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Thousands of candidates reinventing politics on the fly for the age of pandemic – msnNOW

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The Democratic Party’s great hope for winning a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina spends his days during coronavirus lockdown repositioning his computer to avoid sun glare on his webcam.






© Zack Wittman/for The Washington Post
A voter leaves the Oldsmar Fire Department voting precinct in Oldsmar, Fla., after voting in Florida’s primary election on March 17.

“I have been relegated to the sun porch,” said Cal Cunningham, a former state lawmaker and military veteran, whose wife and teenage children were not impressed enough by his March 3 primary win to cede him workspace in their Raleigh home. “The challenge with the sun porch is that the sun starts on one side and moves to the other.”

Such blinding inconveniences have become a new reality for political professionals across the country, as the social distancing clampdown has transformed the art and logistics of politicking just in time for the quadrennial election circus to launch into overdrive. 

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While much of the attention has focused on former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, hunkering down in his Delaware basement to record his podcast, or President Trump seeking to monopolize the evening television airwaves, covid-19 has swiftly transformed all corners of the political universe.

Local candidates and name-brand leaders alike have been forced to abandon rallies, community centers and campaign offices. Volunteers, organizers and operatives have been quarantined into virtual meetings, letter-writing campaigns and mobile-texting blitzes.

One-on-one coffee meetings, the essential element of the political organizer’s day, still happen, but they occur virtually, with home-brewed tea.

Entire organizations have pivoted to meet the moment. Senior Republican officials, who have hundreds of Zoom meetups scheduled at any moment, boast of field organizers delivering groceries for homebound turnout targets. The Florida Democratic Party calls its 6 p.m. virtual phone banks “wine downs,” encouraging drinking and conversation in an effort to make the events more social.

That’s created a campaign like no other. With decades-old tactics instantly obsolete, no one knows what will work, how long it will last, what voters want to hear — or how this might reshape politics in the future.

Slideshow by photo services

In the meantime, it’s prompted an urgent hunt for ways to re-create the intimacies at the heart of politics. “During the time of social distancing, it is definitely important to get creative with the way we’re connecting with volunteers and the voters,” said John Koons, a leader of the Trump field program in Pennsylvania, at the start of a training this month for about 70 new volunteers for Trump’s reelection bid.

The training, which has been repeated dozens of times across the country, had all the markings of this new era — a heavy emphasis on mobile-first technology, warnings not to be put off by frustrated voters on the other end of the line, and aspirational, if not anachronistic, talking points about door knocking and Trump’s impact on the economy.

“The economy has been a huge accomplishment of him, adding millions of jobs every single year,” Koons said during the April 14 event, just days before the Labor Department announced that 22 million people had lost their jobs in a four-week span.

The Democratic Party, which remains far less centralized and is still retooling for a Biden candidacy, has also stepped up its efforts to virtually train thousands of “digital organizers” in the arts of voter contact, social media and volunteer recruitment.

“We needed to give our community something to do,” said Meg DiMartino, the digital organizing director of the Democratic National Committee. “We cannot take an eight-week sabbatical from organizing.”



a sign on the side of a building: A campaign field office for former vice president Joe Biden in Des Moines ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.


© Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post
A campaign field office for former vice president Joe Biden in Des Moines ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

Republican and Democratic strategists, along with grass roots activists, describe a novel moment in political life. Never before have so many Americans been homebound, with time on their hands to answer the phone or put in volunteer hours. Pollsters have found that people are answering their phones again at rates not seen in decades.

“It’s like it’s the 1990s and everyone is basically an old woman in rural Iowa picking up their landlines,” said John Anzalone, a pollster for Biden.

At the same time, the virus has displaced politics and elections as a concern for many, as people worry about making rent or mortgage payments, finding food and staying healthy. As a result, everyone from national organizers to local candidates has shifted their messaging from big-picture arguments to practical questions about how they can help.

“Folks want to feel like they belong somewhere, like they are part of a team, so we are trying to do our best to give them that experience,” said Geoff Burgan, a spokesman for Organizing Together 2020, an independent group backed by labor that is building field organizations with a staff of more than 400 in six swing states. “It’s getting the in-person rush of a campaign office and helping to bring that online.”

For Kathy Knecht, a Democrat and former school board member running for the Arizona legislature, that means trying to figure out new ways of connecting with voters. She has been partnering with her local chapter of Indivisible, a liberal grass roots organization, to hold Zoom fundraising raffles that bring in hundreds of dollars at a time.

The pandemic-appropriate prizes include baskets of toilet paper called “bouquets” as well as “survival baskets” stuffed with toilet paper, wine, coffee and cleaning products. The prizes are awarded randomly to people who have recently donated to Knecht’s campaign on the liberal fundraising site ActBlue.

“The tone of our campaign has changed to more empathetic, because we know that not just the community at large but even our own volunteers are dealing with this virus in their own lives,” Knecht said.



a statue of a man: Voters stand outside a polling station after casting their ballots at the Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, on March 17.


© Cheney Orr/Reuters
Voters stand outside a polling station after casting their ballots at the Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, on March 17.

Since many of her prospective voters in the Phoenix suburbs are elderly, she has plans to offer them the services of her adult children who have been living with her during the pandemic. “I am going to suggest that if older people need tech support, reach out to our campaign and one of our Gen-Z’ers can do it,” she said.

For Patricia Thomas, an Indivisible activist in the west Phoenix area, the number of nightly Zoom call invitations can become overwhelming. “The biggest problem I’m running into is having so many things to join,” she said.

That’s partly because there is hardly a political operation in America that has not announced a commitment to video conferencing as a way of keeping the human connection going, making the online engagement exhausting at times.

“Our philosophy is we keep going no matter what,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the Justice Democrats, who has been hosting “live stream town hall discussions.” “We are focusing on the things we can control.”

The Trump campaign has been particularly aggressive on this front after switching to an all-digital campaign in March. Most of its targeted states have more than a dozen “MAGA meet ups” scheduled at any one time, with occasional special appearances by surrogates like the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Trump operatives say their activity is at an intensity level normally reserved for a campaign’s closing weeks.

“We are having field operation output at ‘final 30 days’ levels now,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign. “The whole campaign from the beginning — from five years ago — has been built on data, so we were much better equipped to pivot to an exclusively online campaign than anyone else.”

For Democrats looking to flip the U.S. Senate blue, there was less of a ramp-up period. Mark Kelly, a Democrat and former astronaut running for a Republican-held seat in Arizona, has taken to giving talks on Instagram about what he learned in space about living in isolation.

He has also read a bedtime story to kids with his twin brother, who lived in the International Space Station.

That practice of reading stories online has been picked up by other political figures as well. Chris Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., the state’s fourth largest city, has taken to reading a new children’s book every night, pulling a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand, views on Facebook and Twitter.

“I’d like to dedicate it to my friend Katie,” he said before introducing “The Duckling Gets a Cookie” by Mo Willems on Friday night. “Katie really likes cookies, and this is a special one for her.”

Cunningham, meanwhile, has learned to stack his Zoom meetings one after another on the sun porch, flitting between county Democratic gatherings, small business leaders, fundraising events and staff calls. When the Internet goes down, taking his Zoom and Google Hangouts with it, he shifts to FaceTime to keep gripping and grinning from a distance.

“I can both cover a lot more geography quicker and engage people in a very meaningful dialogue,” he said of his new life on the digital campaign trail, praising the technology’s ability to put questions in a queue. “If I am standing in a courthouse room addressing 40, 50, 60 people, it is a little harder to get to everyone’s question.”

But for many politicians, firing up audiences and plunging into crowds is the heart of political life, and this period of isolation feels disturbingly impersonal. Cunningham, for one, will be happy to get off the porch.

“I certainly love to travel and see people in person,” he said. “I miss that tremendously.”

michael.scherer@washpost.com

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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

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The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”

While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”

She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings

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Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.

In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The charity later walked away from the contract.

Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.

Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.

Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.

No fines or penalties were levied.

Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.

Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.

In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”

The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.

($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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