The impact of COVID-19 is expected to change upcoming local elections.

From the start, safety precautions are allowing candidates to file electronically, if desired, but how local campaigns are run, or even who runs, could be affected.

“There’s part of me that thinks it would turn people away, partly because we are so intensely focused on what is going on in our own homes and own lives,” said Rochester School Board member Deborah Seelinger, who said she hasn’t decided whether she will seek a third term.

On the the other hand, Seelinger said the coronavirus "might inspire people” to get involved.

Fellow board member Don Barlow said the decision should come down to the job at hand, rather than circumstances.

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“It’s always the right time to serve,” he said, adding that he plans to seek a second term. “While these are challenging times, it requires thoughtful reflection. I would think anyone who is concerned about equitable access for Rochester students should file.”

Board member Mark Schleusner, who also plans to seek a second term, said he thinks the pandemic could deter people from running for office.

“Running for office is an uneasy feeling, and fewer people will want to do that during these uncertain times,” he said.

CAMPAIGNING AMID COVID

Incumbents on Rochester City Council and Olmsted County Board of Commissioners also offered differing opinions on whether the pandemic will inspire or deter potential candidates, but agreed it will change the face of local campaigns.

“The traditional approach of door knocking and talking to people, I believe, will be curtailed as will any kind of group gatherings, such as candidate forums,” City Council President Randy Staver said. “I could see some of those things shifting to virtual meetings, which adds a different dynamic.”

Staver indicated he’s leaning toward seeking another term, but plans to make his decision during the filing period that starts Tuesday and runs through June 3.

Council member Mark Bilderback, however, said his mind is pretty much made up.

“I’m thinking I’m done; I’ve had enough,” said the Fourth Ward council member, who has held the seat since 2009.

He said hopes ward residents see a choice of candidates but added the challenges of campaigning with COVID restriction could add challenges for newcomers.

Michael Wojcik, who said he hasn’t decided whether to seek a fourth city council term representing the Second Ward, agreed a lack of participation due to COVID-91 would be disappointing.

“Sadly, the person-to-person, ‘front door’ conversations that make local elections special is far less likely to happen,” he said.

Sixth Ward council member Annalissa Johnson, who is winding down her first term, did not respond to requests for comments.

An announced city council candidate for the seat, Mark Bransford, however, said he understands the challenges ahead.

“This campaign season is likely going to be one of the most unique ever," he said on his website. “Door knocking, group meetings, and face to face debates might not be possible this year.”

Another potential council candidate, Greg Munson, who said he expects to make a final decision this weekend, indicated the pandemic is playing a role in his thought process.

“No council has a template for how to deal with a pandemic, and likewise there’s nobody I can talk with out here to ask them how you run a campaign during a pandemic,” he said. “There’s nobody that has ever had to do that.”

EMERGING ISSUE

Olmsted County Commissioners Jim Bier, Stephanie Podulke, Mark Thein and Gregg Wright, each said they plan to seek re-election with a common goal of reining in potential tax increases, even as the demand for county-funded services are expected to rise in the wake of increased unemployment and other economic pressures.

“Our priorities would have been different a few months ago,” Podulke said. “The biggest issue now is maintaining the county’s financial stability while still providing essential services.”

Thein agreed. “Until this economy returns to what it was, the last thing people need are higher property taxes,” he said.

While other issues will emerge during potential campaigns, Bier said they will likely still be tinged by the response to the pandemic.

“It’s all going to be about COVID, one way or another,” he said.

Incumbents on the county board, city council and school board agreed that budget issues related to COVID-19 will likely be a challenge during a time that could be infused with debates and new ideas leading to the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general elections.



How to file

As local candidates prepare to turn in paperwork, Olmsted County and Rochester election officials are tweaking their practices to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The filing period starts Tuesday and runs through June 3.

Candidates for office may file electronically, by mail or in person.

The city is partnering with Rochester Public Schools to handle school board filings for three at-large seats. This allows the district to keep the Edison Administration Building closed.

Candidates for school board and city council who want to file for office in person shold call ahead to schedule an appointment at City Hall. This will ensure contact with others is kept to a minimum. Appointments can be made by calling 507-328-2900.

The city’s filing packet and other election information is available online at www.rochestermn.gov/vote

Olmsted County’s Property Records and Licensing/Election Division is handling filing for four county board seats and two soil and water conservation board seats, as well as potential state and federal posts, and has developed plans to ensure candidates maintain proper physical distances at the Government Center.

That information information is available online at https://tinyurl.com/ydfungbk