Pandemic changes how Central Arkansas candidates go about campaigning

From gathering one signature at a time on front porches and sanitizing the pen afterward to finding ways to meet voters at a time when people are staying in their homes because of the pandemic, it’s shaping up to be an election season unlike any other for Little Rock-area candidates.

Those seeking election to one of the four contested seats on the Little Rock Board of Directors in November have until noon Friday to turn in their petitions. Filing for other municipal offices in Pulaski County ended Wednesday.

The races have drawn several political newcomers, but even candidates with multiple campaigns under their belts said 2020 is entirely different.

“I’ve been a state representative, I’ve been a senator, I’m presently a school board member, and this is the most unusual campaign that I’ve ever ran because of the limitations that you have,” said Tracy Steele, a candidate for mayor of North Little Rock. “I am a retail public servant. I believe in shaking hands and hugging and getting right in front of people, eye to eye, and smiling and really being with people, and all of that has really been so limited.”

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Candidates had several weeks to gather and turn in the required number of signatures — 50 for Little Rock and 30 for North Little Rock. Normally, they’d have gotten dozens of signatures at once by approaching people at summer festivals and other events, but in a crowd-free summer they’ve had to find other ways to get names on the page.

That made things more time-consuming and required additional considerations, some said.

Greg Henderson, publisher/president of Rock City Eats and a candidate for the at-large Position 10 on the Little Rock Board of Directors, said he worked with friends around town, such as one who owns a restaurant, to pick up signatures at places where people were going anyway.

When he ran for a different city board seat in 2018, he said he was able to knock out about 50 signatures at a single event.

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“This one took the better part of about two weeks to get all the signatures,” he said.

Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, a restaurateur who is running for another term, said she got people to sign her petition when delivering takeout orders.

Others have called up people they know and set up mask-clad meetings.

“Sometimes people will go ahead and refer me to other people, or they’ll bring other people along with them to my porch, or I’ll meet other people at their houses for signatures,” said Dale Pekar, a community activist who plans to file for Position 9, another at-large position on the city board.

In Little Rock, the city clerk’s office recommends candidates obtain 75 to 100 signatures in case some are found to be invalid.

Pekar’s petition had about 45 signatures as of Thursday afternoon, which he said he felt confident about.

“Basically I’ve known the people who have signed. I feel pretty comfortable maybe getting a dozen or two more and then taking it on in,” he said. “It’s not like I’m working with a bunch of strangers.”

Debi Ross, a North Little Rock City Council member and mayoral candidate, said she went to homes of people she knew and cleaned the pen with Lysol wipes after each person signed.

Rohn Muse, a candidate for at-large Position 9 on the Little Rock Board of Directors, said he connected with people all over the city for signatures and let them sign with a pen fresh from the box that they could keep.

Alice Kunce, a middle school teacher and another North Little Rock mayoral candidate, said she posted on Facebook to get the word out to people who might want to sign and knocked on the doors of people she knew. That’s a different picture from the campaign she envisioned starting at the beginning of April.

“We had a whole calendar of events worked out. I was going to go to all the different neighborhood associations,” Kunce said. “I had all of those marked and ready to go. I would be spending all of April and May going to those.”

Antwan Phillips, a candidate for at-large Position 9 on the Little Rock Board of Directors, announced that he was exploring a run in February and planned to start in mid-March. Then the first presumptive positive case of covid-19 in Arkansas was announced March 11.

“I had my first fundraiser scheduled for March 12, and I remember March 11, talking to my campaign team, ‘I know it’s just one, but I’m canceling everything,'” he said.

That led into a slowed-down summer, and now a compressed timeline for research and voter outreach.

“I’ve got to cram all that into three months, and it’s a challenge, but we accept it,” he said.

Terry Hartwick, the fourth mayoral candidate in North Little Rock, announced his campaign late last year but said he had planned fundraising events starting in mid-March. He said he’s done some in-person events, meeting with small, socially distanced groups.

“I’ve been in two mayor races, and to make a long story short, this one is different, but it still boils down to getting in front of people,” Hartwick said.

Steele said he is keeping numbers low for in-person meetings.

“This has been the first time ever that if I’m having an event that I will purposely downsize crowds,” he said. “I’ve never done that before.”

Henderson said he’s done some one-on-one meetings with people to hear voters’ thoughts.

Kunce said she is not doing in-person events, in part because she has asthma and is married to a health care worker, but she is finding ways to introduce herself to people online.

Many candidates said they are mostly sticking to digital methods to raise awareness of their campaigns, such as calling in to neighborhood association meetings, maintaining email lists of supporters, mass texting, holding events on the video chat service Zoom or being active on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor.

Some candidates, like at-large Position 10 candidate Sheridan Richards, have used Facebook pages to recruit volunteers, or to hold virtual fundraisers. At-large Position 9 candidate Leron McAdoo streamed a benefit concert last month.

“I certainly believe that social media has become of the utmost importance in campaigning during this pandemic. There’s absolutely no doubt about that,” said Chris Williams, assistant professor of political science and international studies in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “It’s probably the cheapest and easiest way to interact with the public. We’ve seen this becoming an important aspect of campaigns already.”

On the other hand, At-large City Director Joan Adcock, who is seeking reelection to Position 10, said she prefers to ask people for their votes over the phone.

“I think probably social media, in my opinion, may be overdone, because people can only spend so much time on a computer and everything, because they get kind of ready to move around a little bit,” she said. “I still believe in the telephone. I still want people to hear my voice, hear me asking you personally.”

Ross said a pandemic can mean people are easier to reach, which was the case for petitioning.

“In one sense, it was easier because there’s more people at home. In the past you’d have to wait until they got off work,” Ross said. “There’s always good in something.”

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