Toward a more genteel governor's race [Editorial]

Some of the candidates for governor are taking offense at Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown's use of a "tracker" to videotape what one of his rivals, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, says on the campaign trail. Where have they been? This tactic, while a bit irritating and obnoxious, is standard procedure in high-profile campaigns and has been for years. Both Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. employed trackers during the last two gubernatorial campaigns, and nobody said a peep about it.

Granted, the Brown campaign's sanctimonious defense of the practice is particularly rich. Campaign manager Justin Schall pitched it to The Sun's Erin Cox as if the Brown campaign is doing Mr. Gansler a favor. Mr. Schall said the attorney general should "welcome voters hearing [his] positions and statements" — but that is clearly not the intent. Nonetheless, Mr. Gansler should be heartened that the Brown campaign evidently does not think his previous missteps — none of which were cataloged by the tracker — are sufficient to sink his candidacy.


Indeed, what's so fascinating about the tracker phenomenon in contemporary politics is how low-yield an activity it is. Trackers record hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of hours of footage during the course of a campaign in which a candidate says virtually the same thing in the same way over and over again. Somebody back at campaign headquarters has to monitor and archive it all. It's mind-numbing.

And, increasingly, it's archaic. In an age when virtually everyone is carrying a video camera at all times, politicians need to assume that they're being recorded whether there's a professional tracker with a tripod or not. In fact, the most consequential recordings of candidates in recent elections — Barack Obama's 2008 comment about "bitter" voters clinging to their guns and Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent speech — were not made by professional trackers from opposing campaigns. Those statements were made in settings where trackers could not have gained entree but instead were recorded by audience members with motivations of their own.


Similarly, it wasn't a professional tracker who recorded Mr. Gansler's remarks in a meeting with campaign volunteers about Mr. Brown running a campaign based on a racial appeal. It wasn't a tracker who photographed him at a wild teen party. And no tracker was necessary to catch him calling a state trooper who had filed reports about his aggressive and potentially dangerous backseat driving a "henchman" for Mr. Brown and Gov. Martin O'Malley. He said that one on TV.

The biggest risk in having a tracker around seems not to be that a candidate will slip up and say something stupid but that he or she will overreact to the presence of the tracker himself. The most famous such case was Virginia Senate candidate George Allen's use of a racial slur when talking about the fact that there was a tracker in the crowd.

That said, if the candidates in this election want to establish a more genteel standard for Maryland politics than the increasingly sleazy brand practiced nationally, we're all for it. We just think there are more effective targets to go after than a campaign tracker. In fact, if the Brown campaign spent some time reviewing the footage of Mr. Gansler, it might find a pretty good idea.

Last week, Mr. Gansler proposed a ban on third-party spending in the gubernatorial race, a standard that would prohibit ads from political action committees, unions and other interest groups. Modeled after an agreement between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Sen. Scott Brown in last year's Massachusetts Senate race, it would require candidates to make donations to a charities of their opponents' choice any time an outside group sponsored an ad on their behalf.

The idea has gone nowhere so far — the Gansler campaign sends out periodic press releases noting this fact — and the other campaigns have greeted it with cynicism. It is certainly true that the pledge might work to Mr. Gansler's advantage against Mr. Brown. The lieutenant governor has racked up a bevy of endorsements from the kinds of groups who might finance such ads, and at least as of the last reporting deadline, Mr. Gansler had more cash in his campaign account. It's also true that it would likely have been more effective if Mr. Gansler had sought to negotiate such a deal quietly rather than issuing it as a challenge through the press.

But the other candidates either believe in limiting outside money or they don't. Everything else is just an excuse.

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