Don Carey was supposed to be at the Chesapeake, Virginia, home of one of his friends Thursday, mingling with a few dozen millennials, listening to their vision of the city’s future and brainstorming ways he could help make it come true.
He had another meet-and-greet planned for the next night, a fundraiser in one of Chesapeake’s up-and-coming neighborhoods that the former Detroit Lions safety hoped would help finance his bid for one of three open seats on the city council.
But on Monday, Virginia became the latest state to issue a stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus pandemic — a directive that will run through June 10.
The election is May 5.
“This is probably the craziest time I could have ever picked to run for political office,” Carey said in a phone interview with the Free Press. “I can’t get in front of my constituents. I can’t, as they say, shake hands, kiss babies.”
It’s a path almost everyone who knew him in Detroit expected he’d take. Former Lions coach Jim Caldwell even joked in a video at Carey’s retirement party that Carey’s next position would be as a mayor or congressman.
Except it also has brought him face to face with COVID-19, a foe even the most seasoned of politicians never could have imagined.
Carey — who played all but one season of his 2010-2018 NFL career in Detroit — is one of seven candidates, and said that even before the stay-home order, campaigning had been reduced because of social distancing guidelines.
“I’ll tell you what I’ve found in this political thing, I don’t care much for the politics of it, but I do love dealing with people, hearing the issues that matter to people and then getting something solved,” he said. “It’s tougher to hear those issues (now), so I’m left to tell people what I care about.
“But thankfully, I’ve been around enough and I’ve talked to enough people that I kind of get an understanding of what the different areas, different neighborhoods of the city are needing. And the things that I care about aren’t too far off or aren’t different at all than what the different areas already need.”
Carey said he first considered pursuing a post-NFL career in politics in 2015 when he encountered red tape while trying to bring STEM programs to four Detroit-area schools as part of a charitable endeavor with the Lions.
“We were having some issues with logistics and the politics of things,” he said. “So I kind of went above dealing with just the one school and started dealing with the school board, and saw how influential the school board was to actually getting things accomplished inside of schools.
“And then I began seeing how the school boards were limited in their authority to do things, so I eventually went above even them and started working with different city council members in Detroit. So I’m like, ‘OK, I can see the extent and the power that a city council has in a particular city.’ “
Caldwell put Carey in touch with former NFL receiver Steve Largent, who was an Oklahoma congressman for eight years. Carey said Largent has been a valuable sounding board, helping him navigate the political process and prepare for a campaign.
Carey said he also has adapted the coaching pointers he learned in the NFL to politics, including one of former Lions special teams coordinator John Bonamego’s favorite sayings: Gain the advantageous ground.
Carey used that approach to become one of the best special teams players in the NFL. In politics, it has led him to moves he hopes help get him elected.
Before coronavirus restrictions slowed campaigning, he raced to collect the 125 signatures required to appear on the ballot on Jan. 2, the first day allowed. Because he was the first to turn his signatures in, his name appears first on the ballot.
“Studies show that individuals in the No. 1 position get 5 more percent of the vote than (they would) if that individual is in any other position (on the ballot),” Carey said.
He had campaign material printed early, which allowed him to get signs out on the first day permitted, 60 days before the election. And he booked advertising space early on billboards and in local newspapers on dates he believed were strategic to the election.
Now, with in-person fundraising dried up, Carey has turned largely to a digital campaign. He’s accepting donations through his website, VoteDonCarey.com — he’s not quite halfway to his fundraising goal, with 10 to 15 events like the ones he had planned for this week already canceled.
He spent a day last week working on letters to educate voters about the absentee voting process and how to stay safe in the age of coronavirus.
“Everybody’s locked down,” he said. “But I do think we’re going to tackle this thing soon.”
When Virginia’s stay-home order is lifted, he plans to be back in the community one way or another — and hopefully as the newest member of Chesapeake’s city council.
“I’m just going to throw my hat out there and see who they cheer for,” Carey said. “But I think we have a very good chance.”