Robbed of handshakes and mass events, hopefuls settle for virtual meetings, small groups to spread messages
Justin Perry sits alone at a picnic table, scrolling through his phone, mask around his neck. Campaign literature and yard signs are spread out next to him, untouched.
On this mild spring day, when normally dog walkers would be circling Fellin Park and Hot Springs Pool soakers would start filling parking spots, the unaffiliated candidate for Ouray County sheriff has spoken with just three people in the hour he’s been here. He knows all of them already, and he gets just a few minutes to visit with them about his platform and ideas.
The hallmarks of any campaign for elected office door-knocking, handshakes, setting up campaign tables at large public events, fundraisers in donors’ dining rooms — have been waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the race between Perry and Republican Undersheriff Ted Wolfe, who are seeking to unseat Sheriff Lance FitzGerald in a recall election, these traditional methods of campaigning have been replaced. Candidates are instead reaching out to voters through computer and phone screens and informal meet-and-greets attended by a limited number of people, many of whom are wearing face coverings.
FitzGerald hasn’t launched an official campaign to keep his position, and didn’t respond with a rebuttal statement for the ballot question asking voters to remove him from office. His efforts to retain his position have been quieter than those who seek to replace him.
Both Wolfe, 69, and Perry, 44, are first-time political campaigners who didn’t quite know what to expect from running for office, but they weren’t expecting this.
The pandemic has forced both candidates to get creative to reach voters in Ouray County — a place where the population is less dense and it’s harder to reach folks because they’re more spread out. They’ve had to adapt to the situation presented by the virus and directions from health officials asking people to keep their distance to avoid potential contagion.
“Spending time outside with people has been missed,” Perry said. “Being out there, shaking hands, talking with them, engaging with people in groups, one on one, at an accessible level.”
Wolfe agrees he’d rather interact with folks in person, and he’s always been someone who preferred a conversation over interacting through screens. He readily admits he didn’t get a smart phone until his kids and grandkids already had them, and he doesn’t really do social media, so this situation has presented a bit of a learning curve.
“I’m an old dog but I like learning new tricks,” he said. However, Wolfe must deal with the fact that he’s part of the “at-risk” older population health officials have warned to avoid catching COVID-19. And so he’s worked to change his methods and expectations.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “It was fun at times, and other times not so fun.”
Both candidates have pivoted their campaign strategies to find a way to communicate directly with voters — in more traditional ways like advertising but also in new ways, like soliciting endorsement videos from voters that they’ve posted on their campaign websites and social media.
They’ve also taken to Facebook heavily to advertise their platforms, talking specifically about topics including leadership, community policing and the red-flag gun law.
Personal videos, in which Perry and Wolfe both address potential voters directly through the camera, have played a central role in their campaigns. This is something Wolfe wasn’t expecting, and said has been a challenge.
“I’m a very off-the-cuff kind of guy, and I think that’s what it should be,” he said. But he’s had to practice being more focused for shorter, more targeted messages appealing to viewers’ short attention spans.
The videos and the technology have been challenging, and he’s relied on others to help him navigate the platforms for disseminating these messages, Wolfe said. “I’m not a dummy, I just kinda refuse to come into the 21st century in a lot of things,” he said.
This wasn’t how he was hoping to run a campaign — he pictured visiting with voters less formally. And he’s not entirely comfortable with sharing certain things himself on social media, saying, “I’ve always been a person to myself.” So he’s relied on others, including his wife, Betty, to share some more personal details that might help voters get to know him.
Before the coronavirus shuttered businesses, quarantined residents and limited mass gatherings to no more than io people, Perry had a lofty goal to knock on every door in Ouray County. Instead, he and campaign volunteers have delivered roughly 400 door hangers throughout the county.
“It didn’t preclude me from going door to door, but I wanted to remain sensitive to (the fact that) this is real, this is a real virus,” he said.
If the front door to a house is closed and it appears no one is home, they simply leave the door hanger. If there’s a screen door and the front door is open, they knock. Of those houses where they’ve knocked, Perry estimates 70 percent of the residents visited with him. The remaining 3o percent did not want to talk, asking him to just leave the door hanger and back off the porch.
Wolfe’s campaign also plans on distributing door hangers — complete with packets of hand sanitizer — to thousands of homes in the county soon, he said.
Like Perry, Wolfe said he doesn’t want to bug people. He feels better when others approach him these days, not just because of the virus but also because he doesn’t want to encroach on their personal time.
“If I go bother them, I think I’m taking up their time,” Wolfe said.
For the last several weeks, Perry has held hour-long walk-up meet-and-greets each day Monday through Thursday at locations across the county, as well as virtual meet-and-greets on Fridays.
“Very few people are coming to the parks,” he said. “Even now, people are reluctant to engage one-on-one.”
Even though he’s had no more than eight people attend one, he believes the walk-up events have been the most effective method of communication. By the end of the month, he’ll have conducted more than 5o meet-and-greets.
“That person knows a lot of people, and those people know a lot of people, and word spreads,” he said.
Attendance at the Friday virtual meetings has varied, from only three to close to zo. He said interest has waned over time, and thinks perhaps people are “meeting-ed to death.”
Wolfe said he’s had more luck with meet-and-greets at private businesses, homes of supporters and even a local yak farm. People are more apt to visit in small groups and can wear face coverings if they like and keep their distance.
Overall, Wolfe said the virus has been less of a problem for campaigning than he originally thought, and he’s had quite a few folks disregard social distancing altogether when they interact with him, particularly fellow veterans.
“We’ve had a lot of people just march right up and try to shake my hand,” he said. “I’m a hand-shaker.”
This puts Wolfe in a tough spot, he said, as he wants to reciprocate the gesture, but he also wants to be cautious about germs. He keeps hand sanitizer close and makes sure to use it after each interaction.
“I try to be discreetly using it so I don’t hurt people’s feelings after they shake my hand,” he said. He tries to fmd the delicate balance among maintaining social norms, being polite and being cautious. He doesn’t necessarily initiate handshakes, but he won’t refuse one, either.
“I want people to know that I’m there for them. If it risks a handshake to do it — that’s fine,” he said.
Other times, kids who know him from his visits to local schools run up and give him a hug — since they know him as Papa Ted. He doesn’t turn them away; that would hurt their feelings and his own, and it’s just too hard. But he’s careful to follow up with a good dose of alcohol-based sanitizing gel.
“Yes, we use hand sanitizer like crazy,” he said.