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Feast to famine: Campaign Trail 2020 now the road less traveled

The stay-at-home order put the brakes on much activity across Illinois – from bars and barber shops to baseball diamonds and beaches.  And as important as it all is to politicians, hand-shaking, door-knocking and glad-handing for contributions are not deemed essential business.

Manny’s Deli sits mostly empty other than carryout orders waiting to be picked up on Wednesday.
Manny’s Deli sits mostly empty other than carryout orders waiting to be picked up on Wednesday.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Days before the March primary, political candidates were crisscrossing the city — some stopping by Manny’s Deli in the South Loop to rub elbows with potential voters and nosh on Reuben sandwiches on rye bread, others doing lunch at Cecina Grill in Pilsen to enjoy tacos and face-time with supporters.

Today, more than six weeks after the primary, Manny’s is pretty much limited to carryout, curbside pick-up and delivery dining options and walk-in grocery business. And no one is even answering the phone at Cecina Grill.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 21 stay-at-home order put the brakes on much activity across Illinois – from bars and barber shops to baseball diamonds and beaches.

And as important as it all is to the politicians, hand-shaking, door-knocking and glad-handing for contributions are not deemed essential business.

About a week before the March Primary, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx fist bumps a supporter during a campaign stop at Cecina Grill in Pilsen.
About a week before the March Primary, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx fist bumps a supporter during a campaign stop at Cecina Grill in Pilsen. She was joined by Lawrence Benito, left, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), second from right.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Typically, campaigns begin shifting gears after the primary to prepare for the general election — candidates work rooms, attend fundraisers and meet with both would-be donors and potential supporters. Underdogs schedule regular news conferences in hopes of raising their profiles.

But as the state grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, many countywide candidates who are looking to the November general election are doing little campaigning and have reported little, if any, money coming in, according to Illinois Board of Elections filings.

For the county’s marquee race — Cook County state’s attorney — the pandemic has meant a shifting of resources and focus.

Hoping to topple incumbent Democrat Kim Foxx, Republican nominee Pat O’Brien said the coronavirus pandemic has made for a “less than typical fundraising” cycle now focused on Zoom or phone calls as a means for getting funding and support from would-be voters.

Cook County State’s Attorney candidates Bob Fioretti (left) and Bill Conway, whose daughter and wife joined him, greet each other with a fist bump.
During the final days before the March Primary, Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen is so popular with pols that candidates bump into one another. Here, Cook County State’s Attorney candidates Bob Fioretti, left, and Bill Conway, whose daughter and wife joined him, greet each other with a fist bump.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“It’s not easy when coronavirus has created economic uncertainty, but it’s not impossible,” the former Circuit Court judge said. “Obviously money is important to get the message out, but I think we’ll have the money to do that. All the money in the world can’t change what she’s already done and the opinion people have of her.”

Alex Sims, a senior adviser for Foxx’s re-election effort, said in a statement the campaign “acknowledges this challenging time and that individuals and families are facing new financial circumstances due to COVID-19.”

“Much of the Foxx campaign’s current efforts are going towards a ‘Good Neighbor’ program, offering wellness checks to our constituents, in partnership with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky,” Sims said. “With a pivotal race ahead of her, the State’s Attorney is being cautious and thoughtful in her fundraising efforts as she pushes forward to November.”

Foxx’s campaign hasn’t reported any new campaign donations since the March primary. Four years ago, in the days immediately after the March 15 primary, Foxx reported nearly $75,000 in cash and in-kind contributions.

Manny’s Deli is mostly empty other than carryout orders waiting to be picked up on Wednesday.
Manny’s Deli is mostly empty other than carryout orders waiting to be picked up on Wednesday.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

The bulk of that was a $40,000 gift from Foxx’s mentor and chair of the Cook County Democrats Toni Preckwinkle, who doubles as Cook County Board president.

The county party is also seeing its fundraising impacted by the pandemic.

Executive director Jacob Kaplan said the party is still “trying to figure out how to adapt to the new world we’re likely to be in for a while.”

Typically, Cook County Democrats hold a 500-person fundraiser in October, but no one knows if that will be held or how.

“There’s not a lot of answers at this point,” Kaplan said, adding that the party is exploring some options, including hosting the event virtually. “How do you book an event if you’re not sure if it’s possible?”

Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party, addresses party leaders on Zoom as Cook County Democratic Chair Toni Preckwinkle, left, looks on.
Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party, addresses party leaders on Zoom as Cook County Democratic Chair Toni Preckwinkle, left, looks on at a party meeting in April.
Screen image.

Despite the challenges, Kaplan says the party will “raise money one way or another.”

Campaigning will likely look different come fall — think more phone banking, mailings and virtual campaigning rather than door-to-door interactions or events.

Cook County Republican Chairman Sean Morrison pointed to Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s virtual rallies as a “symbol of the current political landscape across the country.”

Republican candidate for Cook County state’s attorney Patrick W. ‘Pat’ O’Brien, left; Cook County Republican Chairman Sean M. Morrison, right.
Republican candidate for Cook County state’s attorney Patrick W. ‘Pat’ O’Brien, left, in February; Cook County Republican Chairman Sean M. Morrison, right, in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“Right about now I would be having a spring fundraiser,” Morrison said. “It’s just tough. Nobody has the ability to go out and do anything. Our guidance to candidates has been pick up a phone, pick up the established donor list and make some phone calls.”

But given the state of the economy, Morrison said he doesn’t know “how loose the purse strings are going to be for down ballot races.”

Though Foxx will be able to raise funds from organized labor and special interests and largely rest on her name recognition, Morrison says O’Brien shouldn’t be discounted.

“He’ll get money,” Morrison said. “Even [coronavirus] aside, O’Brien has the best shot [to flip the State’s Attorney seat] in about a decade.”

Employees at Manny’s Deli bag up to-go orders on Wednesday
Employees at Manny’s Deli bag up to-go orders on Wednesday
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

As for Manny’s, owner-operator Dan Raskin said employees of the legendary deli are working “extra hard and differently to try to get business” during the pandemic.

Raskin hopes his family’s deli will be able to reopen ahead of the November primary — for both regular customers and politicians alike.

For now, candidates can “order their good luck corned beef sandwich, but they can’t eat it here.”