“You’d be willing to do anything?” the Lamont campaign staffer asked via e-mail. I’d met him at BAR the week before. Seth didn’t seem like a typical politico. He had wild eyes and a shaggy mop of hair. But more than anything he had a willingness to face and attack moral and philosophical issues — something I thought any politician worth his salt would avoid. He was, in all things, honestly unkempt.
Yet the sinister undertones in his e-mail seemed impossible to ignore. I’d imagined politics would be like the Mafia in a lot of ways, but did they actually have to talk like them? “You’d be willing to do anything for the family, wouldn’t you, Salvatore?”
But Seth couldn’t have wanted me to work as some political hitman or bagman — or schmuck. Seth was a good man. I could just sense it — he wears it on his wrinkled sleeve. He must have needed me to file papers or be someone’s coffee wallah, that sort of thing.
“Your life would pretty much be the campaign. Like 10 hours a day most weekends. And you’d get paid next to nothing. How great does that sound?” He asked sarcastically in his next e-mail. But I wanted a taste for politics. I all but said yes.
“You’ll be working as our tracker, attending all of our opponents’ events, recording and reporting his every word to the Communications staff, staying on him like shit on a monkey’s ass,” an overgrown frat boy in the blue and white polo said to me from across the boardroom table. With this same convincing, almost terrifying, matter-of-fact bravado, this senior politico had organized and orchestrated the 2008 Obama Convention in Denver — proof to me that balls and bluster get things done in politics. If matching him in machismo meant saying I’d be the campaign’s contract killer, much less some creepy camera man, I was in.
The candidate I tracked most was Dan Malloy, the Lamont campaign’s competitor in, and ultimately the winner of, the Democratic primary for governor. After one event, the Malloy team knew that my face and my camera belonged to Lamont. But showing up at Malloy’s events as a declared representative of his opponent didn’t exactly make me a lot of friends. I was pushed, pulled, tripped, hit, stickered, hissed at, taunted and sandwiched by supporters. Men reacted physically, women verbally and old women most vocally. Most vividly, I remember an old woman at the Branford Town Fair telling me I was “too young to know what shame was.”
Perhaps she was right. If the summer with the Lamont campaign taught me anything, it was that I had a lot to learn. But I did everything in my power to maintain as much personal space around Mr. Malloy as possible. I kept myself, the camera and the microphone at bay. Still, there are moments at a political event when the level of action and noise rises to a tumultuous crescendo. I could keep the camera against my chest and out of the candidate’s face. But if I didn’t move the microphone within one or two feet of the candidate, it’d become totally useless, nothing more than a floating grey squirrel tail of a microphone cover.
Having a sense of personal space and autonomy is important and this apparent violation of a public figure’s personal space raises clear ethical questions. Is tracking the practice of political thugs, hired to harass? Of a political hitman?
First of all, tracking is not stalking. Attending events open to the public is different from staking out the candidate’s house and trailing his car. I never did this. Even then, if tracking did nothing more than provide the Lamont communications team — the ones who deal with the press — with real-time information, the invasion would be difficult to justify.
But tracking is more than that. Far from being like the mafia (but perhaps not the paparazzi) the tactics of the tracker — watching, recording and reporting — indicate that the tracker is much closer in occupation to those who oppose corruption and dirty tricks: the FBI and the police. These forces prevent and expose wrongdoing. Indeed, this is where tracking provides real value for the public and finds its justification.
The presence of a camera keeps candidates from stooping to dishonest, dirty rhetoric — like telling seniors that one’s opponent will close their senior center and drive them out of house and home — that prevents voters from making an honest appraisal of candidates and distorts our democratic system. In a word, it keeps them honest. And if candidates persist in distortion, contradiction and even corrupt bargaining at public events, they do so at their own peril.
Politics has too many dark corners, too few lights to explore them and too much riding on it to simply leave it alone. Public figures should not fear public scrutiny. If getting close (at times) to our candidates brings us closer to an accurate picture of them, then we, too, should not fear public scrutiny. At least that’s what I honestly believe.