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THE HILL: Candidates shift to volunteering as pandemic halts campaigning

Updated: May 18, 2020

Julia Machester | May 14, 2020

Candidates are volunteering for coronavirus relief efforts at a time when the pandemic has halted campaigning and conventional political efforts.

The efforts are not campaign events, but provide candidates with a way to keep supporters and volunteers engaged at a time when lockdowns are still in force in large parts of the country, while also providing them with interactions with potential voters. 

The activities have included using their supporter and volunteer lists to donate meals and masks, supporting first responders and working at clinics.

“One of the opportunities you have by running a campaign is trying to leverage the roots that you have of volunteers, and contacts and everything else to try to fill as many of those needs as you can,” Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who is challenging Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in that state’s Senate primary, told The Hill. 

Kennedy was one of the first campaigns in the country to temporarily suspend his campaign and shift resources to coronavirus relief. 

The congressman’s campaign has since raised $100,000 for organizations like Meals on Wheels, in addition to raising $15,000 for personal protective equipment donations. Kennedy’s campaign also raised $40,000 for food and housing assistance in Chelsea, Mass., one of the hardest areas in the state. 

Kennedy also delivered food to food pantries, hospitals, and first responders, teaming up with Massachusetts-based burger chain Wahlburgers on a number of occasions. 

On Sunday, Kennedy delivered breakfast to patients quarantined at a Quality Inn-turned coronavirus treatment and recovery facility in Revere, Mass. 

“It’s opportunities like that to just try to get out there and say thank you,” Kennedy said. 

Campaigns have also used their resources to donate personal protective equipment, which can be difficult to come by in some communities. 

“We took everyone’s questions, we put them together, and I was amazed at how many people needed masks,” New York Republican Chele Farley, who is running in New York's 18th Congressional District, told The Hill after her campaign held a virtual coronavirus town hall. “Using our connections, I was able to get someone to donate masks and gloves, and we’ve been so thrilled with the response.” 

Farley’s campaign ended up donating 500 masks, and are in the process of distributing 10,000 pairs of gloves to nursing homes, hospitals and small businesses. 

Hospital and health care staff have been forced to work long, grueling hours amid the pandemic, and for Pritesh Gandhi, this has meant having his congressional campaign in Texas take a backseat to his day-to-day life as a first responder. 

Gandhi, an Austin-based physician running for the state’s 10th House district, was spending the majority of his time on the campaign trail and around 30 hours a week working at his clinic in the beginning of March. 

However, since the pandemic took hold in his district, his time is devoted to fighting the virus.  “I pivoted. So now I’m here, full time. I see patients. I’m part of a leadership team in responding to this pandemic, and we are positioning ourselves to continue to care for our community in the weeks and months to come,” he said. 

Gandhi, a progressive running on what his website calls a “Medicare for all who want it” platform, said his work treating patients has put issues surrounding economic inequities further in perspective. 

“I have patients who come in and are struggling to breathe and the first sentence out of their mouth is ‘I can’t afford to go to the hospital,’” Gandhi said. “It very quickly puts things in perspective that this virus is not just a threat to the livelihoods of our communities, but it has demonstrated in a ruthless way the existing inequities that make life so challenging and traumatic for so many of our neighbors.” 

Other candidates have used their ties to first responders in their volunteer efforts.  Florida congressional candidate Kat Cammack, whose husband is a firefighter and a SWAT medic, used her campaign website to establish COVID-19 help center on her campaign website. Cammack is running in the state's 3rd District.  Additionally, Cammack and her husband already have a foundation dedicated to generating support for local first responders. 

“We started contacting all of our police chiefs and fire chiefs and sheriffs asking what needs they had,” Cammack told The Hill. “It really ran the full gamut from we need thermometers, to of course, PPE. Then there were some pretty basic ones, particularly in the rural areas that got hit very hard [like] toilet paper, paper towels.” 

  In addition to coronavirus relief, candidates have also worked to help voters navigate the fallout from the economic crisis. 

Congressional candidate and Florida state Rep. Adam Hattersley (D-Fla.) has held a number of constituent service teletownhalls, focusing on issues like the state’s plagued unemployment system as he runs to represent the state's 15th Congressional District.

“It’s kind of difficult and not really appropriate to be doing traditional campaigning right now, so we figured we’d focus on the constituent services, and really just trying to help the community as much as we can because if we’re not going to do it, then who is?” Hattersley said. 

While campaigns across the country have halted their in-person campaign activities, candidates, like any volunteer, need to be aware of the safety procedures involved in coronavirus relief. 

“You as a candidate and your team needs to vet exactly the volunteer opportunity that you’re participating in, and making sure that you’re not trying to co-opt it into your own campaign event,” said Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth said. “You are just literally participating as a volunteer in whatever the organization as requested.” 

“Part of this moment is following the guidelines and the guidance that public health officials set,” Kennedy said. “Every person needs to abide by [those guidelines] if we’re going to finally get through this.” 

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