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Coronavirus pandemic forces Basalt candidates to explore new campaign strategies

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To learn more about the candidates for Basalt mayor and town council, go to aspentimes.com/elections for candidate Q&As and click on the Local Election tab. The election is April 7 and ballots have been mailed.

There’s nothing like a pandemic to wipe out campaign strategy for candidates seeking public office.

The nine candidates in Basalt’s April 7 municipal election are being forced to get creative with their campaigns in the era of the coronavirus and social distancing.

Knocking on doors? Unacceptable. Small neighborhood gatherings to pitch your platform? No way. Candidate forums? No longer possible.

“It’s obviously put a huge damper on our ability to get out there and talk to people,” mayoral candidate Rob Leavitt said this week.

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Mayoral candidate Bill Kane said he and his wife, Caroline, have “stepped down” their campaign efforts a couple of notches as coronavirus emerged as a very real threat this month. They went from knocking on doors and engaging with people to hanging cards that outline Kane’s positions on doorknobs.

“It just started feeling a little bit creepy even leaving (hangers),” he said.

He is considering making telephone calls but is weighing if even that would be an intrusion upon people at a stressful time when many people are out of work or dealing with working at home.

“My perception is this municipal election isn’t the top of the list of issues on people’s minds right now,” Kane said.

Mayoral candidate Bill Infante said he will experiment with social media to keep a personal touch to the campaign. He will host a Facebook Live discussion on his Facebook page. Participants must send him a “friend request” in advance to tap into the discussion, which will be on surviving and recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

The loss of the personal touch in campaigning is the biggest adjustment for Infante.

“Meeting face to face is always something I like,” he said. “I’m trying to maintain that personal touch.”

In addition to the live discussion, he is posting videos and text explaining his positions on social media as well as making phone calls to special contact lists.

“I’m using any platform I can to get the word out,” Infante said.

Town Manager Ryan Mahoney confirmed Thursday morning that the election will go on in Basalt despite the statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Jared Polis. The order requires people to stay home with the only exception for essential tasks, such as trips to the grocery store and essential workers reporting for duty. Mahoney said election judges will be able to report to Town Hall to count ballots on Election Day. Judges were going through training Thursday.

As for voters, they should have received ballots in the mail by now. They can return them via mail, as long as they are received by Town Clerk Pam Schilling on April 7, or return them to the drop box at Town Hall.

Leavitt hopes Basalt residents are using the downtime to research the candidates’ positions and make an informed vote. Perhaps the spare time will spur more people to vote, Leavitt and Infante speculated. On the other hand, maybe people are too concerned with paying their bills to worry about the municipal election.

“There’s a possibility they won’t vote at all,” Infante said.

The election also features six candidates vying for three Town Council seats. It is an at-large race, so the three candidates drawing the most votes win.

Fortunately for all nine candidates in the races, forums were held earlier this month for the Town Council seats and mayor’s office before the ban on large group gatherings, so voters were able to see the candidates under pressure.

“These are strange times to try and campaign for a position in public office,” candidate Tiffany Haddad said.

She said she went door-to-door in a few neighborhoods early in the campaign, but had to cut her plans short. Now she’s focusing on social media.

Candidate Elyse Hottel organized a meet-and-greet with voters at a Basalt coffee shop just as coronavirus was grabbing attention in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“Originally, I had envisioned pop-up events at coffee shops and restaurants around town, knocking on doors, both business and residential, and standing at the stop sign by 7-Eleven at the end of the school day, waving hello to parents,” Hottel said. “But there are no kids in school and no parent pickups, there is no loitering in cafes and restaurants, and going door-to-door during a pandemic feels highly imprudent.”

She shifted her attention to print materials in newspapers and online. Ditto for candidate David Knight. He also suspended door-to-door, which he said had been insightful.

Candidate Jennifer Riffle said she still engages with people she meets while out walking her dog, though at a safe social distance and only if they want to talk campaign issues.

“What is unaffected campaign-wise is my non-use of Facebook,” she said.

Riffle, the only incumbent in the race, said she is spending more time focusing on her duties than campaigning. Duties at this time include reading daily reports from the Pitkin County Incident Management Team, Eagle County officials and the town of Basalt staff, she said.

Candidate Kirk “Dieter” Schindler said he planned to be active at this point in the campaign by knocking on doors and meeting with small groups. That strategy changed.

“What’s unaffected is that the network of friends and neighbors who are reaching out to talk about Basalt’s issues via email or phone is increasing, which includes some folks that are not connected in the social media sense,” he said. “Often we connect through an old-fashioned phone call.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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