Wherever Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler goes, he is followed by a 27-year-old former rocket scientist with a video camera and a tripod.
Since April, Gansler has been tailed at news conferences and policy summits, along parade routes, at coffee shops, in restaurants and around college campuses. Every public comment and nearly every conversation afterward has been recorded by full-time political tracker Jeff Moring and sent back to the campaign headquarters of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Gansler's chief rival in the Democratic primary for governor.
"He has a job to do, and his job is to ruin us," said Gansler campaign manager Matthew "Mudcat" Arnold. "Our job is to make it as hard for him as possible. It's part and parcel of political life."
For years, candidates have dispatched trackers to follow opponents and gather political ammunition, but technology has amplified the breadth of material a tracker can accumulate — and the impact a single comment can have as footage ricochets around the Internet.
In Maryland, only Brown has deployed a tracker in the highly competitive race for governor.
"Candidates running for public office should welcome voters hearing their positions and statements. That's just transparency," said Brown's campaign manager, Justin Schall.
Gansler denounces the practice, and his campaign regularly attempts to thwart Moring.
"I don't have a tracker following him," Gansler said of Brown during a Washington radio interview. "If I was that kind of politician, you should, you know, take me out back and beat me up."
Arnold has starred in Moring's footage after slipping into the frame to make silly faces and hand gestures. Other Gansler supporters have jostled Moring, blocked his view of Gansler chatting with veterans and held a campaign poster to prevent filming as the candidate delivered his stump speech for the 12th time in a week. Gansler aides arrive early to events at private locations to keep Moring out. Moring has followed Gansler to his car and to interviews with reporters.
"He's just such a delight to have around," Gansler's running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey said, rolling her eyes to emphasize her sarcasm. "I love the feeling that someone is hanging on to my every word."
Nothing seems off limits, Gansler campaign spokesman Bob Wheelock said. "You walk to a podium, he's there. You turn a corner, he's there. You look over, and he's shooting pictures of your wife and kids," he said.
The behind-the-scenes acrimony reflects the tone of the race for the Democratic nomination. Gansler has accused Brown's campaign of dirty tricks, floating fake polls and leaking damaging stories to the news media. The Brown campaign has denied Gansler's accusations — calling them "silly" — and said Moring takes pains to be polite while filming Gansler's public statements.
Through the Brown campaign, Moring declined to comment for this article.
Nationally, political tracking with high-tech gadgets has become so commonplace in federal races that a political action committee was established to raise money exclusively for that purpose — deploying legions of young people with backpacks, Wi-Fi hotspots and video cameras in hopes of catching a gaffe that could upend an opponent. Trackers tend to be low- to midlevel campaign workers who earn about $30,000 a year, insiders say.
In tracker parlance, gotchas are "macaca moments," named for the phrase U.S. Sen. George Allen uttered in 2006 at an Indian-American tracker who had been tailing him. Footage of the racially charged remark was widely credited for Allen's political downfall, and he was still apologizing five years later.
As high-quality cameras and instant Internet connections became more widely available and politics became more negative, trackers became a staple of most congressional campaigns, said longtime national Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. Now they're seen in most gubernatorial contests, he said.
"There's no candidate — I don't care how good they are — who can go day after day without saying something, or doing something, or making a gaffe that's going to get them in trouble," Trippi said. "Every campaign has realized those moments are priceless."
American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, is increasing from 19 to 50 the number of the trackers sent into the field for the 2014 elections. Each is sent to capture Republicans on the campaign trail in congressional and gubernatorial races. And even if they don't record a gaffe, the trackers can film professional-quality video that can be used in opposition ads, said Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge.
"They're part political operative, part cinematographer," Harris said. "It does require a little bit of a tough skin. While most candidates understand this is just a part of politics, you're generally around a lot of people who know what you're doing and don't want you there."
Moring got his start as a tracker with campaign of Democrat John Delaney, who was elected to Congress from Maryland's 6th District in 2012. Moring had recently moved to Maryland from California, where he earned a bachelor's and later a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Southern California. His resume includes an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. His former political bosses say he helped work on the Rover mission to Mars.
"He's tremendously smart, extremely serious and impeccably polite," Delaney press secretary Will McDonald said.
Moring came in the door of the Delaney campaign as a volunteer interested in climate change policy. But he quickly distinguished himself as an unflappable jack-of-all-trades, McDonald said. "He probably has a very low resting heart rate," he said.
When a Gansler supporter attempted to block Moring from recording the candidate's interview with reporters, Moring asked, "Can you get your hands off me, sir?"
Campaign aides to Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur, the other Democrat in the three-way primary race, said they run into Moring at events when Mizeur and Gansler appear together.
"He is incredibly professional and courteous," campaign manager Joanna Belanger said. "It's the insider etiquette with trackers."
So far, Moring's hours of footage have not affected the contest.
Gansler received negative publicity for being at a party where teens said there was underage drinking, but a photo of him there published in The Baltimore Sun was initially posted on Instagram by one of the young party-goers. Gansler also took heat for a secretly recorded remark he made about Brown, but Brown's campaign has not been linked to the taping.
"For all the bravado of the Anthony Brown campaign, the fact that they have a tracker on Gansler suggests they still consider him a serious threat," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College.
Eberly said that of all the candidates running for governor, it makes sense to put a tracker on Gansler, who has described himself as "not a smooth-talking politician."
"Gansler frequently speaks and bypasses that internal filter that many of us have between our brains and our lips," Eberly said. "Now, in politics, you can't afford to be human because someone is there recording everything you said."
None of the Republicans running for governor use a tracker, and neither does Mizeur. Wheelock said Gansler advisers have debated whether the campaign needs to hire its own tracker, despite Gansler's distaste for the practice. "Is it a necessary evil?" Wheelock asked.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun