Democratic activists with 2020 campaign signs
Democratic activists ready for sign waving (Photo: Malcom Jenkins)

In-per­son con­tact is usu­al­ly the essence of pol­i­tics on Whid­bey Island, with capa­bly run, well attend­ed can­di­date forums, and church base­ment break­fasts fea­tur­ing live­ly dia­logue and con­gealed eggs.

Not so in 2020, although the 10th Leg­isla­tive Dis­trict has split rep­re­sen­ta­tion, an open House seat, and a State Sen­ate race fea­tur­ing a can­di­date – Demo­c­rat Helen Price John­son – who used to stage brisk League of Women Vot­ers forums.

It’s so across the Ever­green State, save for close quar­ters, large­ly mask-less events for Repub­li­can guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Loren Culp, State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jim Walsh, and Top Two elec­tion los­er Tim Eyman.

Back in the spring, Eyman invit­ed Island Coun­ty Repub­li­cans to defy Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee’s first order lim­it­ing crowd size. Few showed up.

What are can­di­dates and cam­paigns doing?

“Lots of Zoom and can­di­dates are plac­ing a huge num­ber of calls them­selves,” mes­saged State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the House Repub­li­can leader.

The nov­el coroan­virus pan­dem­ic has tak­en away a near­by plea­sure of grass­roots democ­ra­cy – the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet and jaw­bone with neigh­bors and vis­i­tors who are on the cam­paign trail – but extend­ed the reach of polit­i­cal activism.

“I think it has hurt local involve­ment, but has made it eas­i­er to get involved in swing states,” said Demo­c­ra­t­ic activist and par­ty leader Derek Richards, who chairs the Young Democ­rats of Wash­ing­ton (YDWA).

“For exam­ple, I do love to go to forums in per­son and get a feel of how an audi­ence reacts and how can­di­dates then react to con­stituents. And I miss knock­ing doors. But because COVID-19 has forced cam­paigns to be com­plete­ly online, it makes it just as easy for me to phone bank or text bank peo­ple in Maine as it would be for me to bus to a swing dis­trict and knock doors for a can­di­date. So, as a vol­un­teer for cam­paigns it is easier.”

“As a lover of in-per­son events, it isn’t so great.”

Sen­a­tor Susan Collins, R‑Maine, should be very con­cerned that Derek Richards is reach­ing Down East to oppose her. At the same time, how­ev­er, 10th Dis­trict Repub­li­can can­di­date Bill Bruch – chal­leng­ing State Rep. Dave Paul – has to face far few­er ques­tions over his coro­n­avirus skep­ti­cism and his sup­port for the Navy’s Growler jets, whose noise is shat­ter­ing the peace­ful life of Coupeville.

The 19th Dis­trict in South­west Wash­ing­ton is home to a human gen­er­a­tor of noise, Eyman wing­man Jim Walsh, as well as two endan­gered Democ­rats, State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bri­an Blake and State Sen­a­tor Dean Takko.

Blake trailed Repub­li­can chal­lenger Joel McEn­tire by 3,000-plus votes in the pri­ma­ry. He is spend­ing less time hunt­ing elk, and hunt­ing votes back at the doorstep. “Zoom has allowed debates to hap­pen and we have door­belled the dis­trict after the [Top Two elec­tion],” said Blake.

He is run­ning as “A Dif­fer­ent Kind of Demo­c­rat,” an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion to make in per­son giv­en the noisy Seat­tle bash­ing of dis­trict Republicans.

Tere­sa Pur­cell, a Longview-based con­sul­tant to cam­paigns around the coun­try, has long fought to have the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty court young peo­ple, work­ing moms and oth­er folk under­rep­re­sent­ed in the vot­ing public.

The pan­dem­ic has uproot­ed campaigns.

“This has total­ly changed cam­paign­ing: Cre­ative folks are hav­ing Zoom hap­py hours, lis­ten­ing ses­sions or just pain meet and greets,” Pur­cell messaged.

“I don’t know of any­one hav­ing events (except a few Repub­li­cans, like Culp and Jim Walsh). Folks are doing lots of phone call­ing, social­ly dis­tanced can­vass­ing (just some cam­paigns are doing that) and mak­ing good use of social media.”

“This is the weird­est elec­tion cycle ever.”

Pan­dem­ic pol­i­tics have pro­duced one reveal­ing vir­tu­al debate.

In the 3rd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, Repub­li­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jaime Her­rera Beut­ler has long resist­ed in-per­son pol­i­tics, steer­ing away from town meet­ings and min­i­miz­ing expo­sure for her oppo­nents. She did accede to a League of Women Vot­ers-spon­sored debate last week with her Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent Car­olyn Long.

The debate allowed Long to ham­mer at Her­rera Beutler’s role as a rub­ber stamp for Don­ald Trump, and to hit the incum­bent for a fail­ure to pro­duce on replac­ing the Inter­state 5 bridge link­ing Van­cou­ver with Portland.

Her­rera Beut­ler coun­tered that she is work­ing bridges, cit­ing $5 mil­lion to pay for work lead­ing to replace­ment of the White Salmon-Hood Riv­er Bridge.

It was a spir­it­ed hour, although it’s not like­ly that Her­rera Beut­ler will be lured into anoth­er vir­tu­al face-off with the fast talk­ing Long.

The pan­dem­ic has put a crimp on Long, who in 2018 used a series of town meet­ings in a bid to recon­nect rur­al South­west Wash­ing­ton with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee is not pop­u­lar in the region and is not fre­quent­ly seen in such places as Cowlitz and Grays Har­bor counties.

On Whid­bey Island, I know I can expect 10th Dis­trict can­di­date mail­ings to pour out of my post office box. They will be signed (in very small print) by cam­paigns, labor unions, and par­ties’ front groups. I’m lucky enough to have wit­nessed work as Island Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­ers by Helen Price John­son and Demo­c­ra­t­ic House nom­i­nee Ang­ie Homo­la. Long­time Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Nor­ma Smith isn’t run­ning again: She made me a tick­et split­ter with strong sup­port for net neu­tral­i­ty, and cospon­sored bipar­ti­san leg­is­la­tion allow­ing the Attor­ney Gen­er­al to crack down on neglect­ed, pol­lut­ing boats. Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son has done just that.

Still, I’ll miss forums.

They could be reveal­ing, such as watch­ing Repub­li­can State Sen­a­tor Bar­bara Bailey’s abrupt, rude treat­ment of crit­i­cal but polite­ly posed ques­tions at a 2016 LWV forum in Oak Har­bor. Down in Lan­g­ley, the League’s can­di­date nights could hold an audi­ence for two hours. The park­ing lot argu­ments typ­i­cal­ly went on for anoth­er thir­ty min­utes after that. Inside the Methodist Church hall, Island Coun­ty Demo­c­ra­t­ic Chair “Uncle Paul” Fournier and long­time Repub­li­can leader Dorothy Cleve­land would be tak­ing up and fold­ing chairs.

Sure, Fournier and Cleve­land were on oppo­site sides of hot­ly con­test­ed races. After the elec­tion, how­ev­er, they would come togeth­er to pass the local school levy – over grum­bling from a group of local con­ser­v­a­tive called the Old Goats – and to sup­port pro­grams to keep trou­bled teenagers from going to seed.

Before all pol­i­tics was Trump, all pol­i­tics was local. In some ways, it still is.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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