Elections

'Trackers' are eyes and ears on political scene

The video went up on YouTube within hours:

"Hey, Mr. Yoder, why did you skip the debate in Lawrence?"

It was Derek Martin ambushing the congressional candidate outside his campaign headquarters Wednesday night after Kevin Yoder had backed out of a debate to attend another event.

Martin's job is to follow and film political opponents — and try to catch them in a misstep.

Trackers like Martin, who works for the Kansas Democratic Party, have become a fixture of modern political campaigns. They now are so common that many political consultants say campaigns are behind the times if they don't employ one.

Some applaud trackers for their work in trying to hold candidates accountable, while others call their behavior little more than harassment.

Either way, political strategists say tracking is vital to modern campaigning.

"Ten or 11 years ago you'd see it in big-money races," said Steve Glorioso, a veteran political consultant in Kansas City. "But now you're seeing it in all congressional races, Senate races, gubernatorial races when you run campaigns now you've got to do it."

Martin defends the importance of his work.

"From what I've experienced, people think of me as a stalker, and I completely reject that title," Martin said. "I think the biggest misconception is that this is somehow illicit, and I don't think it is. If someone's saying one thing on the news and another thing at an event no news media are at, I think people deserve to know about that."

But trackers have come under fire recently after candidates filed complaints.

Vicky Hartzler, a Republican running for Congress in Missouri, and Stephene Moore, a Kansas Democrat, have both publicly said they were being harassed by trackers.

When a tracker followed Hartzler down a highway after an event and waited for her outside a restroom, her campaign filed a complaint with the Cass County Sheriff's Office. An investigation showed no signs of criminal activity.

Moore, who opposes Republican Kevin Yoder for a congressional seat in Kansas, said the man who had been tracking her has been at almost all of the campaign's public events. Often he yelled at her on the street or at events, usually the same question, "Would you vote for Nancy Pelosi?" while recording on a video camera.

Moore said he also has followed her into restaurants and into her office, shouting questions.

"I understand their right to do it," Moore said. "I understand they want to try and record what's going on and report back what was said. That's fine, that's fair, that's been going on for a long time. But it's getting to a point where you wonder if it's crossing a line."

A Moore spokesman said Thursday that Martin did not cross that line with the Yoder debate video.

"I think if you watch the video, the tracker is polite, calls him 'sir,' " Trevor Willett said. "He doesn't go into the building and harass them at all."

For his part, Yoder didn't take the Martin ambush personally.

"It's part of the political process," he said. "I have a hard time getting a word in edgewise, but I'm holding out hope that he might vote for me."

Yoder had earlier dropped out of the Lawrence debate, saying he had another event to attend. Although Martin found Yoder outside his headquarters, that's where a Women for Yoder Coalition meeting had been scheduled, his staff said.

Perhaps the most notable tracker moment came in 2006 when Sen. George Allen of Virginia used the word "macaca," which can be a pejorative term, when introducing his tracker to a crowd. The tracker, who was of Indian descent, caught the moment on video. It eventually went viral and aided in sinking Allen's campaign for re-election.

As newsrooms and their resources continue to shrink, many see the use of trackers as a substitute for traditional news media.

Jeff Roe, president of Axiom Strategies, a political consulting firm in Kansas City, Mo., said trackers have become necessary because the news media don't cover every event a candidate attends.

"It's always good to have a camera rolling at all times," he said.

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