When it comes to campaigning during COVID-19, necessity breeds invention. For some of El Paso’s mayoral candidates, this has certainly been the case, as they have embraced new and unconventional methods of voter outreach.
For others, not so much.
“Obviously, any campaign rulebook has gone out the door (because of COVID-19),” said Carlos Gallinar, one of El Paso’s six candidates for mayor.
Graciela Blandon, deputy campaign manager for Veronica Carbajal, another mayoral candidate, echoed the sentiment.
“We’ve definitely been forced to innovate. I think this was already an innovative campaign at the start, (because) usually campaigning here in El Paso has a rulebook that you’re meant to play by. It speaks a lot to the creativity of our team and of Veronica — our ability to connect with people at all levels even through a pandemic,” Blandon said.
Among the field of El Paso mayoral candidates, Carbajal and Gallinar have set themselves apart in terms of creative campaign strategies, largely designed in response to constraints linked to the public health concerns of COVID-19.
Incumbent Mayor Dee Margo and former Mayor Oscar Leeser both benefit from high levels of name recognition. Leeser and Margo have employed more traditional modes of campaigning, including television ads. Neither Margo nor Leeser responded to interview requests for this article.
The remaining two candidates, Dean “Dino” Martinez and Calvin Zielsdorf, do not have large-scale campaign strategies. Martinez said his COVID-19 campaigning strategy includes driving around in his pickup truck which is printed with an advertisement for his mayoral bid, and Zielsdorf said he plans to do some Facebook Live videos to discuss his policies, but he hasn’t posted any yet.
But Gallinar and Carbajal have broken the mold in how they have approached running for mayor, using virtual events, artist collaborations, and in Carbajal’s case, even Tiktok to get their message across to voters.
Connecting with younger voters
“From the beginning I knew that we would have to do things differently,” Carbajal said.
“I knew we wouldn’t have enough money to hire a PR firm or a professional campaign manager. So I was already anticipating that we would have to do things our own way.”
Carbajal decided to invigorate her bid to be the first Latina mayor of El Paso by staffing her campaign with young people. Her deputy campaign manager Blandon is 19 years old, and is largely responsible for Carbajal’s venture into Tiktok, the platform beloved by tweens and loathed by President Trump.
“Any other person my age will agree (Tiktok) is one of the things that has gotten us through the pandemic in terms of finding community and giving us some entertainment. And I thought, there are so many people on Tiktok, we have to get Veronica on that platform too,” Blandon said.
Carbajal’s first Tiktok was posted by accident — it was supposed to be a practice run — but it went viral overnight. “I was like OK, I am so fired. Because we had agreed that we were going to refilm it,” Blandon said.
But as views, likes, and comments poured in, Carbajal and her staff decided it was a fortuitous accident.
Carbajal said that Tiktok has been great for engaging with younger El Pasoans (she recently did a duet with a 9 year old on the platform), and noted that a surprising benefit of pandemic limitations on campaigning has been that its made the potential reach of campaign events and virtual engagement much larger than it would have been in-person.
“We’re not getting 40 people at a time, we’re actually messaging to hundreds of people at a time. I think (virtual voter engagement) has actually been very beneficial. In (pre-pandemic) times, people have to run errands, they’re at their kids’ events, so it’s physically impossible sometimes for them to join you. But with this, we are able to have people watch live but they can also watch the recording. Moving forward that’s a really great strategy for how you capture the message,” she said.
Cooking with Carlos
Gallinar’s campaign has focused on highly personalized voter outreach, including more old world methods of engagement, like mailing out hand-written postcards designed by local artists.
“I am a true believer that if you are running for office you need to meet voters one on one,” said Gallinar, who had been planning to set a record for door-knocking before the pandemic hit.
Aiming to knock on 25,000 doors in El Paso before election day, Gallinar had already knocked on 4,000 doors by early March.
But Gallinar said that despite its challenges, the pandemic has become an opportunity for innovation.
“We’re working with the tools that are available to us, and that’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom,” Gallinar said.
But he is also still focused on making one-on-one connections with El Pasoans, spending six to seven hours a day on the phone, calling voters.
“It’s almost this old-fashioned way of communicating. If you think about it, we don’t really call people anymore. We text, and we send emails and we chat, but phone calls are something that people are appreciating,” Gallinar said.
He also has been creatively approaching fundraising, with Zoom cooking classes in partnership with local restaurants dubbed “Cooking with Carlos.”
“We didn’t want to have a traditional fundraiser where we’re speaking and asking for money. We wanted to make sure that it built a sense of ownership and it built a sense of community,” said Stephanie Acosta, Gallinar’s campaign manager.
For the “Cooking with Carlos” event, donors purchased a food box in advance, which is then delivered to them containing all the ingredients they’ll need to cook the meal, plus drinks. The first iteration of the event involved learning how to make mushroom tacos with Chef Rulis from Rulis’ International Kitchen.
“We hopped on Zoom with Chef Rulis, and (Carlos) talked about his visions for El Paso. We opened it up for questions, and then in the comfort and safety of our own homes we started to chop the onion and mushrooms, and we actually made the tortillas from scratch. We stayed on zoom, exchanged ideas and questions, and then we ate together,” Acosta said.
Gallinar said that a typical fundraising event, pre-COVID, would have lasted about an hour, where people go to someone’s home, hear a candidate speak, and write a check. But now, the pandemic has challenged candidates to think outside the box in order to facilitate special and compelling forms of engagement.
“Because we are going through COVID, we had to be creative. People are longing to connect, people are longing to do things together, and so this event ‘Cooking with Carlos’ was great. We raised some money, we were supporting local businesses, and people got to hang out and see each other and have great conversations,” Gallinar said.
For candidates with greater name recognition, like Leeser and Margo, the pressure to innovate under conditions of COVID-19 is not as significant, but candidates Carbajal and Gallinar have seized this moment as an opportunity to rewrite the nature of campaigning, perhaps in ways that will endure beyond this public health crisis.
Speaking about increased virtual events during COVID-19 broadly, including City Council meetings, Carbajal said expanded online engagement has increased accessibility and transparency.
“I hope that we are able to retain that component, because I think a lot more people have been able to engage virtually,” she said.
Gallinar reflected on the potential long-term impacts of the pandemic, expressing hope that it would change the way people cultivate connection for the better.
“It’s interesting times that we’re living in, but people want to be engaged. I’m hopeful that COVID will rearrange the way that we live, and the way that we treat each other. There’s the connection of being a fellow El Pasoan, and there’s the connection of knowing that you’re interested in the future of your city,” he said.