Dogging the opposition

A few campaign trackers have been attracting attention

Maryland Votes 2006

October 07, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was standing in a Calvert County parking lot, telling a small group of supporters that his campaign for United States Senate was about "listening to the people of Maryland." Not only that, it was about hearing "the needs of the community."

Hardly memorable rhetoric, but now preserved on videotape at the Maryland Democratic Party headquarters, thanks to the work of a campaign tracker. The party had sent a young staffer to tail the lieutenant governor, to record his every word and action.

For about a decade, campaigns have used trackers to keep tabs on rival candidates. Their goal: to gather ammunition to use against the opposition. The trackers - usually young campaign workers - plunge into hostile territory, armed with only a notebook and video camera, and usually emerge with little more than the prosaic stump speeches that define modern campaigns.

They serve behind enemy lines - spies in plain sight. They lurk at the edge of crowds, train their cameras on the opposition and listen as their own candidates are pilloried. They have become so common that campaigns accept them as part of the game. In Calvert County, Steele recognized the tracker and greeted him good-naturedly: "How you doin', man? Give my best to the other team."

But this year, trackers have emerged from the shadows in unusual ways. A tracker in Virginia was arrested and charged with trespassing. A tracker in Maryland was given two tickets by police after taping an event. And a tracker in New York was accused of following a congressman to the grocery store.

Biggest impact

It was a tracker following Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia who became the most famous of all. At a campaign stop, Allen pointed out the tracker, a University of Virginia student named S.R. Sidarth, and went on a bizarre tirade that could cost him the election.

"This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere," Allen said, using a term considered a racial slur in some countries. "So, welcome. Let's give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Sidarth was soon being interviewed on CNN and featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but he's not the only tracker to make news this campaign season. U.S. Rep. John E. Sweeney, a New York Republican, accused his opponent's tracker of "stalking" him while he shopped for groceries and took his wife out to dinner. He also said the tracker disrupted his birthday party.

In a news release Aug. 8, Sweeney accused the tracker, Benjamin Rosenbaum, 23, of "secretly videotaping" him during his annual birthday party fundraiser at a racetrack. Sweeney said the tracker was taken into custody and interrogated by racetrack security.

That was not true, though Rosenbaum was questioned and escorted out of the track.

Trackers shadow politicians at public events for two reasons. One is to try to catch the candidates in moments of hypocrisy - saying one thing to one group of people and another thing to another group. The other reason is so campaigns know what the opposition candidate is saying and can quickly respond to charges made.

Mike Reynold, 26, from Laurel tracked Democrat Tim Kaine when he ran for governor of Virginia last year. Reynold said that when he accepted the job, he was told to look for classic verbal slip-ups, as when John Kerry said during the 2004 presidential race, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

"That's your ultimate goal - to find a statement like the John Kerry moment," Reynold said. He said the Kaine camp treated him with respect - even offering him oysters at one point, which he declined - but sometimes supporters of Kaine, who won the election, weren't quite so friendly.

"Mr. Kaine would do things like point me out to crowds and tell the audience to make me feel at home," Reynold said. "Then people would come up to me, and some would say some nasty things."

He would respond passively. One of the ground rules of being a tracker is to keep your mouth shut and don't make any news. Other rules: Don't interfere. Don't threaten. Don't get in the way.

Trackers are generally instructed to follow candidates in public places, not into private homes for events like fundraisers. James Hunter Pickels, a tracker volunteering for the Republican Party of Virginia, learned that when he entered a building in Roanoke to tape senatorial candidate James Webb's kickoff event in April. Pickels was asked to leave. He didn't. He was arrested.

(A judge said last month that she would dismiss the trespassing charge against Pickels if he stayed out of trouble for 90 days.)

Most trackers avoid court appearances. They log thousands of miles in their cars during a campaign, eat more fast food than Morgan Spurlock and spend most of their time among the enemy. But some say it's satisfying work.

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