It was a Friday evening, the end of another workweek. Jacquetta Van Zandt tucked herself in at home, a vodka and blueberry spritzer in hand, and logged on to Facebook. Annissa Essaibi George settled in at her own place, a glass of prosecco at the ready, and joined her online for a livestream conversation.
Essaibi George was the latest guest on Van Zandt’s regular online event, “Politics and Prosecco,” a virtual conversation about politics, with some laughter.
“We can have a little fun tonight, talking about the lightness — but also some of the issues facing our city,” said Essaibi George, a Boston city councilor and candidate for mayor. “The real issues that need to be done and that I look forward to doing as mayor,” she added.
Welcome to local political campaigning in 2021.
Amid a historic mayor’s race, candidates whose campaign activities have been curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions have found new outlets for their retail politics — on podcasts, urban radio shows, and on social media livestreams such as Van Zandt’s, which airs every Friday evening after the streetlights come on. Collectively, they’ve focused attention on issues historically glossed over by mainstream media, including health and economic disparities exposed by COVID, mental health awareness, and the lack of diversity in city and state governments.
“The rules of engagement around campaigning have changed,” Essaibi George, one of five candidates who have announced their mayoral campaigns, later said in an interview.
“It’s a new way, different way to engage with voters, with residents, and it’s a different way to document the work, too.”
While there’s no glad-handing and baby-kissing on the Internet, there’s still an audience. And, with a crowded field of candidates that could yield Boston’s first nonwhite elected mayor, alternative media outlets have enabled candidates to connect with new audiences and tout their platforms.
Besides “Politics and Prosecco,” there’s “Java with Jimmy,” also a regular Facebook Live stream. Hosts on the “Notorious in the Morning” radio show on b87fm.com, which bills itself as Boston’s urban radio station, have equally called out and praised candidates in the mayor’s race (a few have been guests), and weighed in on matters such as disparities in the COVID-19 response and vaccination effort. And Ron Bell, a longtime political operative in Boston, has been hosting the “Boston Black News” program on Boston Praise and Radio TV, which describes itself as the only “church-based, Black-owned” multiplatform broadcaster in New England.
Absent for now are the traditional campaign fund-raisers and house parties with special guests. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it tougher for candidates to round up supporters with a megaphone on Boston Common, but now they can do it via Zoom — and from the comfort of their homes.
Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston political consultant, said the array of shows and programs from nonmainstream outlets has helped connect candidates with voters and audiences they might have overlooked before, and the hosts’ voices have grown louder as they focus attention on policy areas that have historically been ignored by political candidates.
“Campaigns are changing in real life,” said Rivera. She sees the new campaigning landscape lasting long after the pandemic, forcing candidates to engage with new audiences.
“All of the things we’ve normally done are now through Zoom, and the expectation is ‘now you can do it,’ ” she said.
“That competition is going to be a good thing,” she said. “This is a debate of the ideas, and they’re going to have to step up that engagement . . . it makes everybody a constituency that’s much sought after.”
Paul Parara, the radio host known as Notorious VOG, said his listeners are loyal because they expect him to challenge public officials on issues affecting Black and brown communities. He’s featured officials such as state Representative Liz Miranda, Governor Charlie Baker, and Senator Edward Markey on the show. Now, he’s seen candidates and elected officials become even more eager to connect with him and his audience.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, the first candidate to challenge former mayor Martin J. Walsh before he was tapped for President Biden’s Cabinet, has appeared multiple times. State Representative Jon Santiago, also a mayoral candidate, has appeared, and discussed the COVID-19 pandemic (he is also a doctor), and City Councilor Andrea Campbell, another candidate, appeared as well. Two other candidates, Essaibi George and John Barros, former head of economic development for the Walsh administration, have not made an appearance.
On air, Parara has already challenged the candidates to show what they have done for the Black and brown community — or haven’t — and hopes mainstream media outlets mirror the conversation.
“I don’t think the local media has done that enough,” he said. “They still talk about Black and brown folks like statistics, the conversation is always around us . . . it’s never to us, and with us.”
Parara said he has also challenged listeners to stick with their convictions and hold political candidates accountable. It won’t be enough, he said, for Boston to simply elect a nonwhite mayor: Voters also need to hold the next mayor to account in addressing the housing crisis, improving transportation, and addressing inequities, many of which were exposed by the COVID-19 response.
“Everyone has to show up early and stay late, everyone is going to have to address these issues,” he said.
Van Zandt, who by day consults for political campaigns (she’s not working for any mayoral candidate), said she started her livestream conversations last year during the onset of the pandemic. It was a channel for new candidates to introduce themselves for the first time to the general public.
“Tell people what you’re doing,” she would say to her guests.
During the recent conversation with Essaibi George, Van Zandt touched upon the candidate’s work as a teacher and city councilor. They discussed Essaibi George’s family (husband, four sons, and a new pandemic puppy), her race and heritage, and how her upbringing in Boston would shape her decisions as mayor.
“Tell us exactly why you are running for mayor right now,” she asked.
The next Friday, Van Zandt hosted Barros on her livestream, only days after he announced his candidacy. She asked him the same question.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of Representative Liz Miranda.