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Social distancing hard on political campaigns

COVID-19 offers more hurdles for newcomers

Tina Wildberger demonstrates how she uses a chair and a brick to set up to video her social media posts at her Kihei home as husband, Mike, and dog, Foster, look on Thursday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

No beef stew fundraisers and in-person candidate forums and fewer yard signs and roadside sign waving are part of the new normal for Maui’s political campaign landscape due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is an extraordinary period,” County Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said about the primary election Saturday. “It’s not close to anything I’ve experienced.”

Lee, who is running unopposed for the Wailuku, Waihee and Waikapu residency seat, has been a part of Maui County politics for decades, including as a council member from 1989 to 1999.

Because of social distancing, incumbents will have a “huge advantage” because sitting council members are on public access television during meetings and mentioned in media reports, she said.

Newcomers don’t have the means to speak to large crowds and meet large groups one-on-one due to COVID-19 restrictions, she said.

Don Couch tends to a loose campaign sign near the Kihei roundabout Thursday. Couch advocated for the roundabout during his tenure with the Maui County Council. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Fellow Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who also is running unopposed for the Upcountry residency seat she has held since 2016, agreed that social distancing rules will make it an uphill battle for newcomers.

She has noticed fewer yard signs and banners, which also could be related to the lack of fundraising opportunities.

Former County Council Member Don Couch, who is again seeking the state House District 11 seat for South Maui, said he has “no idea” how the new normal will impact his campaign against incumbent and fellow Democrat Tina Wildberger. 

Saturday’s winner will take on Aloha Aina candidate Howard Greenberg in the general election.

In his 2018 bid for the seat, Couch said he went door to door in the district and still lost. He is not sure being unable to do the same this election will impact his current campaign.

As for sign waving along the highway, Couch described it as “inappropriate” at the present time with unemployment and economic hardships.

“There is a lot of people without a job, you are sign waving at people asking for a job,” Couch said.

Online forums “were nice” but there were not many viewers who watched live, he said. At traditional forums prior to the pandemic, he had the opportunity to talk to people one-on-one.

“All that is left is digital media and mailers,” he said. Couch explained that his digital media outreach included social media along with Google ads. 

Wildberger, too, expressed disappointment about not being able to reach out to constituents in the normal ways. She said the “single most effective” way to reach out to voters is going door-to-door, which she could not do with the pandemic.

She also was “bummed” that there were no coffee hours or happy hours, where friends could get together with the candidate to talk about issues.

“You can dive deep on issues,” she said.

From there, supporters talk to others, and the “coconut wireless” does its magic to spread the message and platform.

“That’s the bigger bummer we can’t do mostly because I’m a social person anyways,” she added.

She also cut back on her sign waving because not all supporters wanted to wear masks, which she advocates.

As for the candidate forums, she said she participated in two virtually, which is the same number that she would normally do prior to COVID-19. This time around, Wildberger has relied on mailers, ad cloud, social media and other digital platforms.

The race for the council West Maui residency seat features three candidates vying to get the top two vote tallies to make it to the general election. The challengers to incumbent Tamara Paltin expressed difficulties running amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sne Patel and Rick Nava agreed that incumbents have an even greater advantage this election cycle because of limited opportunities to meet people face to face.

To overcome not having the usual gatherings and face-to-face opportunities, Nava said he wears his name tag and baseball cap with his name on it when out in public.

“A lot of people have acknowledged me, and we end up having a nice conversation about my candidacy (for) Maui County Council,” he said.

Nava, who ran for the seat last election, misses the door-to-door visits, the “talk story” and gatherings to listen to voters’ concerns. 

“I’ve done a lot of sign waving and the social media helps, but it is not the same as listening and being engaged with the people of Maui County,” Nava said. 

He also misses the in-person candidate forums. “Having Zoom or Blue Jeans (virtual) meetings is definitely not the same and not as engaging,” Nava said. 

He also has appeared on radio shows where people can call or message him with questions. “It was very nice, but very limited with the interaction,” Nava added. 

Patel, who is a first-time candidate for County Council, said he could not hold any events or fundraisers that would have allowed the community to meet him.

“As this is my first race, I don’t have anything to compare this experience with, but I believe that forums are a highly effective vehicle for helping voters get to know you and how you feel about the important issues in our community, Patel said.

He has done very limited social-distanced canvassing in some Lahaina neighborhoods, where he was taken around by a resident in that area. 

“In lieu of face-to-face interaction, we have worked hard to establish a presence with the help of social media, traditional and digital media as well as radio,” he said.

Patel also mentioned participating in several Zoom campaign forums, including the Haiku Community Association and Maui Pono Network events, which allowed for candidate and public interaction.

“I think there is no substitute for one-on-one interaction, because it really gives voters a chance to get to know you in a personal way,” Patel said. “But, we are all learning how to adapt to this new normal, and I hope our community sees that we are working hard to do our best to reach out to them.”

For Paltin, a freshman council member finishing her first term, this is the first time she has had to campaign while in office.

In a way, this campaign is “a bit easier” because there are not as many campaign events, she said.

As far as being visible during the election cycle, Paltin said she was able to work with others, including Wildberger, to help provide grab-and-go meals to keiki in South Maui. 

Online forums have their advantages, Paltin said. There are larger audiences and candidates and the public appear from their homes, meaning less driving.

“It’s good for the planet and good for spending time with my family,” she said.

But the voters may be less informed about the candidates, especially those who rely on printed material, media and face-to-face interaction. Paltin said she has received a lot of calls from people asking her whom she would recommend in the election.

Paltin acknowledged that it is harder on challengers and newcomers without the large events, where lots of people can get to know candidates.

As for her plans, Paltin said: “I’m going (to let) my record speak for myself, things I’ve done in the first term.”

* Staff Writer Matthew Thayer contributed to this report. Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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