By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
In political campaigns today, such high-tech tools as digital video cameras and YouTube can be used as weapons. But so, too, can a good, old-fashioned walking stick.
After a candidate's forum at a Winchester, Va., hotel Friday, two young campaign workers for Democrat Judy Feder, who is challenging 14-term incumbent Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) in Northern Virginia, learned this the hard way.
Armed with a video camera, the Feder workers followed Wolf, his wife and a congressional staffer down the stairs and into the lobby to pepper Wolf with questions that they say he has evaded over the course of the campaign.
That's when Wolf's 83-year-old staffer whacked the videographer with a metal cane.
"Sir, please don't!" yelled the videographer, Matt Kent, 22, a field organizer for Feder's campaign, in the video, which the campaign posted on YouTube and on a Democratic blog over the weekend.
Yesterday morning, Wolf's campaign apologized for the actions of Ben Dutton, a former Winchester city council member who has worked for Wolf since 1992. But the congressman's reelection team also condemned the tactics employed by Feder's campaign, which they said was trying to goad Wolf into a hostile reaction with aggressive and incessant questioning.
"The campaign apologizes if Ben used poor judgment and hit him with his cane," said Dan Scandling, a Wolf campaign spokesman. But, he added, "the whole thing was provoked. It was a setup."
Ever since Virginia politician George Allen's political aspirations were sunk two years ago with the help of an online video, candidates have sent workers to shadow their opponents with cameras in the hopes of capturing a gaffe and plastering it across the Internet.
The tactic, called "tracking," has been criticized by politicians who have been the subject of it. Allen is widely believed to have lost his Senate race against James Webb in 2006 after he was caught on tape using an ethnic slur against a young Webb volunteer who had been tracking the then-incumbent senator.
Last year, Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) made headlines when she demanded that her Democratic opponent call off his tracker. This year, independent activists and some associated with Democratic campaigns in Virginia have engaged in the practice too.
A frequent target has been Rep. Virgil Goode (R), who is fighting a challenge from Democrat Tom Perriello on Nov. 4.
"Somebody is usually at every campaign stop," Goode said. "I think they just travel around to try to spin something their way."
Experts say the tactic is becoming more aggressive. Robert Holsworth, a political scientist from Virginia Commonwealth University, said the trackers sometimes try to incite candidates into saying or doing something embarrassing.
"It's sort of this new level of campaigning, to see how they respond to the bait," Holsworth said. "Some candidates are able to maintain equanimity or handle it with aplomb and wit. Other candidates [however] are unprepared and lash out."
Kent said he was not trying to catch Wolf in an indiscreet moment. Rather, he said, he was trying to nail him down on crucial issues, particularly health care.
The candidates sparred recently after Wolf spoke favorably during a debate about Sen. John McCain's proposal to give people a $5,000 tax credit to help them pay for medical insurance. His campaign later said that he does not endorse the GOP presidential candidate's plan, and Feder has accused him of backtracking.
Kent said he also has asked Wolf about recent comments by a McCain staffer who made a distinction between Northern Virginia and "the real Virginia," and a remark by McCain's brother Joe McCain in which he called Alexandria and Arlington County "communist country." The comment by Joe McCain, coincidentally, was publicized by a Democratic tracker.
"In the middle of my question, I get smacked or whacked or hit in the hand with a cane," Kent said. "And again, a second time in quick succession, like, whack-whack. He was trying to smack the camera out of my hand, as far as I could tell."
He said Dutton struck him again later with his hand. A second jerking of the camera later in the video could corroborate that statement, though Scandling said Dutton only hit Kent once.
The two Feder staffers approached Wolf again Saturday at an event in McLean. The plan had been for them to question him at additional events until the election, though a Feder spokeswoman said the campaign might not follow through.
Scandling said Dutton was worried for the safety of Wolf's wife, Carolyn, and reacted in a "knee-jerk" manner. The Feder staffers had been questioning them aggressively for several minutes beforehand. Dutton regretted his actions, Scandling said.
The video also shows Kent's 22-year-old colleague, Josh Goodman, apparently crowded against the wall by Gary Lofton, a Republican member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors and a Wolf supporter.
Lofton said he was not holding Goodman against his will but was trying to reason with him. The two young men, Lofton said, were raising their voices and "getting in the congressman's face," which worried him. He said he did not see anyone get struck.
"It just turned my stomach when I realized, hey, this is just activist partisan party politics at its absolute worst," Lofton said. "They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves if they have to resort to tactics like this to get elected."
Nothing justifies the response the campaign workers received, said Feder spokeswoman Marisa McNee.
"We've all seen the tape," she said. "Nothing occurs that justifies hitting someone with a cane or pinning them against a wall."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.