The political landscape in 2020 is unlike any election cycle in recent memory.
Due to the pandemic, political organizations in Orange County and North Carolina have had to adapt their strategies for supporting candidates and mobilizing the public.
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Suzanne Globetti, a political science professor at UNC who studies elections and campaigns, said under ordinary circumstances, the benefit from being supported and endorsed by a community organization is the labor they provide for candidates.
“What they can provide usually is the labor and they can knock on doors, they can make phone calls, and all that stuff,” she said. “When we talk about the campaign mattering, those mobilization efforts, specifically being contacted door to door, drives up turnout.”
However, usual campaign strategies like indoor fundraisers and door-to-door canvassing are not an option this year.
This creates difficulties for organizations like the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town and the Orange-Chatham chapter of the Sierra Club, whose usual operations have been thrown off.
CHALT was created in 2014 by citizens in Chapel Hill and is focused on issues of environmentalism, city development and land use. To achieve reform in these areas, the group hosts various speakers and holds events to educate the community and also advocates policy to the Town Council.
Julie McClintock, a current member of CHALT, said the organization’s current focus is on educating the public.
“We’re most interested in citizen engagement and helping citizens become educated on the issues — and not just our side of the issues,” she said.
Traditionally the group endorses candidates for the Chapel Hill Town Council and mayor, who will face election in 2021. But during the March primary, CHALT endorsed several candidates at the county level for the second time in its history.
“The county really matters to us, so we got very involved in the primary,” McClintock said. “We did endorse candidates, and our candidates won and won big.”
All three of CHALT’s county commissioner endorsements — Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board member Amy Fowler, former CHCCS Board member Jean Hamilton and current Orange County Commissioner Renee Price — won their primaries and are on the November ballot.
The Sierra Club endorses candidates at all levels of state government. In the primaries for Orange County, two candidates the Sierra Club had endorsed, Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos and Board of County Commissioners Chairperson Penny Rich, were defeated.
Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin, another candidate endorsed by the Sierra Club, is running in the general election, where he and CHALT-backed Hamilton are the only candidates for the two open seats on the District 1 Board of Commissioners.
CHALT did not endorse Marcoplos, Rich or Dorosin in the March primary.
Alan Parry is the statewide political chairperson for the Sierra Club and the political co-chairperson of the Orange-Chatham chapter. He said the adaptability of the club’s members and supporters has been striking.
“It has been a different approach in nearly every aspect,” he said. “But it’s one that’s been really inspirational to see, the way our volunteers around the state have reacted in obviously unprecedented times.”
The organization held virtual fundraisers in place of its usual in-person ones, and found some unexpected positives, like the ability of people to tune into the meetings from across the state and see candidates they might not normally be able to.
He said lots of digital campaigning also replaced the traditional door-to-door strategy. The Sierra Club ran phone and text banks and an email campaign.
He said the group sees this particular election as a critical moment due to the urgency that the climate crisis demands, as well as other issues like the national reckoning over racial injustice that was ignited by the police killing of George Floyd.
“There are so many things going on in the world," he said. "You sort of see all those threats but those threats present opportunities. I would just encourage all these people to show up and let their voice be heard. It’s too important not to.”
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