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How to Run a Mayoral Campaign in the Era of COVID

Grassroots political campaigns, with their personal touch, are deeply rooted in American politics. But not anymore. A day with a Hagerstown, Md., mayoral candidate shows how it has changed.

01 Hagerstown 149a
(David Kidd)
Currently serving on the Hagerstown City Council, 34-year-old single mom Emily Keller is running for mayor of this small city of 40,000 in western Maryland. With Election Day fast approaching, Governing spent a day on the campaign trail with the candidate as she did her best to sell herself to voters, while keeping a safe social distance. The pandemic has changed the way Emily is running her race. “This campaign I’m doing radio and TV ads, and I would have never done that if it weren’t for COVID,” she said. “They can be expensive.”  

Emily has made necessary adjustments and changed the way she campaigns since she last ran for city council four years ago. The pandemic even provided a new branding opportunity. Emily’s 12-year-old daughter, Layla, designed the logo that adorns all the campaign materials, including something new: face masks. “Everyone started asking for them,” said Emily. “If I can give them out for free … Everyone has to wear a mask.”

The rise of early voting has also changed the way Emily is running for office. People have been casting ballots by mail for weeks. “It’s a different environment. You’re not solely focused on Election Day.” she said. “You have to do more, earlier.” 

Emily voted by mail in the primary, but plans to vote in person on Election Day so she can share the experience with Layla. “Plus, this might be the last time I ever get to vote for myself.” 


The first stop on a busy day begins with her opponent during an early-morning candidates forum, put on by the local chamber of commerce. The meeting begins with the moderator stressing the importance of mask wearing, especially since the local health officer recently reported an uptick in COVID-19 cases. 



By 9:30 a.m., Emily is tending to business at her insurance office, located in a strip mall on the south side of town. Running a business and a campaign at the same time can put a strain on both. “It’s an interesting balance.” she said. 


Later in the morning, Emily and Layla meet up with a growing group of volunteers in a parking lot before they drive – each in their own car – to a nearby neighborhood to canvas.


“In 2016, I knocked on a lot of doors,” Emily said. “Every weekend and several nights a week we would go out and talk to people, get our platform out and hear what their concerns were. Obviously, this time, we can’t do that, so I’m door hanging, I’m improvising. I wouldn’t want someone knocking on my door right now with COVID.” 



Recognizing Emily as she walks the neighborhood, a voter stops to chat about the upcoming election.  She misses the personal interaction of the last election, but takes the new campaign protocols seriously. “There have been times when people want to shake my hand,” she said. “I’m hyper-sensitive to it because I have Lupus, I’m immune compromised.” 


Stationed at the corner of a busy intersection, Emily and her brigade of volunteers hold up signs and wave at passing traffic, a socially distant activity unaffected by the pandemic.


Back at the office that afternoon, in her capacity as city council member, Emily joins a Zoom meeting with the Local Government Insurance Trust, which provides insurance for Maryland’s towns, cities and counties. “For me, it’s like both of my worlds collide,” she said.


The candidate stops at home to change clothes, check on her dog, and pick up Layla for a campaign video they will shoot before the sun goes down. Her daughter is an enthusiastic supporter, helping with social media and hoping to get her mother on TikTok if she wins. “How do you connect?” asked Emily. “You have to do everything virtually.”


Emily has rounded up a diverse group of women on social media who show up to participate in a campaign video that will appear on Facebook. With little coaxing, they follow directions from the candidate and her cameraman as he shoots them from a few inches off the grass and then from a drone buzzing above. “He makes me some pretty awesome campaign videos.” said Emily. “He’s kind of my secret weapon." 


After a long day campaigning and keeping up with her business, Emily and Layla head home to catch up on missed homework.


David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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