- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The candidates in Arkansas’ two most high-profile political races are under extra scrutiny this year.

So-called video trackers record almost everything the candidates for governor and U.S. Senate say in public in case they make a gaffe or veer off message. Some trackers work for political parties, while others are employed by affiliated groups to tail candidates, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/XeJr6C ).

At campaign events, trackers often wedge into the phalanx of television cameramen in the back of the room. At other times, trackers follow reporters, getting close to the candidates and helping create a cluster that can obscure the view for people in the crowd.

As candidates move about before and after events, trackers frequently follow within feet of them.

The main party candidates in this year’s Arkansas governor’s race say video trackers are just part of campaigning in the 21st century.

“Both sides utilize trackers,” said Asa Hutchinson, the Republican nominee in the governor’s race. “It’s just part of today’s world. It’s part of freedom and it’s part of technology. It’s just a change in the landscape of politics. You’ve always known everything is on the record, but it’s not only on the record, it’s instantaneously exposed to everybody through social media.”

Hutchinson said he doesn’t remember a video tracker following him in 2006, when he ran for governor and lost to Mike Beebe.

“There may have been but it wasn’t as obvious and as constant,” said Hutchinson.

Mike Ross, the Democratic nominee for governor, also seemed unfazed by the political paparazzi.

“Even before politics, I’ve always conducted myself by the rule that you shouldn’t ever say anything you don’t want printed on the front page of your church bulletin, and I still live by that advice today,” Ross said in an email. “In this digital age, you’ve got to assume everything you say is being recorded. It’s just a political reality of 21st century campaigning.”

In major campaigns across the country, video trackers follow candidates almost everywhere they go in public. The video is often posted on YouTube, a video sharing website, immediately after a speaking engagement.

Sometimes trackers document moments that don’t make the evening news but are otherwise interesting to people who follow the race.

Recent tracker videos posted online show Hutchinson at an Arkansas Farm Bureau meeting in Springdale saying he doesn’t know if he’s a member of the Farm Bureau, and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in an elevator being dogged by a Little Rock television reporter about debating his Republican opponent, Tom Cotton.

The Pryor video had been viewed 7,376 times on YouTube as of Friday. The Hutchinson video had been seen 2,139 times.

YouTube was founded in 2005 and rogue trackers began filming political candidates soon afterward.

The next year, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., was filmed at a campaign rally calling his opponent’s video tracker “macaca” - which can refer to a genus of monkey - which some people took as a slur against the man, who was of Indian descent.

“He’s with my opponent,” Allen told the crowd. “He’s following us around everywhere. … Let’s give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

Allen apologized later, saying he had made up the word, but the damage was done. He lost his re-election bid that year, and the value of video tracking became apparent to political operatives across America.

In 2010, video trackers constantly monitored John Boozman and Blanche Lincoln in the U.S. Senate race.

Boozman, a Republican who won the Senate race, said it was the first time he had been tracked in that manner. Boozman said he never saw any tracker footage from the 2010 campaign. This year, however, much of the tracker video is immediately posted to the Internet.

“It’s evolved into a whole different thing from 2010 until now, that’s for sure,” Boozman said. “Even in the last few years everybody has become so iPhone minded. It’s so easy to film things and post them to the Internet. I think this year more than ever it probably has had a significant impact.”

Boozman isn’t running this year. He’ll be up for re-election in 2016.

Boozman said he wasn’t bothered by the tracker who followed him during the 2010 race but he warned groups he was speaking to that an opposition videographer was there looking for “a gotcha moment” and they could wind up in the video.

“I believe anything you say your mom ought to be able to read it on the front page of any newspaper,” Boozman said.

The Democrats were first to use video trackers in an organized and extensive manner, through a political action committee called American Bridge 21st Century, which was established in 2010.

Gwen Rocco, a spokesman for American Bridge, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

After the 2012 elections, a Republican National Committee report recommended founding a similar group on the right.

Activists could be hired to follow Democratic candidates, “constantly recording their every movement, utterance, and action,” according to the report. It recommended a website devoted to posting “inappropriate Democrat utterances.”

America Rising was started soon afterward. Its mission is to “expose the truth about Democrats through video tracking, research and communications,” according to its website, americarisingpac.org.

There’s an America Rising PAC and America Rising LLC, which is an opposition research company.

Jeff Bechdel, a spokesman for America Rising, said trackers are used to hold the candidates responsible. He said the group has 24 full-time trackers around the country monitoring Democratic candidates.

After a tracker shoots video, it’s posted to a cloud-based file-sharing service so America Rising can access it, said Bechdel. At America Rising’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., analysts watch the video and determine the next step to take, he said.

After an Aug. 1 breakfast event in Fort Smith, Hutchinson and Ross worked the crowd, and video trackers followed the candidates.

One of Ross’ staff members stood between the candidate and Sam Montgomery, a tracker who works for America Rising LLC.

Montgomery flipped the screen of her video camera so she could hold it high over the aide’s head and get footage of Ross talking to a reporter.

Bechdel acknowledged that Montgomery is an America Rising tracker in Arkansas and said she’s not available for interviews. Trackers are supposed to be low profile, he said.

America Rising’s trackers are instructed to be discreet, Bechdel said.

“Most of the time they’re a fly in the wall,” he said. “We encourage the trackers to just go and document and that’s it. It’s not about shouting out questions and trying to make anyone uncomfortable. It’s about recording the event and calling it a day.”

Montgomery didn’t ask any questions, but constantly followed Ross before and after the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce’s First Friday Breakfast at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on Aug. 1.

Teron Reed, who was tracking Hutchinson for the Democrats, stayed in the back of the room mostly, filming the Republican candidate as he spoke to the crowd of about 325.

Neither tracker would speak on the record.

Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, confirmed the party has video trackers monitoring Hutchinson and Cotton.

“When Congressman Cotton and Congressman Hutchinson hold events that are open to the public, it’s not uncommon for us to send someone to politely stand at the back of the room and capture what these candidates are saying in pursuit of their political ambitions,” Burgwinkle said.

While candidates said trackers aren’t necessarily bothersome, the relationship between campaign workers and trackers sometimes becomes adversarial.

After a public event at the Gerber Fort Smith production plant this month, Montgomery attempted to follow Pryor and reporters upstairs to a conference room. Amy Schlesing, a spokesman for Pryor’s Senate office, stopped Montgomery, saying the meeting was only for credentialed media.

In the June video of Pryor on the elevator, Schlesing stands in the way and tells Montgomery, “I don’t think there’s room,” but Montgomery manages to get on the elevator anyway.

A few months earlier, while Schlesing was working on Pryor’s campaign staff, she removed Montgomery from a private event in Mountain Home. Afterward, Schlesing looked out the window and saw Montgomery sitting in her car waiting for the event to end so she could film Pryor leaving.

“I thought, you know that’s gotta be a horrible job,” said Schlesing. “So I got a piece of cake and took it out to her car. She wasn’t having a good day.”

Grant Hodges, a Republican running for Arkansas House District 96 in Benton County, served as the America Rising tracker before Montgomery, from July 2013 until early January.

Trackers are filling a void left by newspapers that have cut staff, Hodges said.

“There are so few reporters out there at all these events,” he said. “Now it’s kind of up to the trackers to get all this documented. I think it has become the norm.”

The job requires long hours and lots of driving, Hodges said. But it gave the Ozark, Mo., native a chance to see many parts of Arkansas he probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Hodges said he quit his tracking job to prepare for the House race.

“I don’t know if I would have done it a lot longer,” he said. “I don’t know what the burnout rate is for trackers, but it’s probably pretty high. It can be pretty tiring. … I don’t know if there are trackers out there who want to do it year after year.”

Hodges said he treated Pryor’s staff members with respect and they treated him in the same manner.

“They even got me dinner one night at an event,” said Hodges.(backslash)

“I may not agree with the Democratic Party and Sen. Pryor but after hearing him, I can see where he’s coming from on some of those things,” said Hodges. “I think he’s pretty genuine and believes what he’s saying.”

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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