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As City Council election season begins, candidates prepare COVID-19-aware campaigns

Feb. 22, 2021 Updated Tue., Feb. 23, 2021 at 6:36 a.m.

Three candidates have already filed for positions on the Spokane City Council in the 2021 election, a campaign that is bound to be affected by restrictions on gathering due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  (Christopher Anderson)
Three candidates have already filed for positions on the Spokane City Council in the 2021 election, a campaign that is bound to be affected by restrictions on gathering due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Christopher Anderson)

The race for three Spokane City Council seats is wide open, but candidates will be forced to generate campaign momentum while abiding by – or skirting – restrictions on in-person gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As was the case during state and federal campaigns last year, candidates for city office are planning virtual events while weighing the risks of what were once staples of election season, such as knocking on residents’ doors.

The pandemic may make building name recognition a challenge, but at least a few factors offer hope to political newcomers.

There is the cushion of time, as the primary elections are not until Aug. 3. The region’s recent advancement to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan allows for in-person outdoor gatherings up to 15 people, and restrictions could loosen further if COVID-19 cases continue on their downward trajectory.

Candidates are also launching campaigns in a world accustomed to – and maybe a bit tired of – interacting on Zoom.

Candidates and campaigns

Jonathan Bingle is seeking a first term on the City Council serving its northeast district, but he’s no rookie in city politics. Bingle placed fourth in the 2019 mayoral primary election and doesn’t yet have an opponent in the City Council race, according to Public Disclosure Commission filings, as incumbent Kate Burke has announced she would not seek re-election.

As the proprietor of an events business, Bingle knows firsthand the value of in-person interaction. His company was forced to pivot after finding it difficult to monetize online events during the pandemic.

“We’re well-versed on adjusting with the times and working within the regulations,” Bingle said.

Bingle chose to have an in-person campaign kickoff event in January at the Hillyard Farmers Market. At the time, Spokane County was still in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, which limited outdoor gatherings to 10 people.

When asked if the kickoff event violated guidelines, Bingle said he believed “when we looked at it, we were careful to make sure it complied.”

“We weren’t recirculating the air that everybody was breathing,” he said.

While large gatherings are not permitted under current regulations, Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said he is unaware of any enforcement action taken in response to one.

“We have been sensitive all year to political demonstrations – both to the right and to the left – strongly discouraging them but trying not to disrupt political speech at the same time. Ultimately, enforcement falls to whatever jurisdiction where the events take place,” Faulk said.

Tyler LeMasters, a Spokane native who recently returned to the city after living abroad, is hoping to unseat incumbent Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson in District 2, which encompasses downtown, Browne’s Addition, and the South Hill.

“The plan is to be responsible. Things are always changing as far as what we’re allowed to do. I’m a rule-follower,” LeMasters said.

Like Bingle, LeMasters opted for an in-person campaign launch event outside at Manito Park. It was capped at 40 people, while safety measures like social distancing and masking were enforced.

“When you’re in this position, it’s more than just doing what you need to do, because other people are looking at us and are going to base their perception of us on how other people around us act. We had to tell people, “Make sure you keep your mask on,’ ” LeMasters said.

The Spokane Regional Health District has a team of Business Technical Advisors who can help people prepare for events, although it has yet to receive any requests related to a political event, according to SRHD spokesperson Kelli Hawkins.

“The role of SRHD is not to approve events or event safety plans, but to review and provide comments based on current public health recommendations and available COVID-related guidance,” Hawkins wrote in an email.

Lacrecia “Lu” Hill is taking a different approach, launching her campaign for the City Council’s northwest district with an online event Thursday. She never considered holding an in-person event, and noted that her son could be immunocompromised and susceptible to the coronavirus.

“I took the approach that I’m listening to public health officials on this,” Hill said.

Ringing the bell

Bingle still intends to doorbell, but to do so respectfully and conscious of COVID concerns.

“When we doorbell it will be something where we have the proper safety gear on, and instead of being maybe on somebody’s porch, you stand back a significant amount,” Bingle said.

LeMasters also plans to doorbell, but pledged to keep his distance.

“It’s necessary and it’s one of the better things about politics, being able to communicate with people,” LeMasters said.

Very much online

Hill, who has never run for office, argued the pandemic “offers us a different opportunity to engage with the public.”

To that end, Hill has already invested in a hardwired internet connection to ensure a stable connection through the campaign, as spotty Wi-Fi could derail a live event.

The campaign’s YouTube channel is already set up, and it will record online events, allowing people who couldn’t find the time to log on and watch later. To reach younger voters, Hill has launched a TikTok account, although she has yet to produce a video.

“(It) gives candidates an opportunity to be more creative in how we express our personalities,” Hill said.

Hill hopes the campaign generates interest in civic participation and builds on the momentum of 2020, when the general election in November saw notably high turnout despite limited in-person campaigning.

As difficult as the pandemic has been, Hill said “it allowed us to draw back a little bit and I think be a little bit more thoughtful about our city and humans and how we engage each other.”

Like others, LeMasters will be on social media through the campaign. Still, he said, “I can’t lean on my strengths, which is, I can’t invite 150 people to a big party where we all enjoy each other.”

Despite the restrictions, and being a “political outsider” who has the support of neither the local Republican or Democratic Party, LeMasters stressed that he does not feel like a victim.

“’Where we can’t compromise is allowing the City Council to stay in office … people are suffering right now in Spokane and we think the City Council is full of compassionate people, but we don’t think their compassion has resulted in a good outcome,” LeMasters said.

Bingle is also keeping a positive outlook on the campaign, which will build off the experience he gained by running for mayor in 2019, and tapping into its network of volunteers.

“I honestly love campaigning, and I love being able to listen to people’s problems,” Bingle said.

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