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Opinion: It's Hard To Shake Hands And Kiss Babies On Zoom

A recent gathering of New York City mayoral candidates on Zoom.
Screenshot by Liz Kim/WNYC
A recent gathering of New York City mayoral candidates on Zoom.

If you're fortunate enough to have a job in this pandemic, what's fun after a day of Zoom conferences where people bark, "Am I on mute?"

If you live in the liveliest city on earth, what about an effervescent evening of Zoom conferences, where you can hear candidates for mayor of New York bark, "Am I on mute?"

In the city that never sleeps, mayoral candidates never stop talking. There are more than 20 candidates for mayor of New York, and you can see 8, 10 and more, day and night, in Zoom panels, sponsored by political clubs, interest groups and community associations from the Bronx to the Battery.

"The candidates fill the Zoom cubes on my screen nearly every day," Liz Kim of WNYC in New York, told us, "like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch."

Candidates used to be able to say, "I'd love to join you in Throggs Neck at 7:00, but I have to be in Sheepshead Bay at 8:00..." But in 2021, candidates are just sitting on their ... couches. It's impolitic to refuse any invitation.

Liz Kim says there was a chucklesome moment in a recent forum when each candidate vowed, "You're overlooked, Staten Island, I won't overlook you when I'm mayor, Staten Island..." then had to say, one by one, "Uh, sorry, but I got to leave now..." so they could sign into another neighborhood forum.

I have always loved covering mayoral campaigns in great cities because they bring you into neighborhoods. Campaign events can be their own bubbles, of course, but at least you can see neighborhood streets, homes, and business districts, bright lights and boarded-up windows, and citizens in sweaters and snow boots in school basements, joking, joshing and gossiping in a babble of languages in front of a hissing coffee urn, then rising to admonish candidates, face to face, about local corruption, systemic racism and the urgency of getting the snow shoveled off Atlantic Avenue.

"I miss spontaneous interactions with the public," says Liz Kim. "I miss going up to people and asking, 'What did you think?'"

She says every group you can imagine and a few you could never imagine have come up with an idea for Zoom sessions. "Candidates think they can't say no," she says. "Is that necessarily a bad thing?"

But there is something a little gloomy and regretful about a large and interesting field of candidates for mayor of New York, of all places, running for office in tiny Zoom screens. It might make you long for a safe return to in-person dining, in-person school and in-person politics.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.