MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The cameraman behind the video that led Republican state Senate President Mike Ellis to announce that he would not seek re-election has a message for politicians across the country: You could be next.
In the wake of Ellis’ announcement, which means the end of a 44-year career in the Wisconsin Legislature, videographer Christian Hartsock said politicians at all levels should prepare to be videotaped, photographed and recorded any time they’re in public. But some critics say the tactics will chill free speech and could prevent more people from getting involved in local elections.
“We want to create a climate where if you are going to represent a constituency, you’d better be looking over your shoulder,” Hartsock said.
The video was released by Project Veritas, a national organization led by conservative activist James O’Keefe. He is known for his hidden-camera videos targeting the community organizing group ACORN, Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio.
Hartsock, 27, posed as a constituent and approached and recorded Ellis, of Neenah, at a hotel bar. Ellis later talked about setting up a super PAC, a violation of campaign laws.
After the video’s release, Ellis said he did not pursue the idea after realizing it was illegal.
Ellis also said last week that the decision not to run had been coming for a while, but the video’s release put him over the top.
“It was the tipping point,” he said.
Hartsock in an interview defended the methods used and pointed out that Ellis offered the comments unprovoked. He also said Ellis, who has long championed stronger election laws, was fair game.
Michael Wagner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Wisconsin who researches media and democracy. He said the impact of such videos might be fewer people willing to run for public office, more guarded speech by politicians or more partisan politics.
“If the parties start to impose rigid orthodoxy requirements,” Wagner said, “…you could imagine politicians not even trusting private conversations with someone of their own party.”
Some super PACs and campaigns use trackers to follow politicians and take video that is later used by opponents in elections.
Former U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, was videotaped in 2006 using a word to describe an Indian American tracker that some people considered a racial slur. Allen said he made the word up. He lost his re-election bid.
More famously, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffered a setback when he was recorded at a fundraiser saying 47 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes and were dependent on the government, and would thus vote for President Barack Obama.
Project Veritas’ new release shows that such disclosures could impact politicians at any level, Wagner said.
Ellis said last week that he didn’t want to submit himself or his wife to such crushing scrutiny.
“It’s an invasion of privacy,” Ellis said. “This is the norm now. I’m not structured to accept this is the norm, and you have to be on your toes. But it’s part of the game now. It’s just reality.”
Gov. Scott Walker, speaking with reporters after a bill signing the morning of the Ellis announcement, said he’s come to grips with the publicity. Walker was recorded in 2011 during a phone conversation with a blogger who had posed as wealthy businessman and Republican donor David Koch. The Wisconsin Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Board saying Walker had violated campaign finance law during the conversation. The complaint was dismissed.
“I just assume anywhere I go people are going to be videotaping,” Walker said Friday. “To me, I don’t say anything in private I wouldn’t say in front of all of you publicly.”
Hartsock denied assertions that Project Veritas was tipped off by conservatives who wanted to push the moderate Ellis out of office.
“That’s just the way things are these days,” Hartsock said. “It’s just unfortunate that it’s come to that, but we have to keep our government in check.”
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