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Local candidates find new ways to reach voters during pandemic

Kissing babies, pressing the flesh, wearing out shoe leather, knocking on doors, flashing the pearly whites and asking for money — these were all crucial elements of running for office until COVID-19 swept the nation, forcing everyone to stay home, the cancellation of campaign events and postponement of elections.

The world as we knew it has become a very different place since the March primary election. Candidates who emerged to runoffs or to the general election have had to rethink how they campaign and raise money.

Should they campaign? What should they say about the pandemic without sounding like they are politicizing the tragedy? How can they keep themselves, their staffs and voters safe while trying to get their messages out? How can they ask for donations when the country is going through such uncertain economic times and potential constituents are worried about being laid off and paying mortgages?

These are all major considerations candidates have had to consider as the country starts to reopen, coronavirus cases have started a resurgence and campaigns for the primary runoff — postponed from May 26 to July 14 — are ramping up with a little more than a week to go before early voting starts.

Early voting for the runoff starts June 29 and runs through July 10. In McLennan County, Republican voters will choose from Pete Sessions or Renee Swann to succeed Bill Flores as District 17 U.S. representative; and Kristi DeCluitt and Thomas West for judge of 19th State District Court.

Democrats will choose between MJ Hegar and Royce West for U.S. senator; David Jaramillo and Rick Kennedy for District 17 U.S. representative; and Chrysta Castaneda and Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo for railroad commissioner.

Besides trying to run a campaign during the pandemic, Sessions is dealing with the death of his father, William Sessions, a former FBI director and federal judge, whose funeral will be Thursday in San Antonio.

Sessions, a former Dallas congressman who served 11 terms before his defeat in 2018, said all traditional campaigning halted and most all contact with voters now has been through mailings and online, including teleconferences. He said all candidates are living in the same world and having to alter their campaigns.

Sessions is having a fundraiser Monday night in Waco at a time when the city has set daily records for the number of new COVID-19 cases in the past week. He said attendees will take proper precautions, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

“The country is going through an unprecedented time,” Sessions said. “It is not just campaigns. We, here in Texas, have been delayed a bit, also. The rest of the country went through a difficult time, and we were just delayed in the real impact. But it seemingly is coming now.”

Sessions, who said he is a “very close friend” of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks President Donald Trump and his entire administration provided timely and correct information and proper guidance to the nation from the outset of the pandemic.

“The president took these difficult issues on very well,” Sessions said. “The president avoided civil chaos by his decision to move forward with money that would go to the people. It avoided unrest. The civil unrest that has taken place is a result of race relations, not the COVID. I think the president avoided this, so I would say the country is strong. Economically, people want to go back to work. I don’t think we came back too soon. We are coming back, but people know what it is, what we are dealing with. … So I give (the administration) a high grade.”

Swann, a retired chief operations manager for Brazos Eye Surgery of Texas, got 19% of the vote to finish behind Session’s 32% in an 11-candidate primary field. Like the others, she has drastically altered her campaign strategies and said she turned it into an opportunity for her and her staff to make more than “40,000 wellness calls” within the district to determine needs, whether it be toilet paper, food or more. A disabled woman’s porch literally fell off the front of her house, damaging her wheelchair ramp, and Swann said she was able to help the woman with repairs through contact with her campaign.

“I have been called and I know I have been put on a mission and I have approached it with the same Christian heart and purpose,” Swann said. “For me, it has been an awesome experience. It has allowed us to network, and when possible, I even delivered food and supplies myself. It was great because I got to really talk to people on the phone, and these weren’t political phone calls. I got to be the voice on the other end of the phone to talk it through with them. Fear is the greater enemy and I know the Lord has a plan.”

Swann also gives high marks to Trump for how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

“When we have crises like these, you see heroes step up to the plate and we see his vision in finding answers,” she said. “I admire his strength.”

Kennedy, an Austin software engineer who lost his first political bid in 2018 to Flores, pulled in 48% of the Democratic primary vote, while Jaramillo, a Marine veteran from Waco, got 35%.

Not surprisingly, the two Democratic candidates mark Trump’s coronavirus response report card a bit differently.

“I think fundamentally it has been a failure,” Kennedy said. “The administration has viewed this as a political problem and not a public health problem. By the time they got around to trying to do the right thing, they tried to use what was available to them in their toolbox, but they didn’t have anything in the toolbox. They did what they could then, and that was the lockdown. In the six weeks we were in lockdown, they didn’t develop the toolbox to include a comprehensive plan to test folks, and we are starting to see the results now. We are starting to see a spike again.”

The transition from in-person campaigning to teleconference meetings was challenging, Kennedy said.

“The core of the effort is you are trying to get the message out to as many voters as possible,” he said. “But the primary forum to do that is standing in front of a room full of people or face-to-face, knocking on doors and shoulder-to-shoulder. All of that is off the table now.”

Jaramillo said despite conditions limiting in-person meetings, the bright side is he can conduct more meetings per day via teleconference than he could attending a session in Waco one day and traveling to College Station or other parts of the district the next.

“We went from in-person meetings and talking to as many people as we can and shaking hands and getting up close and personal to switching to all digital and phone calls,” Jaramillo said. “But everybody is in the same boat. It’s like having a brand new campaign. It’s all uncharted waters.”

Jaramillo said he thinks there is more the president and Congress should have done in response to the pandemic.

“There is always more our government can do for the people,” he said. “These times and their response have shown so many insufficiencies as a whole. That’s why we need representation that will fight for not just the people of the district but the whole country.”

In the McLennan County race to replace retiring Judge Ralph Strother, DeCluitt, who led the four-candidate primary field with 32.5% of the vote, said the transition from personal contact while campaigning to mail and online efforts has been an adjustment.

“It has been really strange,” she said. “I am a very social person, so I am used to having a lot of interaction with people face-to-face. It has just been unprecedented. We can’t have any gatherings. Usually you are literally shaking hands and you are face-to-face with people. That has been the difficult part, not having that face-to-face contact and the interaction.”

West, who earned his way into the runoff with 28.1% of the vote, said he knocked on 6,000 doors before the primary election to introduce himself to potential voters. That changed in the pandemic world.

“We are having to do everything differently than we did for all those months before,” West said. “We have switched to social and print media. But I am used to that face-to-face interaction. When we began this race, we knew we would be meeting a lot of new people and having an opportunity to introduce myself and tell people who I am as a person and my qualifications as a candidate. With COVID-19 entering the world, there has been a lot less face-to-face interaction.”

Juneteenth parade in Waco draws hundreds amid renewed calls for justice

Hundreds turned out for this year’s Juneteenth parade in Waco, donning masks and gloves to celebrate a 155-year tradition still new to some who attended.

A month ago, there was no Juneteenth parade planned. The Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce considered paring the annual event down to a motorcade, but President John Bible said as protests against police brutality spread throughout the country, the parade seemed more important to Waco.

“It began to grow,” Bible said. “People began to say ‘I want to be part of it.’”

The parade mostly consisted of cars, trucks, elaborate floats and the occasional ATV or motorcycle, with a few exceptions. As members of the Lone Riderz Club rode by on horseback, chamber volunteers in masks and gloves passed out candy to children. Members of Creative Waco and volunteers with Animal Birth Control Clinic carried puppets along the winding route from East Waco across the Washington Avenue bridge.

Newcomers joined the parade this year, and people who had walked alone in previous years returned with groups and floats.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Members of the Lone Riderz Club joined in the annual Juneteenth parade on horseback.

Officially, Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people were freed by federal order and the arrival of troops in Galveston, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Bible said the celebration is in memory of everything Black ancestors have endured.

“We want to make sure we show appreciation for the privileges we have today,” Bible said. “It’s not just for fun. It’s for reflection and remembrance.”

As a kid growing up in Waco he remembers attending huge block parties on Elm Street. Though plans for a Juneteenth festival in Indian Spring Park were dashed by COVID-19 this year, Bible said as Juneteenth celebrations in Waco grow, he would like to see those parties come back.

“We’re starting to see more and more people get involved with Juneteenth, and that’s people of all colors, and that’s a great thing,” Bible said. “It makes it special when community from all facets of Waco come together as one and show unity, speaking the same language we’ve been trying to speak for the longest time.”

Lifelong Waco resident Rosetta Pagues said she’d never seen a parade as racially diverse as 2020’s.

“I really think people are ready for a change, permanently,” Pagues said. “Not just for show-and-tell, until all this dies over. I hope this is long-term, not short-term. It’s important to Waco, it’s important for the United States to grow as one.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

A puppy puppet designed by Allen Ware for the ABC Clinic entry for the annual Juneteenth parade before they left on a winding route.

Julie and Anthony Mead brought their three children, ages 4, 3 and 1, to watch the parade for the first time this year. Both White, Mead said she and her husband only recently learned about the significance of the day despite growing up in Texas.

“There’s just a need, we feel, to know and learn more about our nation’s history, all of it,” Mead said. “So we’re excited to be here today, to learn about it and teach our kids about it so they can grow up knowing all they can about it.”

Rachel Pate, parade organizer and vice president for economic development for the chamber, said the Greater Hewitt Chamber of Commerce, Startup Waco, Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry and Salvation Army all joined for the first time.

“These are a lot of the relationships that we’ve built over the last (year),” Pate said.

Black families, many who have been attending the parades for years, made up the majority of the attendees. Karen Thompson’s extended family, the Jeffersons, Burtens and Caufields, return home to Waco every year for the celebration.

“We also do this to show our young ones where we’re from, and to show them we want to keep this going on,” said Thompson, who came in from Dallas for the parade.

Thompson said Juneteenth, a state holiday since the 1980s, is celebrated in 46 states and should be named a national holiday.

“Other than MLK Day, there aren’t any that specifically celebrate us as African Americans, except for Black History Month,” Thompson said. “We’re part of America. It’s not like we’re saying we’re not part of American history. We recognize there’s been a different journey for us.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Some members of the Jefferson-Burten-Caufield family gather for a group photo before the start of the annual Juneteenth parade in Waco. The group has been getting together to mark the historic date for years.

Lisa Coleman, 26, ReAnn Snell and Ebony Joiner, both 27, said they have watched Waco become more politically aware around them while earning their master’s degrees at Baylor University.

They also attended protests at the Waco Suspension Bridge in the name of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other unarmed Black people killed by police. Coleman said the national outcry over Floyd’s death had the unintended side-effect of raising awareness of Juneteenth.

“More people know about it,” Coleman said. “They’re encouraged to come and celebrate with us rather than it being just for Black people.”

Joiner, a graduate student, helped co-found the nonprofit New Black Collective last year. This Saturday, the group launched an Eight Days of Activism campaign. Day one called for participants to sign petitions for police reform, accountability and the reopening of old cases. Day two calls for participants to register and pledge to vote.

Lena Bolridge, 69, said she knew she could not miss this year’s parade.

“Being thankful to be alive to see another one, that’s a number one priority,” Bolridge said. “The next is to see how we can all work together to make things better. I want to see our city grow with unity.”

Photo gallery

Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 2)
Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 3)
Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 4)
Photos: Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 1)
Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 2)
Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 3)
Juneteenth Community Parade 2020 (part 4)

Trump comeback rally features empty seats, staff infections

TULSA, Okla. — President Donald Trump launched his comeback rally amid a pandemic on Saturday by declaring that “the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” but what was meant to be a show of political force was instead met with thousands of empty seats and new coronavirus cases on his campaign staff.

Ignoring health warnings, Trump went through with his first rally in 110 days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the largest indoor gatherings in the world during a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 120,000 Americans, put 40 million out of work and upended Trump’s reelection bid.

In the hours before the event, crowds were significantly lighter than expected, and campaign officials scrapped plans for Trump to first address an overflow space outdoors. About a third of the seats at his indoor rally were empty.

Trump tried to explain away the crowd size by blaming the media for declaring “don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything” and by insisting there were protesters outside who were “doing bad things.” But the small crowds of prerally demonstrators were largely peaceful, and Tulsa police reported just one arrest Saturday afternoon.

“We begin our campaign,” Trump thundered as he took the stage. “The silent majority is stronger than ever before.”

Just hours before the rally, Trump’s campaign revealed that six staff members who were helping set up for the event had tested positive for the coronavirus. Campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said that “quarantine procedures were immediately implemented,” and that neither the affected staffers nor anyone who was in immediate contact with them would attend the event.

News of the infections came just a short time before Trump departed for Oklahoma, and the president raged to aides that the information had been made public, according to two White House and campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Onstage, Trump unleashed months of pent-up grievances, accusing the media of favoring his Democratic opponent Joe Biden and defending his handling of the pandemic, which he dubbed the “Kung flu,” a term for the virus that many consider to be racist.

Trump also spent more than 10 minutes — with the crowd laughing along — trying to explain away a pair of odd images from his speech last weekend at West Point, blaming his slippery leather-soled shoes for video of him walking awkwardly down a ramp as he left the podium. And then he declared that he used two hands to drink a cup of water — another image that went viral — because he didn’t want to spill water on his tie.

But Trump also leaned in hard on cultural issues, including the push to tear down statues and rename military bases named after Confederate generals in the wake of nationwide protests about racial injustice.

“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments. Tear down our statues, and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control,” Trump said. “They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new repressive regime in its place.”

Large gatherings in the United States were shut down in March because of the coronavirus. The rally was scheduled over the protests of local health officials as COVID-19 cases spike in many states, while the choice of host city and date — it was originally set for Friday, Juneteenth, and in a city where a 1921 white-on-Black attack killed as many as 300 people — prompted anger amid a national wave of protests against racial injustice.

But Trump and his advisers forged forward, believing that a return to the rally stage would reenergize the president, who is furious that he has fallen behind Biden in polls, and reassure Republicans growing anxious about the state of the presidential race and their ability to hold onto the Senate. But the smaller-than-expected crowds may only increase GOP worries.

The president’s campaign tried to point fingers elsewhere, despite the largely peaceful protests before the event.

“Sadly, protestors interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “Radical protestors, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President’s supporters. We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out.”

In the minutes before Trump arrived at the downtown arena, supporters who signed up for tickets received a text urging them to show up, declaring, “There’s still space!”

Trump was determined to return to his signature campaign events. He dismissed complaints that bringing together throngs for an indoor rally risked spreading the coronavirus as nothing more than politics.

Spread among households contributes to 41 new COVID-19 cases Saturday in McLennan County, 145 in past week

Health officials confirmed Saturday that another 41 people in McLennan County had tested positive for COVID-19, making for the most virulent week of local spread yet, with 145 new cases since last Sunday and 303 since tracking started in March.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said he is extremely concerned about the increase.

“I’m also concerned about the positivity rate,” Deaver said, referring to the percentage of tests that come back positive. “Now we’re having days at 8%, 9% positivity, and the state is basically at that same level now. We’ve gone from half-a-percent about two weeks ago to 8% or 9% now.”

He said the increase in infections is not simply because the county is conducting more testing, having completed 13,520 as of the most recent update.

“We’re on a really bad trend, but … compared to where other counties are, we’re just catching up very quickly to where they are,” Deaver said.

With 5 new cases announced last Sunday, 15 Monday, 18 Tuesday, 26 Wednesday, 23 Thursday and 17 Friday, the total number of residents with active infections stood at 153 by Saturday, more than the 145 residents who have recovered. Five McLennan County residents have died of the disease, including a 46-year-old man with no underlying health conditions who died Tuesday, the county’s first COVID-19 fatality since April.

Nine COVID-19 patients were in local hospitals Saturday. In April, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported McLennan County’s hospitals had a total of 54 ICU beds, 66 ventilators and 521 licensed hospital beds. Since then, hospitals have developed contingency plans for surge sites and temporary locations should the hospitals become crowded.

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District’s 80-person staff has been trained to conduct contact tracing, spokesperson Kelly Craine said. As of Saturday, officials were monitoring 712 people, which includes people who have tested positive and their close contacts.

Texas Health and Human Services also has contracted with contact tracers who the local health district can use, and the district is looking to hire two epidemiologists on a contract basis, Craine said.

“That will allow us to increase the investigation portion,” she said.

Craine said the health district knows of five households the virus has spread through, contributing to the recent increase in cases.

“Really, what is going on is household clusters,” Craine said.

Household clusters refers to families or members of a household who get the virus from someone they live with.

Deaver enacted a mask order for Waco businesses and individuals that took effect Saturday, and Woodway Mayor Jane Kittner issued a similar order that took effect Sunday mandating masks for businesses, but not individuals in public places.

Both orders require employees and visitors to a businesses to wear a face covering when multiple people are in the same space or are engaged in an activity that makes maintaining 6 feet of separation unfeasible.

Deaver said orders in neighboring cities are an important step to stop the spread.

Both orders require that any business selling goods or services to the public within city limits create and post a COVID-19 health and safety policy by Wednesday that includes a requirement for masks. Failure to post and enforce the policy — starting Wednesday in Waco and Thursday in Woodway — would result in a fine of up to $1,000 per day of violation.

Waco’s order also requires anyone age 10 or older to wear a mask when in a public place where maintaining 6 feet of separation would be difficult. Homemade masks, scarfs, bandanas, or a handkerchiefs can serve as face coverings. No fine or enforcement mechanism is included for the Waco requirement that the general public wear masks, and Woodway’s order specifies that individuals would not be fined.

Both orders include an exception for eating or drinking at a restaurant or bar when patrons are maintaining 6 feet between groups. Waco’s order for individuals also includes exceptions for physical activity outdoors, driving without anyone from another household, pumping gas, operating outdoor equipment or “when doing so poses a greater mental or physical health, safety, or security risk.”