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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Candidates, debate venues found new ways to connect with voters as COVID-19 restrictions continue

Zac Zappone, 2020 candidate for Washington State Representative, 6th legislative district, uses his bike to doorbell in the Indian Trail neighborhood on Friday.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Though voters returned ballots this year in historic numbers, candidates themselves had to think outside the box to connect with the growing electorate and each other as COVID-19 cases continued to rise and interaction with the public has fallen.

Most candidates rely on doorbelling, meet-and-greets, public forums and debates to meet voters and share ideas. Many of those events were moved online, or candidates and venues have canceled them altogether to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Candidates for the 6th Legislative District, which stretches from Cheney to Nine Mile Falls, have both run into issues campaigning and debating this year.

Mike Volz said he tried to doorbell constituents early in the campaign, which was also the early stages of the pandemic in Spokane County, but stopped after he received a mixed reception from voters. Volz also has asthma and is at high risk of complications from COVID-19, so he looked for alternative ways to connect with constituents

“I think it has changed on what you can and can’t do while campaigning,” he said. “You don’t want to be running around in person in people’s space. There’s a fair amount of seniors in our district.”

Democrat Zack Zappone was knocking on doors throughout the district until last week, saying he is taking precautions, such as wearing a mask and standing away from the front door, and has found the people he’s talked to often appreciated the chance to share their concerns or the struggles they have gone through during the pandemic.

Zappone said he has tried to find other ways to get his message in front of voters when he can, but fewer opportunities exist now than during a typical election season. He’s had to rely on only a few events , phone calls, doorbelling and the efforts of a very young group of volunteers.

“That’s the hard part, to be a challenger that’s not really known,” he said. “You want to get out in front of a lot of people and talk about a lot of ideas. Because of coronavirus, there hasn’t been a lot of opportunities.”

Both Zappone and Volz have also had to take some time off the campaign trail because of the pandemic.

First, Zappone’s stepfather tested positive for COVID-19 early this summer and then he contracted the virus, forcing him to spend the early part of July in quarantine. He had mild symptoms and campaigned from his bedroom, chronicling part of the experience through videos on Facebook.

Volz was quarantined for a suspected COVID-19 infection after displaying symptoms. He tested negative but still stayed home for a few weeks to recover from a respiratory illness before campaigning again.

The illness caused Volz to miss a public debate with Zappone at KSPS-TV The candidates did participate in a virtual debate with The Spokesman-Review and an event with the League of Women Voters.

Volz said he also had to find alternative ways to connect with voters, increasing the number of radio advertisements, mailing more campaign materials and calling more people to remind them to vote.

Zappone is one of just a few candidates who has continued to doorbell in the greater Spokane area. Dave Lucas, a candidate for state representative in the 3rd District in Spokane and a Republican also continued to doorbell throughout the pandemic, though his opponent Andy Billig, a Democrat and the current Senate Majority Leader, has not.

Lucas has run against Rep. Timm Ormsby and said visiting homes and having one-on-one conversations at forums and events are his favorite parts about campaigning. He said he’s also had positive conversations with people on their door steps, but said it might not make much of a difference in the overall campaign because of the limit on how many doors he is able to knock on across the district in a single campaign season.

“It seems to have been very positive and well received, but it’s also challenging because you can only talk to one person at a time, versus an event, where you can reach dozens of people at a time,” he said.

Billig said he wants to set a good example for constituents and has avoided doorbelling, which he has done in past elections. He said many constituents have reached out to him or kept up contact electronically and have tuned in to the forums and events he has been able to do during the pandemic.

“I do value doorbelling so much, it is an opportunity to literally meet people on their doorstep,” he said. “That’s why it’s been gratifying that there has been a lot of opportunities over forums, email and social media to have some of those same interactions, but to do so safely.”

Candidate Rob Chase avoided doorbelling neighborhoods and instead went straight to businesses. Chase said he partnered with Republican candidate Bob McCaslin, who is in the 4th Legislative District, which includes Spokane Valley and Mt. Spokane. He said he decided against doorbelling residential homes because most people likely didn’t want to talk to a stranger during a pandemic.

He said they have hundreds of businesses during the summer, ranging from beauty salons to manufacturers to leave campaign material and talk with whomever was working , whether it was the owner of the business, or a receptionist. Chase, who is strongly opposed to the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions and has compared the virus to the flu, said many of the businesses he spoke to were frustrated and confused by the restrictions on their type of business and were often willing to talk.

“I could commiserate with them because many were about to lose their businesses,” he said.

His opponent Lance Gurel said his campaign has left literature on porches, but avoided knocking on doors out of concern for campaign staff and voters health. He said he’s focused on calls and post cards and also sought endorsements from community leaders across the greater Spokane Valley.

Gurel worked with former opponent Adam “Smash” Smith, an MMA fighter and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu business owner who ran against Gurel for a Spokane Valley City Council seat, to create an endorsement advertisement. He also did a virtual town hall with another former City Council opponent Al Merkel, who has worked with neighborhoods to fight new developments.

Gurel and Chase also participated in almost every forum or debate to which they have been invited , both saying they try to take advantage of every opportunity they can. Gurel opted out of one event with Spokane Talks out of solidarity with another candidate in the 4th District, Lori Feagan, and the lack of COVID-19 precautions.

Feagan, a nurse practitioner who is running against Bob McCaslin, said she has avoided most in-person events to protect herself, voters and patients. She said she has been willing to participate in debates and public forums with her opponent, but has only been able to share a virtual stage with him at a League of Women Voters forum.

Feagan also accepted invitations for debates including a KSPS public television debate and a League of Women Voters Debate, but was unable to participate when McCaslin declined.

“These were nonpartisan events that would have asked really important questions of the candidates and given our voters a chance to have in depth coverage as to what our positions were on really important timely issues,” she said. “That was a real missed opportunity.”

She participated in a few public forums without an opponent, such as one on climate change forum that Gonzaga University hosted.

She found other ways to campaign. Volunteers sent out postcards, she hosted Zoom events and she purchased TV ads. She said she hopes the ads will make up for the lack of other appearances and were made possible by a swell of donors from across the country.

McCaslin did not respond to a request for comment.

Most organizations that host debates in the Spokane area or statewide have reported logistical issues and some have held fewer debates.

Jim Zimmer, executive producer at KSPS, said the station planned but were unable to host several debates for highly contested and sometimes contentious races, including the Feagan versus McCaslin debate and the Zappone versus Volz debate. He said they ended up hosting less than they hoped for, but the move to virtual allowed the station to host the Secretary of State debate, which may have been more challenging to set up if the candidates had to travel for an in-person meeting.

“It lowered some barriers,” Zimmer said, “and it gave us options.”

Members of the League of Women Voters said the ability to host virtual debates also offered flexibility and reduced barriers for voters who may not be able to get to a city hall or auditorium to watch an hourlong debate.

Mary Coltrane, Voter Services Portfolio Director for the Washington State Chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the organization had fewer debates than in 2016, but was able to partner with more organizations than in the past to expand the reach of the debates. The League of Women Voters partnered with The Spokesman-Review, public television stations and other media. “We had a learning curve, I think everybody did,” she said. “From that perspective, it was more challenging.”

Whitney Keyes, executive Director of the Seattle City Club, the organization behind the Washington Debate Coalition, said it held fewer debates as well, but the one major debate the organization did host received far more viewers than normal.

Keyes said staff is still compiling numbers, but more than 1 million people watched the gubernatorial debate between Jay Inslee and Loren Culp.