NOTE: This article was written as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Shaking hands, handing out campaign literature, and attending everything from pancake breakfasts to chicken dinners: These longtime “musts” for incumbents making the rounds or first-time candidates looking to make an impression were ripped from the election cycle playbook in March of 2020, when the New York State’s PAUSE policy to combat COVID put the kibosh on “all non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason.”
Absent almost every traditional mode of voter outreach, candidates in need of connecting with voters suddenly found themselves in the same strange, new gathering place as churchgoers and office workers: An online forum. Enter into the language a new meaning—and a capital letter—for “Zoom,” the video conference service whose user-friendly tech and right place/right time presence launched it into the household word stratosphere, as the pants-optional venue of choice for everything from corporate strategy sessions to digital drag shows.
Candidates for elected office were quick to pivot out of pure necessity, once it became apparent that everything from petitioning to Primaries to the General Election would remain largely unmoored from their traditional calendar dates.
“The pandemic shut down the world just as the 2020 primaries were heating up nationally,” recalls Peter Loge, a Strategic Communications Professor at George Washington University and co-host of the alternately wonkish and wry podcast Office Hours with Karpf and Loge.
“Campaigns had to pretty quicky figure out how to adjust,” said Loge, of that sink-or-swim moment, noting, “It was pretty clear by mid-March  that traditional events like big fundraises couldn’t go on as normal… because making your supporters ill is a terrible campaign strategy.”
As 2020 progressed and the pandemic’s power to quash public campaign events continued unabated, Zoom quickly graduated from novelty to new normal. Also cementing its presence: A burgeoning NYC 2021 election cycle that would see races for NYC Mayor, Comptroller, and Public Advocate as well as Manhattan District Attorney, Manhattan Borough President, and 51 City Council seats—including the seat for District 3 (D3), whose coverage area includes Chelsea. That neighborhood’s voters would help determine the successor to D3’s term-limited Council Member Corey Johnson, who rose to the position of Council Speaker at the start of his second term. (Prior to Johnson, D3 rep Christine Quinn also ascended to the speakership, giving the race a “great expectations” sheen lost on neither the six candidates nor the voters charged with putting one of them in office.)
As hats were being thrown into the ring (and occasionally retrieved), two Chelsea-based groups who turned to Zoom to conduct internal affairs were on a parallel course that would find themselves, for the first time, involved in the candidate vetting process in a manner that had long been the largely exclusive domain of political clubs, the press, and colleges/universities. (Their entry into the realm of candidate forum during the 2021 election cycle proved successful and continued through the 2022 cycle that was nearing its November 8 completion as this article was published.)
ENTERING THE ONLINE FRAY
“The Council of Chelsea Block Associations [CCBA] was meeting over Zoom for our delegate meetings every month, and eventually it came to me: Why don’t we host a Zoom for the [Manhattan Borough President] candidates running for office and invite the whole community? We can publicize it and go beyond our CCBA membership to all those that might want to hear the candidates speak to issues [of importance to us]. And that’s how it happened,” recalls Sally Greenspan, who was a general member at the time of our initial interview and now serves as president of the CCBA (comprised of 15 Block Associations and three Tenant Associations covering 33 blocks in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood).
But while the CCBA had a will, they lacked a “way”—specifically, the Zoom account and technical knowhow to manage an online event that could accommodate dozens of spectators and a half-dozen participating candidates. Help came from down the street—literally—in the form of Inge Ivchenko, president of West 23rd Street’s London Terrace Tenants Association (LTTA), a CCBA member. (London Terrace is a 1,000+-unit, block-long building on West 23rd Street, between Ninth & 10th Aves.) Prior to serving as moderator for many of Chelsea’s candidate forums from mid-2021 to present, Ivchenko’s role as keeper of the peace, driver of the narrative, and proxy for inquiring minds began with LTTA’s pandemic-themed Zoom gatherings.
“The early days of COVID outbreak,” recalled Ivchenko, “were very frightening. There was very little information, very few facts, and some of our membership had relocated elsewhere, while wishing to remain engaged with local events. We began having these individual sessions [with electeds] as a way to inform tenants and our Chelsea neighbors.”
One-guest Zoom forum names included then-NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson, then-Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, NYS Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, and Congressmember Jerold Nadler. As the series progressed, recalled Ivchenko, “I spoke with Bill Borock [then-CCBA president]. I said, ‘We have the account and can let you use it.’ They used our account for a long time for their membership meetings and then, when they moved into forum hosting, they asked me to moderate.”
The transition from setting up a general membership meeting to producing a candidate forum was easy, said Greenspan, at least when it came to collecting RSVPs. “Don’t forget,” she noted, of the 2021 election cycle’s earliest days, “Everybody [candidates] wanted to do this. Candidates weren’t bombarded with other opportunities to present their platforms to voters. Today the format has become very popular, with candidates jumping from one to another.”
True to Greenspan’s observation, online candidate forums and town halls began to claim their place on campaign schedules, until—in the handful of months leading up to the June 22, 2021 Primary Election—it was not unusual for a race to have at one online event per week, often presided over by a group making their debut as the producers, publicizers, moderators, and live event tech coordinators of a candidate forum.
Beacon High School, for example, hosted a NYC Council District 2 Candidate Forum on April 19.
Members of the Beacon Election Club quizzed the candidates, all six of whom participated—an “all aboard” action that would be repeated many more times in anticipation of the June Primary. On May 3, an event highlighting choices in the mayoral race put a spin on the all-candidate format, when Downtown Women for Change presented Meet the NYC Women Running for Mayor. Its three participants—Kathryn Garcia, Dianne Morales, and Maya Wiley—discussed the challenges facing NYC, including “the unusually difficult economic environment that has resulted from the pandemic.” To view the event, click here.
An April 22 event was also built on the angle of a particular focus, when Chelsea Community News, aka CCNews (in partnership with Citizens Committee for New York City) presented Post-Pandemic NYC: Now and Then. All six NYC Council District 3 candidates participated in the forum, which asked them to imagine it’s January 1, 2022: Having emerged victorious from the race, they’re now one of NYCs 51 new City Council Members. What, the forum asked, would they do to facilitate the recovery not just of NYC as a whole, but also the District 3 area they’ve been sent to the Council to represent? The event was presented on the StreamYard platform, whose options allow for an aesthetic more akin to a televised broadcast than the familiar multi-box format offered by Zoom. A two-person team from Citizens Committee handled the tech aspect, and CCNews reporters Winnie McCroy and Eileen Stukane served as co-moderators.
“It was our first attempt at hosting an online event,” said CCNews founder/editor Scott Stiffler, who pointed out that when all was said and done, “Ours was the only candidate forum we know of in any New York City race, in which two women shared moderator duties.” It was also one of the most watched, with over 200 attending in real time, and nearly as many accessing the event in its online archived forms. To view the event and add to those online attendee numbers, click here. (Full Disclosure: CCNews’ Stiffler is also author of this article. Curiously, he was notably difficult to reach, yet ultimately cooperative, in obtaining the quote used in this paragraph’s opening sentence.)
Regarding the link found in the above paragraph, it’s worth noting that while this article provides quite a few examples of post-event access to 2021/2022 election cycle events now consigned to history, many of the events mentioned here exist only in the memory of those who attended in real time. Despite its relative ease to access, the process of archiving is not yet an across-the-board practice among online event hosts. The root cause is rarely, if ever (and we tried to find it), motivated by some grand conspiracy to withhold information from the general public such events proport to serve. Most often, it’s a product of procrastination, lack of tech savvy, low-on-the-list prioritization or, worst of all, because somebody forgot to press “Record.”
Providing inspiration to the technophobe who may forego the “Record” option, hope for the rewards that wait at the tail end of the learning curb are provided by NYC Council Member Erik Bottcher—who emerged from the Primary as the Democratic candidate for D3 and ultimately won the Council seat. Bottcher said the spate of debates, town halls, forums, and “What if?” formats such as CCNews’ post-pandemic event all comprised “a crash course in appearing publicly” with his fellow candidates, and doing so strictly within the digital realm. (Previous to his first appearance in an online candidate forum, Bottcher had done time on the flip side, serving as moderator for Democratic club gatherings and counting himself among the spectating attendees of many candidate vetting events.)
THE LEARNING CURVE BENDS TOWARD COMPETENCE
Booking participants with ease notwithstanding, Greenspan says there were plenty of learn-as-you-go moments associated with structure and content. “For the very first one CCBA hosted, we sent participating candidates 15 questions, collected from CCBA members, and said, ‘We won’t ask all of these because of the limited time, probably nine of these, but be prepared.’ We also told them they wouldn’t be asked in any particular order, so everybody got a chance to be first and last. Then as we got better [at hosting in the moment and producing in the time leading up to the event], we just sent subject matter—but at the beginning, we sent the actual questions.”
As for the attendees, Ivchenko noted the learning curve. “At the beginning, I was giving instructions on how to raise your hand to ask a question,” she recalled. “And now, I don’t have to start the meeting by saying, ‘If you want to Mute, do this.’ People began to understand the nuances of Zoom, and it stuck… mostly.”
Regarding her style as moderator, the mostly unflappable Ivchenko said she tries to cultivate a level playing field by following the “fair’s fair” directive, asking follow-ups if she feels a question was danced around or flat out abandoned. Eschewing the distracting buzzer or bell often used to indicate one’s allotted time is on the wane, Ivchenko will call “time” precisely when time’s up, and allow the speaker to finish their thought, at which point gentle prodding gives way to firm insistence. Rarely if ever has a candidate met the business end of her MUTE button, although the occasional observer has.
Ivchenko has also been known to step outside of a forum’s preestablished structure. “I give them a little more leeway [to challenge fellow candidates], especially if the question covers an incumbent’s track record,” she noted. “For the Assembly District 75 race, there are a lot of candidates who have never held public office. It’s hard to make a case for yourself alongside an incumbent talking up their voting and procurement record. Likewise, if someone is speaking forcefully against another candidate, I allow them, not a lot, but enough rebuttal time to explain themselves. But that’s not going to turn into an endless back and forth.”
While seeing a candidate on the offensive or mounting a defense may provide some genuine displays of temperament or real-time crisis management skills, Loge says the flatscreen experience does come with a cost, especially in local races. “I want to look my City Council Member in the eye,” he notes. “We go to the same grocery store. That’s real, and you lose a little bit of that online. The best candidates are able to treat Zoom like a TV show. You’re sitting in your kitchen and if your dog comes in, you can create a little bit of a connection, so it can help in that regard. I get to show you I’m a person: ‘Look at those pictures over my shoulder. Those are my grandparents.’ You get a sense of the candidate as a person in a way you can’t if they’re standing at a dais.”
CHATMAT HAZARD: WHOSE FORUM IS IT, ANYWAY?
One feature of the Zoom format Ivchenko and her contemporaries found themselves navigating, early on, was the Chat feature’s volatile nature. Left to their own devices, attendees with a clear favorite in the race, a personal axe to grind, or a manifesto to publish on topics having little if anything to do with the conversation at hand quickly turned the sidebar feature into a distraction—leading many hosts to abandon Chat’s potential for contact info exchange and subject matter generator and concentrate instead on pre-event outreach from which a consensus would emerge regarding what’s foremost on the mind of voters.
“We disabled everybody from being able to speak. If we hadn’t learned to do that, we would have pandemonium in those situations,” said Jay Schaffner, who regularly moderates or co-moderates the Zoom-held shareholder meetings and candidate forums gatherings organized by LEAPS (Limited Equity and Affordability at Penn South).
First occupied in 1963, the ensuing decades would see its aging-in-place residents turn the 2,820-unit West Chelsea co-op into the first officially recognized NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community). Its 4,500+ voters (a stat LEAPS cited in an email inviting candidates to their NYS Assembly District 75 Town Hall of May 22, 2022) made Penn South an absolute “must” in the pre-pandemic days of campaigning door-to-door and handing out flyers as residents were making their way in or out of Penn South’s 10 residential towers. With those options out of the 2021 campaign picture, every candidate in the race responded positively to their May 22 invite.
Like CCBA and LTTA, Schaffner and company’s LEAPS also represent another community group who got their Zoom sea legs by hosting online membership meetings before making the leap (pun intended?) to sponsoring candidate events. Expanding on the decision to disable the Chat option, Schaffner recalled it was turning into a de facto rival broadcast at times, with attendees continuing to debate a particular point while the forum itself had long ago moved on to different topics. “Tony Simone [a candidate] was being bombarded with questions about where he lives,” recalled Schaeffer, of a “they’re still talking about it” debate that broke out when Simone claimed residential ownership of Chelsea (where Penn South is), igniting a Chat feature flame war about where Chelsea ends and Hell’s Kitchen begins. “Tony felt the need to respond,” recalled Schaffner,” noting Chat’s potential as a distracting element had demonstrated its ability to double-dip, by drawing one candidate from the transpiring main event, and making attendees choose between the main screen and the sidebar.
Although several forum organizers told this reporter they’d gotten guff from attendees who felt their free speech was stifled by the lack of a Chat option, Sylvia Di Pietro had a concise, no-bones rebuttal appearing as part of her opening remarks during January 23, 2001’s NYC Mayoral Forum. It was the last of six Zoom-held candidate events co-presented by the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (CRDC) and the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats (HKDems). By that point, the Chat matter had been distilled down to its essence, with Di Pietro simply noting, “Chat will not be used for running commentary so that we can focus on the candidates and their answers.” To view the event, click here.
ZOOM BOOM’S BUST OR A STAID POST-PANDEMIC PRESENCE?
As the pandemic winds down, says Greenspan, “These particular types of forums will have a purpose but not as great a purpose—because ideally, politicians belong out there knocking on doors and having rallies and talking to the people face to face. This [online] is a poor substitute. This is not how it should be.”
That said, one of online’s greatest strengths is how very well, and far, it travels. “We can always reach more people in a Zoom setting,” said Ivchenko. “The number of attendees is larger than an in-person event, which is subject to so many things. In our building, we have a lot of seniors. So if we want to have a meeting open to all tenants, before Zoom, we’d need to find the closest space to accommodate those numbers, but remain sensitive to the fact that a lot of our residents physically cannot go much more than two blocks from where they live.”
Reflecting on the good and bad of the digital and “real” worlds, NYS Assembly District 75 candidate Tony Simone said, “I do think there is merit to in-person forums where candidates can truly be face-to-face with voters, and I hope soon groups can easily hold fully accessible and interactive hybrid meetings.” Simone noted that with the passage of time, he’s come to appreciate the relative ease of organizing (and participating in) an online forum, as opposed to the challenge of booking a physical space and cleaning up after the event has concluded (to say nothing of crossing fingers that one’s security deposit will be refunded).
As for what forums hosted by community groups brought to the table, Simone noted they were “full of questions that covered a wide range of important topics, in insightful ways. I appreciate the opportunities these forums gave me to listen to and speak directly with so many neighbors.”
Like Simone, NYC Council Member Bottcher advocates for “a future that is going to be hybrid,” i.e. offering events in the material and digital realms. “I think it’s here to stay,” he said, of Zoom and its ilk, also noting a return to form for campaign traditions that have indeed emerged from pandemic-era hibernation.
“When we all run for reelection,” said Bottcher, of his team and perhaps by extension the many races determined as part of his own 2021 campaign cycle, “We’re going to have a lot of virtual phone banks. We’re going to have volunteer petitioning training and virtual forums, yes. I think you’ll see all of that going on, but combined with all of the events we’re so familiar with. Before COVID hit, we had a lot of in-person house parties scheduled—fundraiers planned in people’s living rooms. We actually did about three of them before the world came to a halt, and then we had to move to digital fundraisers. From that, you miss the fun aspects of campaigning, where get-togethers have that give-and-take. They can be like little parties.”
Backing up NYC Council Member Bottcher—and speaking like a true, scrappy New Yorker in the process—the Council of Chelsea Block Associations’ Greenspan bemoans online’s inability to facilitate the vigorous, real-time exchanges afforded by a brick and mortar setting, saying, “It’s too rigid, and it’s a nonorganic conversation. If you want to make a point? You raise your hand and by the time it comes around to you, six other people may have made the same point. In a room, you can interrupt—and there is opportunity for a genuine back and forth, a real exchange.”
ZOOM-HELD EVENTS DURING THE 2021 & 2022 ELECTION CYCLES
December 5, 2020: On December 5 and 6, hosted the 15th Annual West Side Tenants’ Conference. The Conference schedule featured a NYC Mayoral Candidates Forum. Ben Max, Executive Editor of Gotham Gazette, moderated. Click here to view the event as presented by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (just one of many candidate forums that would be moderated by Max—who, at the time, had recently begun hosting the new MNN show Decisions NYC).
December 1, 2020: Manhattan District Attorney. To view the event, click here.
December 8, 2020: NYC Comptroller | “Meet the candidates hear their positions and make an informed decision on endorsements, said the flyer promoting this event, held in part to inform HKDems members in advance of the political club’s February 2021 endorsements meeting.
December 17, 2020: Manhattan Borough President | The featured candidates were Lindsey Boylen, Elizabeth Caputo, Brad Hoylman, Mark Levine, Benjamin Kallos, and Kimbely Watkins. Ultimately, Levine emerged victorious and now serves as Manhattan Borough President.
January 14, 2021: NYC Council District 3
January 23 & 30, 2021: NYC Mayor | To view the Jan. 23 event, click here. Eric Adams, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Zach Ischol, Ray McGuire, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, and Maya Wiley were the candidate participants.
March 13, 2021: Housing Conservation Coordinators presents Elected Officials’ and Candidates’ Responses to Residential Housing Ventilation Forum | From 2-3pm, candidates gathered for a Panel for Proposed Solutions. It was followed by a one-hour period dedicated to Q&A.
The event was sponsored (and strength-in-numbers promoted by the collective efforts of) The Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee of the American Planning Association, NY Metro Chapter; Manhattan Community Board 4 and its Housing, Health & Human Services Committee; Save Chelsea; the Council of Chelsea Block Associations; the West Side Neighborhood Alliance; 308 West 30th Street Tenant Association; and 2324 Chelsea Tenant Association. That last group largely inspired the creation of this event, as a result of their ongoing struggles with building management. To read the CCNews article about that situation, click here.
March 25, 2021: Regional Plan Association presents Safe, Equitable, and Accessible Streets: A Mayoral Forum on the Future of Transportation in NYC | Katie Honan, reporter, The City, moderates.
November 17, 2021: Regional Plan Association presents a NYC Council Speaker Candidates Forum: A New Vision for Open Space | The event presenter noted, in pre-event promotional material, “RPA is hosting a forum where New York City Council Speaker candidates will discuss their vision for the city, with an emphasis on open space.” The event was presented in partnership with New Yorkers for Parks, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Center for an Urban Future. To view the event, click here.
March 30, 2021: The Council of Chelsea Block Associations and the London Terrace Tenants Association present a Virtual Candidates Forum with the Candidates for Council District 3 | To view the event, click here and use this as the Passcode: ^2ax2fSC.
April 19, 2021: Beacon High School’s Beacon Election Club NYC Council District 3 Candidate Forum | All six candidates for the NYC Council District 3 seat were in attendance—an action that would be repeated over a dozen more times in anticipation of the June 22 Primary.
April 22, 2021: Chelsea Community News and Citizens Committee for New York City present Post-Pandemic NYC: Now and Then | Click here to view the event, and see the above body of this article for more details on the format, platform, and co-moderators.
May 3, 2021: Downtown Women for Change present Meet the NYC Women Running for Mayor | Kathryn Garcia Dianne Morales, and Maya Wiley discuss their plans to address the challenges facing NYC, including “the unusually difficult economic environment that has resulted from the pandemic.” To view the event, click here.
May 10, 2021: Village Preservation presents City Council District 3 Candidates Forum | Village Preservation, formerly known as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, described the event thusly: “This is a unique opportunity to hear from candidates about preservation, development, and planning issues in our neighborhood, and how they will deal with them as City Councilmember… The City Council plays an enormously important role in land use, development, and preservation issues, particularly on the local level. They are local neighborhoods’ advocates and representatives to the city government.”
Village Preservation also held candidate forums for the 1st and 2nd council districts (East Village, NoHo, parts of Greenwich Village) in conjunction with fellow community and preservation groups. To view the May 10 event, click here.
February 2, 2022: Chelsea Reform Democratic Club presents a NYS Assembly District 5 Candidate Forum |
March 23, 2022: The Council for Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA) presents a Forum for Candidates Running for Assembly Member in District 75 | “After 52 years in the NYS Assembly,” read the CCBA’s promotional info in advance of the event, “The honorable Dick Gottfried is retiring. Hear the six candidates for this open seat discuss the issues.”
April 13, 2022: The London Terrace Tenants Association presents a Democratic Forum for the 75th Assembly Member Seat |
May 22, 2022: LEAPS (Limited Equity and Affordability at Penn South) presents a Town Hall with 75 AD Candidates | Three of the four remaining candidates were present (the field having narrowed from its one-time height of eight). Topics to be covered were announced as part of the pre-event information sent to participating candidates and the general public. Those topics included the good-cause eviction bill, the Penn Station area redevelopment project, and public education.
June 14, 2022: Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Coalition presents a District 75 New York State Assembly Candidate Forum | Four Democratic candidates participated: Layla Law-Gisiko, hristopher LeBron, Harrison Marks, and Tony Simone were joined by Joseph A. Maffia, a Republican candidate. That was a rarity throughout the pre-Primary vetting process, as the majority of community-organized forums contained the invite list to Democrats. To view a recording of the June 14 event, click here. The Coalition followed this event up with a simlarly structured August 15, 2022: District 47 NYS Senate Candidate Forum. Of the two participants—Maria Danzilo (R) and Brad Hoylman (D)—a promotional flyer for the event noted it would “focus on their visions to improve the safety and quality of life in Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown West.” To access a recording of the event, click here. The YouTube broadcast features several “Key Moments”—clips marked with the exact time they appear as the event unfolds. “Mental Health” and “Affordable Supportive Housing” are among the clips.
October 28, 2022: Chelsea Community News presents a NYS Assembly District 75 Candidate Forum. On the eve of Oct. 29-Nov. 6’s Early Voting period, Tony Simone (D) and Joseph A. Maffia (R) took questions from the Forum’s six Co-Presenters: The Council of Chelsea Block Associations, the London Terrace Tenants Association, Fulton Houses Tenants Association, Elliott-Chelsea Tenants Association, Save Chelsea, and LEAPS (Limited Equity & Affordability Penn South). Inge Ivchenko served as moderator. Topics included NY State’s Penn Station plan and the yes/no prospect of providing free tuition at CUNY/SUNY for NYS residents. CLICK HERE to view the event.
Tuesday, November 8, 2022: Election Day
Note: This article was written as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
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