Tracker no excuse for LePage to avoid Dems

I just pulled the blinds on my office windows. I turned off my phone. I left the sink downstairs running, to obscure any noises.

I don’t want anyone to see or hear what I’m doing.

I’m writing a column for distribution online and in one of Maine’s largest newspapers, but that doesn’t mean I want people to “know” about it.

While many people might consider the point of a newspaper column to be about being read, it’s not. If I’d known that people — even just a few — might read the thing, I’d never have agreed to write it.

I haven’t made an issue about this practice of people reading my column — and occasionally sending me nastygrams about it. But enough is enough.

In protest, I’m also canceling the meetings I had scheduled tomorrow with people who aren’t reading my column. Clearly, they are to blame for the people who are, and I cannot tolerate the invasion of my privacy and the privacy of the people I write about.

If this doesn’t make sense, it’s because it shouldn’t.

Short-tempered Gov. Paul LePage flipped out earlier this week because the Maine Democratic Party had a staff person at a public event — in front of people, nonetheless — recording the governor’s remarks that he delivered to the public.

Called a tracker, the person goes to public events — with the permission of event hosts and sometimes the governor’s staff — and records what he has to say. That’s it.

In the old days, the press used to do that. But with fewer reporters and fewer media outlets, it’s not practical for them to follow the governor of a small state around hoping he makes news.

Instead, the work falls to his political opponents, who have good reason to believe that the governor will say something outrageous, inflammatory, insulting or simply incorrect and that the audio or video could be used against him in the next election.

Given the governor’s record, they’re probably right.

On Tuesday, LePage canceled important budget meetings with new Democratic legislators because a tracker from the Democratic Party was following him around.

It was a bad decision that reflects poorly on the governor.

As the Kinks sang in 1981: “Feelin’ guilty, feelin’ scared, hidden cameras everywhere. Stop! Hold on. Stay in control … paranoia, the destroyer.”

There was a time when tracking a political candidate might have been out of bounds. But those days have long since passed. Trackers are now normal and are to be expected.

During her last re-election bid, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins had a tracker. She didn’t care much for it.

U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King this year had to deal with a Republican tracker during his campaign. It’s fair to say the tracker didn’t get invited to ride along on the bus.

And in 2010, the Republican Governors Association paid a tracker to follow LePage’s opponents, Eliot Cutler and Libby Mitchell, around, hoping for a gaffe.

As is often the case, it’s the person being tracked that finds it most distasteful.

At the time, the RGA defended the practice, while LePage’s folks took a pass on the controversy.

In a 2010 Portland Press Herald story, RGA spokesman Tim Murtaugh had this to say: “If the candidates are worried about young people with cameras, then they have bigger problems than they know. We give our trackers very clear instructions: Be passive observers and never a participant in any event; do not actively engage the candidate; do not be aggressive or overly aggressive; do not be disruptive, be polite; when you are asked who you are and who you represent, tell the truth; and if asked to leave an event, make every effort to be able to stay, but in the end don’t cause trouble.”

Those rules are the standard for trackers. Get the other guy on tape. Don’t cause a stink. Don’t make them a victim.

While Cutler played the victim card to perfection in 2010, LePage doesn’t seem to have the hang of it. It just doesn’t fit his character.

And at the time, his chief of staff and current Commissioner of Public Safety John Morris played the whole thing off, saying he knew “nothing about it.”

At the time, Cutler’s spokesman put it this way: “The tracker is being paid by the Republican Governors Association to help Paul LePage. And if Paul LePage finds the practice distasteful, like the vast majority of Maine people, all he has to do is call the RGA and say, ‘Call this off.’”

This time, it was Lepage: “If Democrats want to work together, they will publicly call for an end to this distasteful practice,” LePage said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Yes, they do. Politics is a tough business. But it’s no excuse not to try to get things done, and the budget waits for no man or temper tantrum.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at