ballot access, could not be reached for comment on whether it might move the deadline for filing petitions to appear on the ballot, given challenges the virus is posing.

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