The first time I noticed Joshua Standifer, the “tracker” who has spent the better part of a year recording the comings and goings, speeches and offhand conversations of U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s gubernatorial opponents, he didn’t have his ever-present camera trained on a candidate.
It was during the campaign’s early days in mid-January, and Standifer was stationed outside New Orleans City Hall, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu was presiding over the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day program. Landrieu was not a contestant for governor at the time, and he never became one, but the Vitter-affiliated Super PAC Fund for Louisiana’s Future, which has paid $80,000 to Standifer’s employer, a Washington-area firm called America Rising, clearly viewed the mayor as a potential threat. And Landrieu’s MLK Day speech probably seemed a particularly fruitful prospect; he’d be speaking to a highly Democratic audience and might say something that could rub more conservative voters elsewhere in the state the wrong way.
Gathering ammunition, after all, is the whole point of the practice, whether that means capturing a rival saying something embarrassing or intemperate, or catching him saying one thing in one setting and another elsewhere.
And while the Vitter camp has been most aggressive in monitoring the senator’s rivals and potential rivals, it’s not alone. A Democratic group, American Bridge 21st Century, is also monitoring Vitter on behalf of his runoff opponent John Bel Edwards.
In fact, cameras and recording devices are such a given that candidates have simply gotten used to the fact that they have no expectation of privacy while out in public.
During one town hall meeting early in his U.S. Senate campaign, eventual victor Bill Cassidy opened the program by pointing out the trackers and describing their role. They’re here, he explained, to seek material to post on the Internet so that, “you, me, our values will be ridiculed.” His opponent Mary Landrieu was known to smile and greet the trackers who monitored her movements.
That doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable for people who interact with the pols.
Over the summer, Standifer showed up to film a candidate forum at the Alario Center in Jefferson Parish, one of several high-profile gatherings that Vitter himself declined to attend. Afterward, I pulled aside the other three candidates, each individually, to ask them some questions for an upcoming column. At one point, I glanced to my right and noticed that Standifer was standing there as if he were the third participant in the conversation, saying nothing but recording what I considered at least a semi-private exchange.
If that was a bit unnerving for me, I’m sure it’s much more so for voters who are just trying to talk to their potential elected officials. And indeed, Edwards has said that Standifer sometimes crossed the line during this year’s legislative session, when he tried to talk to constituents in the chamber’s hallways.
Ironically, Vitter himself made a big show of defending his supporters’ privacy after an American Bridge tracker followed him into a restaurant last week. Vitter took out his smartphone and started filming the filmer.
“So I just want to clarify,” Vitter said, according to raw footage posted online by American Bridge, “you’re recording private peoples’ conversations here?”
Vitter’s feigned indignation amounted to a clumsy attempt to inoculate himself against the discovery that his campaign had hired a private investigator to conduct electronic surveillance on a noncandidate. The target was lawyer and Edwards donor John Cummings, if he and the investigator are to be believed, although the conversation at a Metairie coffee shop also included two of Vitter’s longtime political foes, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and state Sen. Danny Martiny, as well as another private investigator who had been looking into new allegations over Vitter’s personal life for an unnamed client.
Edwards quickly labeled Vitter’s tactics Nixonian, which seems fair enough. Secretly recording private citizens is very different from publicly monitoring candidates for office.
Politicians may not like it, but they know that trackers are out there, and whatever they say is fair game. They also know that anyone with a smartphone can fill that role as well. Just ask Mitt Romney, whose devastating comment at a closed-door fundraiser about 47 percent of American voters was captured by a bartender and distributed to the world. Or ask Barack Obama, who also thought he was talking only to a like-minded crowd when he made that condescending crack about people who cling to their guns and religion.
Nixon could only have dreamed of a world where such things are not only possible, but utterly routine.
Correction: Sunday’s column said state Sen. Danny Martiny endorsed Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne in the gubernatorial primary. Martiny supported Dardenne, but he did not make a formal endorsement.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.