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No shaking hands, no kissing babies: Newark council candidates adjust to the realities of campaigning in a pandemic

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Election Day

Councilman James Horning Jr. shakes hands with a voter on Election Day 2019. This year, the pandemic has forced candidates to find new ways to connect with voters in a world in which hand shakes and other close contact are impractical.

When Jason Lawhorn ran for city council two years ago, he knocked on every door in his district to introduce himself to voters and hear what was on their minds.

“To me, that’s the best tool for council members to get a feel for the community, and for residents who may not typically pay attention to everything that’s going on with city government, it’s a good way for them to get informed,” Lawhorn said.

This year, however, the candidates in the July 28 council election have had to scramble to find different ways to reach voters, as the pandemic and the resulting social distancing guidelines have made the time-honored tradition of door knocking impractical.

“It’s what has been the most disappointing thing about this from a campaigning standpoint,” said Lawhorn, who is seeking his second term in District 5. “What I find most valuable from my last experience was going door-to-door and talking to everybody face-to-face, and that just wasn’t a reasonable thing to do given the environment we’re in. I am really disappointed, and when we finally get to a place where we’re back to normal and that can be done safely, regardless of whether we’re in a campaign or not, that’s something I’m going to commit to doing.”

The difficulty of in-person campaigning is just one of the ways the pandemic has upended the city’s election this year. Originally set for April 14, the election was delayed three months by order of the governor. Polling places will be open as usual, but city officials expect the majority of voters to cast absentee ballots.

The annual League of Women Voters’ candidate forum was canceled, so voters had no chance to see the candidates face-off against each other. Likewise, candidates weren’t able to hold fundraising events, which bring in campaign funds and also help candidates rally supporters and introduce themselves to voters.

Most of the candidates said they have been relying on social media, campaign signs and newspaper ads to reach voters.

“It was hard to reach people,” District 3 candidate Jay Bancroft said. “The standard way to do it is in-person stuff. Hopefully, they’re on social media.”

Bancroft’s opponent, Anthony Sinibaldi, said he was able to do a bit of door knocking earlier this winter, but not to the degree he had hoped.

“It was my plan to beat the bushes in my district, and I did that to the degree possible until the pandemic basically shut everything down,” Sinibaldi said. “I think that if I was able to beat the bushes a little bit more I could have talked to my constituents and tried to get some dialogue going about what their concerns were and some changes they would like to see. Trying to engage people online is a little bit of a challenge.”

Brian Anderson, who is challenging Lawhorn in District 5, has relied mostly on literature drops and roadside campaign signs.

“What you do is you try to visit houses and drop off your campaign material from a safe distance, and you walk around the street and if somebody is walking the dog, you stop and talk to them if they’re willing to,” Anderson said. “People are very concerned about contact with a stranger, so you try the best you can.”

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