Calgary·Calgary Votes 2021

Campaigning during a pandemic: a new challenge for candidates

Running a campaign can be a gruelling, non-stop, months-long journey that often involves lots of handshaking, policy-making, fundraising, debating and connecting with and wooing voters. But during a pandemic it can be especially difficult.

How to connect with voters when door knocking, in-person events viewed as unsafe

Campaigning during a pandemic

2 months ago
2:18
We've asked four candidates running in wards 3, 5, 6 and 7 to share their experiences of running a campaign during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:18

Running a campaign can be a gruelling, non-stop, months-long journey that often involves lots of handshaking, policy-making, fundraising, debating and connecting with and trying to woo voters.

But during a pandemic it can be especially difficult.

We've asked four candidates running in wards 3, 5, 6 and 7 to share their experiences of running a campaign during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. There's a former city councillor, a former chief of staff, a former military medic and a current paramedic. 

They all say it's been a challenge connecting with voters, some of whom shun candidates on their doorsteps, while others are hesitant to get too close, realizing many of these would-be politicians have likely come into contact with a lot of people.

It's altered their campaigns. One candidate has done away with door-knocking altogether. All are finding new ways to connect with voters.

Marilyn North Peigan is proud of her First Nations ancestry as a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

"The first Blackfoot woman to be running," she said before starting another round of door knocking in the northeast community of Tuxedo Park.

North Peigan is running in Ward 7 — a wide open race to replace long-time council member Druh Farrell, who is not seeking re-election.

North Peigan says her team is following all COVID-19 restrictions, including masking and distancing while door knocking.

"We go through a briefing before we do door knocking … this is how you approach people, you knock and you walk away, you step back," she said.

Marilyn North Peigan is running as a candidate for city council in Ward 7. She says a few members of her team tested positive for COVID-19 outside of campaign activities. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

North Peigan says some of her supporters who are helping with the campaign have been sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19. She says one of her key aides has been dealing with lingering symptoms from the disease, known as "long COVID."

As a former military medic, health and safety is a top priority, North Peigan says, and she respects voters who don't want to engage on the door step.

But some do, and she admits to being surprised when people want to talk about reconciliation with First Nations' people.

"That's been an inspiring aspect and I wasn't expecting that."

Paramedic pulls the plug on door knocking

Nate Pike is also running for city council for the first time, but he's not a political neophyte. He hosts a political podcast called The Breakdown, and he once ran for a seat in the legislature for the Alberta Party.

He's a paramedic and he made the decision to suspend door knocking in Ward 3, a move he acknowledges could hurt his chances.

Nate Pike is a Calgary paramedic who is running as a candidate in Ward 3. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"Am I kneecapping myself to some degree by not door knocking? Absolutely," he said while taking a break from putting up campaign signs along Panorama Hills Drive N.W.

"But I've heard from so many people that it's not the right time."

From the backroom to front and centre

Stan Sandhu is an experienced political operative as the former chief of staff to Coun. George Chahal, who was recently elected as the Liberal MP for Calgary-Skyview.

Sandhu hopes to occupy Chahal's old seat. Ward 5 includes a number of northeast communities, including Taradale, Cityscape, Castleridge and Falconridge.

He worked full-time for the former councillor for the past four years and believes that gives him an inside track with his connections at city hall. 

Stan Sandhu, a former chief of staff to Coun. George Chahal, is now seeking the Ward 5 seat himself. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Sandhu says his team has continued door knocking through the fourth wave of the pandemic and they have encountered only a few people who didn't want to engage.

"We're just being very cautious and respecting people," he said.

"We're still getting out to the doors, and most people do appreciate that we're still coming, but we're keeping our distance, we're taking a step or two back, and if anyone is extra cautious, we do respect that and we'll move on."

During the pandemic, political debates and forums have moved into the virtual realm.

It's not the preferred choice for Sandhu, but it's a safe one.

"As of late, you know, the cases are surging, and it's turning more into a virtual platform."

"I like the virtual in terms of safety. But, of course, I mean, connecting with people, it's always nice to get the face to face. But for me, it's always respecting people's … whatever their preferences are.

Former councillor runs again … in a pandemic

This is the third municipal election campaign for Richard Pootmans. He served as councillor in Ward 6 from 2010 to 2017 and is now trying to get his old job back — but under very different circumstances. He says the mood has changed because of the way the 18-month-long pandemic has affected people either physically, emotionally or financially.

He says many people are feeling "stresses and strains."

And because of the restrictions, it makes it more difficult to connect with them.

Richard Pootmans is hoping to get his old job back as Ward 6 councillor. He held the position between 2010 and 2017. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"It reduces the opportunity, for sure, the ability to have open discussions," he said from the southwest community of Coach HIll.

"That doorway conversation is definitely a little shorter than they used to be. And that's too bad because the key reason for doing this is to listen to people."

He describes the conversations now as "short bursts."

"They don't get a chance to talk about it as much as they would like, partly because they're nervous about us. They see us wandering from door to door, and this isn't necessarily the best thing to be doing."

He says his team is fully vaccinated, everyone wears masks and practises physical distancing.

Door knocking is a time-honoured tradition for anyone trying to win votes, and it seems some candidates are reluctant to let go.

For Pike, though, it was the right decision. 

"There's no question that door knocking is the most powerful tool in the political toolbox."

"But one of the things that's been really impactful for me is I've been hearing from other health-care workers, other paramedics, physicians and nurses, that they really appreciate the choice.

"So while it certainly comes with the downside, I'm confident that I'm doing the right thing."


Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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