Campaigning in a Crisis

New York candidates shift focus of campaigns amid coronavirus pandemic to community service

07 Apr 2020 | 10:56

At the start of March, Cameron Koffman felt like his campaign for New York State Assembly was really hitting its stride. He had just opened a storefront office on the Upper East Side and was in the heat of petitioning, with volunteers out on the streets gathering signatures every day. The community in the 73rd District, he thought, was responding well to his message.

“It was really about being in the community as much as possible,” said Koffman, who, if elected, would be one of the youngest assembly members ever at age 22. “We really had a lot of momentum.”

By the second week of March, the city was consumed by a public health crisis. Quickly, the entire state was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, and it was no longer very clear to Koffman — with a Democratic primary slated for June — what to do next.

The question he and all other candidates for office were now facing was: How does one continue to engage voters amid a global pandemic?

The answer that Koffman and other candidates in New York have come up with is to pivot their campaigns to provide a community service.

His campaign organized a day of action, in which his volunteers made calls to seniors to see if there was anything they need.

“We went to Trader Joe's for someone. We went to the pharmacy for someone. We did someone’s laundry,” said Koffman. “A lot of people do need help right now. It's just about reaching and getting in touch with them.”

Disruption for Patel

Suraj Patel, a Democrat looking to unseat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, has similarly pivoted his campaign to focus on community service. Patel’s campaign was similarly making grocery and pharmacy deliveries to voters in need, but stopped once the shelter in place order came down.

His volunteers are still checking in on seniors and have delivered handmade greeting cards to senior centers and NYCHA housing.

“It’s been received so well,” said Patel. “People are scared and they’re isolated in their homes.”

But perhaps the pandemic’s biggest disruption for Patel’s campaign has involved his own health. In March, Patel contracted the coronavirus.

“I began experiencing a troubling tightness in my chest and difficulty breathing followed by a regular fever of 102 degrees. I live with two doctors whose ability to return to work was dependent on our household remaining COVID-free,” said Patel in a piece he wrote for Medium. “Therefore, we had to test to verify our condition so they would not miss work. My housemates and I all tested positive for COVID-19 and have been in self-quarantine since then and have recovered.”

Patel told the New York Times that the pandemic and his bout of sickness disrupted his campaign schedule and that his small dollar fundraising had dropped off by 80 percent by the end of last month.

Another challenge posed by the pandemic is the major shift in attention by voters from politics and elections to layoffs and how to come up with next month’s rent.

Both Patel and Koffman said it’s completely understandable that the June primary would not be top of mind for most New Yorkers; however, the two candidates did say that the way the pandemic has been handled by the government, particularly at the federal level, reinforces their messages that change in representation is badly needed

“In front of our face we are seeing the repercussions of decades of sky high inequality, of a safety net in tatters, and of people in Congress that have no clue how to make payroll or who have had a regular job in decade,” said Patel. “We’re still about 100 days out from my elections but I think there’s no doubt that people in my district are seeing this and thinking, ‘Wow, I really think we need pretty dramatic change.'”

As campaigns continue to adjust to a New York under lockdown, Koffman has put out a plan aimed at addressing the challenges of the political process in the midst of a global pandemic. “Don’t Let Coronavirus Stop Democracy” has nine major tenets, including online sign-ups for absentee ballots, using the unemployment rolls to find poll workers, and a suspension of petition and ballot challenges.

“As Governor Cuomo says, we’re all hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. But we cannot let the virus become an excuse for us to go against our shared values,” said Koffman. “We do want to see the city, and the entire country, really adapt to make sure we still have participatory politics.”

“A lot of people do need help right now. It's just about reaching and getting in touch with them.” State Assembly candidate Cameron Koffman