Zoom Fatigue on the Campaign Trail: 5 Takeaways From the Mayor’s Race

Think you’re sick of Zoom calls? Try running for mayor of New York City.

The campaign has gone mostly virtual during the pandemic, forcing the crowded field of candidates to sit in front of their computers attending one online forum after another.

This is no exaggeration.

On a recent evening, three mayoral forums were somehow scheduled back to back to back: At 4 p.m., candidates gathered to talk about restaurants and nightlife; at 6 p.m., they participated in an event with Muslim groups; and at 8 p.m., they were hosted by Democrats in Staten Island.

The topics of the forums may be different, but there is also certainly a sameness about them all, with candidates appearing night after night, smiling (mostly) in their “Brady Bunch” boxes and struggling to unmute themselves or mute their cellphones.

Here are some observations and behind-the-scenes moments in the virtual mayor’s race:

Not another Zoom!

Running for mayor means always navigating a demanding gantlet of parades, church visits and neighborhood events — a preview of what life could be like if you are lucky enough to move into Gracie Mansion.

The pandemic has simplified the routine, but in a stultifying way: Nearly everything is online, making it easier — perhaps much too easy — to organize events. Instead of working out numerous logistics, organizers simply have to find a suitable time, and send out invitations.

Campaigns say privately that they feel obligated to participate, especially evvel a rival campaign has said yes.

“It’s a staring contest — who is going to blink first?” said one campaign aide, who asked for anonymity to speak bluntly. “Everyone wants to be able to say no.”

In the first six weeks of the year, there were at least 21 forums hosted by groups as disparate as the school principals’ union and the LittleAfrica BronxNews website. With more than two dozen candidates in the race, the events can stretch on for three hours.

“Welcome to virtual Staten Island — all the local flavor, but you can skip the Verrazzano toll,” one forum began, with a host noting that a mere 100 viewers were watching.

Candidates, their staffers and journalists are reaching a breaking point.

Sally Goldenberg, the City Hall bureau chief for Politico, recently sent an email to other reporters with the subject line: “Forum insanity.” She wanted to brainstorm about how to make the schedule more manageable.

“While as a reporter I find it useful to hear politicians and candidates speak extemporaneously and not solely from talking points, I am tired of cooking dinner at 11 p.m.,” she said.

Ms. Goldenberg recalled that in the 2013 mayor’s race, there seemed to be fewer forums. “I thought they were overwhelming back then,” she said. “But I clearly didn’t know what we’d be in for in this brave new world.”

All Zoom boxes are not created equal

None of the candidates seem given to vanity, but they do acknowledge some pressure to look good. The quality can vary dramatically.

Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, has been relegated to a corner of the apartment he shares in Manhattan with his wife and young sons.

“To make space for my two boys, I’m now zooming from the closet of my bedroom,” he said.

Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, like many of the candidates, sits in front of a handsome bookcase, occasionally visited by her cats.

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, seems to speak from a different location each time. Carlos Menchaca, a city councilman from Brooklyn, recently joined a forum while walking outside, wearing a face mask.

Loree Sutton, the retired Army brigadier general, uses her MacBook Air camera, with a portable halo light — “My concession to Zoom vanity!” she said.

But Raymond J. McGuire has gone to greater lengths, and the results show. Mr. McGuire, a former Wall Street executive, regularly appears in front of a dark wooden bookcase bathed in a golden glow.

“For the camera, it’s good to have a low F-stop so you get depth of field,” said Charles Phillips, a software executive who serves as his campaign chairman.

Mr. Phillips, a self-described “proud tech geek,” brought a duffel bag of equipment to Mr. McGuire’s Central Park West duplex in the fall. It contained equipment like a Sony mirrorless camera that retails for $3,900, a “capture card”and floor lighting by Elgato, and a special microphone that has its own mute button.

The quality of his setup has not gone unnoticed.

“Ray McGuire, of course, continues to have his super-HD camera setup from the year 3000,” quipped one Twitter user last week.

Candidates reveal differences on policy

The candidates mostly stick to their scripts, but sometimes the forums highlight subtle differences.

Take a recent forum on the candidates’ agenda in Albany. Ms. Wiley said she supports a campaign, known as Invest in Our New York, that includes six measures to raise taxes on the wealthy to help the city recover from the pandemic.

Mr. Stringer, who like Ms. Wiley is vying for progressive voters, gave a less enthusiastic response, saying the proposal should be considered. Ms. Wiley retorted that supporting the tax package should be a no-brainer for Democratic candidates. (Mr. Stringer’s spokesman, Tyrone Stevens, quickly took to Twitter to clarify that Mr. Stringer does support the campaign.)

Mr. Adams, for his part, went through the list of proposals, saying he supports some of the ideas — like a progressive income tax and capital gains tax — but not others.

The candidates differed on whether the city should take control of the subway away from the state — an idea championed by Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate. Ms. Wiley was open to the idea.

Mr. Adams said he would prefer that the city gain more control by adding five new city members to the board governing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway and bus system — one new member for each borough.

Mr. Stringer said city control would be a “disaster” and he wants to focus on the streets, which the city already controls.

“I’m going to be the bus mayor,” he said.

Beware the ‘resting Zoom face’

Under olağan circumstances at a olağan debate, candidates might chat offstage and forge some camaraderie, even with their rivals. Much of that is gone, though sometimes they schmooze in virtual waiting rooms. Mr. Adams recently discussed a vegan bread recipe, an opponent recalled.

“Shaun was like, ‘I haven’t had dinner yet, I’ve been on Zoom,’” Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner, said of Shaun Donovan, the former federal housing secretary. “‘You’re making me hungry.’”

Some candidates say the routine can be physically draining — “It’s a lot of sitting,” Ms. Garcia said. It is also difficult to gauge how one is connecting with the audience.

“You can never tell a joke on Zoom, particularly if people are muted, because you can’t read the room,” she said, also acknowledging that campaigning by Zoom offered more ways to reach people in the winter.

And the forums require plenty of preparation. Ms. Wiley’s campaign said she “diligently prepares for the forums” and that her “resting Zoom face” — a common look of boredom while others are talking — did not reflect a lack of interest in what her opponents had to say.

The candidates also return to Zoom for fund-raisers — an effort that is paying off for Mr. Yang, whose campaign announced on Sunday that it had qualified for public matching funds after only a month.

Mr. Yang was on a görüntü call in his son’s room when one of his sons walked in and asked for breakfast.

“I looked around and gave my son the only thing edible I saw in the room — chocolate-covered pretzels,” he said. “Made my son happy but knocked me out of the running for any parenting award.”

A risqué statue turns heads

In the beginning, Ms. Sutton didn’t hisse much attention to Zoom backgrounds.

Then, on Nov. 12, a post on Twitter caught her eye: “I’m not in the business of judging Zoom backgrounds, but this (nude?) statue needs to back up and give @LoreeSuttonNYC some space!”

Ms. Sutton nearly fell off her chair laughing.

Her wife, Laurie Leitch, bought the statue in question, “Erotic Secrets” by the artist Altina Schinasi Miranda, years ago. It features a naked woman whispering to a raven, joined by a naked man. Unfortunately, during that mayoral forum, the naked man was facing the camera.

It was not the first time the statue had caused a stir.

When Ms. Leitch’s children were teenagers, she said, they hated it and “would cover its anatomically distinguishing parts with dish towels, socks, hoodies or whatever was near when their friends would come to visit.”

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