Tracking the Trackers
Every time Jay Inslee does something, a Republican operative is watching. Every time Rob McKenna does something, a Democratic operative is watching. Who are these guys?
The life of a politician in campaign mode is brutal. Go here, say this, go there, say that, smile, smile, smile, smile, shake hands, remember policy positions, learn new policy positions, learn talking points, learn names, attend the next rally, the next 7 a.m. breakfast, the next evening debate, the next lunchtime forum, keep your bladder in check, keep your libido in check, kiss ass, kiss babies, kiss spouse who is perfect and without whom etc., fundraise, fundraise, fundraise, and through all of it, never make a mistake, ever.
Not easy. But now consider the job of the person who has to constantly follow this politician around. Not this politician's pen- and Purell-carrying body man. Not the spokesperson who keeps the media at bay. Someone else. Someone from the opposing party, someone whose job is literally just to follow this politician everywhere and record everything that happens. The tracker.
If it takes a certain kind of fanatical drive to be a politician running for high office—and it does—then it takes a slightly different but equally fanatical drive to be the person who watches that politician, day in and day out, for an entire campaign season. It takes a guy like, say, Keith Schipper.
Schipper is 25 years old, he's a Republican, and on this day in March he's trying to talk his way into an event being put on by the Democratic candidate for governor, Jay Inslee, in an office park in Kent. Schipper's small Canon HD video camera is stashed in the pocket of his coat, ready to be pulled out in an instant. His rap about the people's right to know is cued up.
No dice. Inslee's people made Schipper the second he walked in the door. They've researched him, and they've researched their rights. This green-vehicle-manufacturing company is unquestionably private property, and Schipper's not welcome.
He gets the boot and gamely heads back to his messy green Nissan Pathfinder. No big loss. There will be a public Inslee event soon, no doubt, and Schipper will be there, by rights un-ejectable. I follow him out into the parking lot because I'm curious, and as Schipper drives off, I notice a University of Washington sticker on his back window.
Schipper studied political science and philosophy at the UW. I know what he studied because I decided to track Schipper a bit after that first encounter. Researched his history. Watched him at political events. Noted the tin of chew he keeps in the right pocket of his pants. Followed his Twitter feed, where he talks of "pounding Monsters on a long drive home from Spokane" and boasts that "sicking the police on a bunch of #UW students may very well end up being my most favorite thing I did in this election cycle."
I didn't just track him surreptitiously. I tried to get an interview with Schipper through his bosses at the state Republican Party but was ignored. I also tried to message him through Facebook. No answer. But that was fine. As Schipper knows, a core truth of tracker life is that the person you're following will show up in public eventually.
It's odd, though, the coyness of trackers. They're supposedly devoted to the idea that nothing should be hidden from the voters anymore, but they're not exactly eager to have themselves described to voters. Maybe it's because they don't want to become the story and distract from whatever campaign narrative they're trying to push. Maybe they know that tracking comes off as unseemly to a lot of people. Maybe they want to try to avoid having "Shame on you!" shouted at them at events, as happened to a Democratic tracker in Florida recently (video seemed to show her leaving the event, a memorial for Vietnam veterans, crying). Or perhaps it's just that trackers are so intimately familiar with how quickly one captured moment can come to define a person—like the moment that solidified the current obsession with tracking candidates, Republican Senate candidate George Allen's "Macaca Moment" on the campaign trail in Virginia several elections ago.
On that day in August 2006, at a campaign stop, Allen pointed at a Democratic tracker who had been following him everywhere and who happened to be Indian American. He said, "This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent, he's following us around everywhere." Video of Allen losing his cool went viral, he lost the election, and the rest is tracker history.
It's the kind of moment all trackers now hope to capture, a moment not unlike the one that a certain still-anonymous individual captured earlier this year at a private Romney fundraiser in Florida at which the candidate talked about 47 percent of Americans acting like "victims" who can't be bothered to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." And just like the person who captured that "47 percent" remark, most trackers (and their handlers) remain reluctant to take a bow in public. When I called the state Democratic Party and asked them to put me in touch with their gubernatorial tracker, Zach Wurtz—aka "Zach the Track"—no one was very excited about the idea. But I kept shaking the tree, and one day earlier this month, I got a text from Wurtz telling me that he would be at an upcoming forum featuring Inslee and the Republican candidate for governor, Rob McKenna. I made it my business to be there.
It was October 20. We sat in the back of a large auditorium at Rainier Beach High School. Sack lunches had been provided by the Communities of Color United for Progress, the forum's sponsor, and Wurtz, 29, munched on a roast beef sandwich and chips as he pulled out his Sony handheld camera and tried to balance it on the back of the empty chair in front of him, using a tiny red tripod. It didn't work. He would have to hold the camera, yet again, through yet another forum, even though he could predict what both candidates were likely to say, almost verbatim. He rolled his right wrist to stretch it out. He pulled his red Washington State University Cougars hat low. He tried to stay awake. "That's one of the greatest challenges," he told me, having decided, after some consideration, that it wasn't all that big a deal to open up. "Staying awake on the road, and staying awake at events like this. It's dark, I just ate lunch..." He trailed off, as if he was fighting sleep at that very moment. Still, Wurtz was in his element. He told me his dad works for the NSA ("That's really all he ever told us," Wurtz said when I asked if his dad was a spy), and he added that he's always preferred to sit in back-of-the-room spots like this. He feels better when he can see everything that's going on.
Up on the stage, Inslee was reciting familiar lines: "I have a 75-point plan... We're going to embrace lean management..."
In the world of trackers, Wurtz is somewhat unusual in that he runs his own company, called Sonne Messaging. Filings with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission show Sonne Messaging has been pulling in about $3,000 a month from the state Democratic Party since the election season heated up, for "research" work.
In truth, a tracker is a bit more than a researcher (and, if we're going to place the tracker on a spectrum, something less than a stalker). But if we're going to call Wurtz a researcher, then the primary subject of his "research" is McKenna.
Proudly, Wurtz tells me he's the guy who filmed one of McKenna's biggest mistakes of the campaign season. It was April, and McKenna was on his way out of a campaign event when a young woman came up to him and followed him down the sidewalk, rattling off questions about reproductive rights. "Get a job," McKenna told her. Instantly, it was up on YouTube. Instantly, people were furious.
Before that, Wurtz's other proud tracker moments involved getting booted from McKenna's 2011 campaign kickoff in Bellevue (the police, he said, "like, dragged me out of the room") and then, not long afterward, showing up at a Young Republicans gathering that McKenna was addressing at the North Bellevue Community Center. McKenna stopped his talk and tried to kick Wurtz out of that event, too, but Wurtz argued that the terms of the group's lease on the space allowed him to be there. By the time police arrived, McKenna had to leave for another event.
Another moment Wurtz recalls fondly: In 2010, in a theater in Aberdeen, he noticed that Republican Senate candidate Dino Rossi, whom he was then tracking, was trying out a new attack line just before a debate with incumbent Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Wurtz quickly got the line to Murray's people, "and she was ready for it." He remembers watching the debate, watching Murray hit the response to Rossi's new line out of the park, and fist-pumping in front of his television while shouting, "That's right!"
When he was younger, Wurtz was student- body president at Washington State University in Pullman, where he also worked as the school's mascot, Butch T. Cougar, for five years. After graduation he worked at a bar in Yakima, volunteered with the Obama 2008 campaign, and began running a public-access show in which he started playing videos he was shooting at early Tea Party rallies—people complaining about the government taking over their Medicare, things like that. Someone in the state Democratic Party was "one of three people to see it," and boom: He was a tracker.
At the Rainier Beach event, Wurtz cheered for Inslee with the energy of a fan at a Cougars football game, even though Inslee was now saying things like "I've embraced moving forward so that everybody can move forward together..."
But, as boring as Inslee's careful repetition of a few tested talking points can be for those watching him closely, it's worth noting that he has never made a mistake—not once, this entire campaign season—that became a big viral moment for his tracker, Schipper. Trackers are theoretically there to keep the candidates honest, but their main effect may be to keep them exceedingly dull. (Another effect: a sort of video arms race in which the campaigns now often film their own events—and, if possible, the trackers who attend them—so that they can fight back quickly if the opposition uses an awkward video clip out of context.)
Wurtz's fundamental mission, as he sees it, is to bring to light what McKenna says to different constituencies. "What he says to seniors versus students," Wurtz said. "What he says in room A versus room B."
He also likes to try to get inside McKenna's head. "I've been on the road with him since January 2011," Wurtz told me. "With him, when he's speaking, big grin. He hates my smile. He hates that I'm winning."
As we left the Rainier Beach event, Wurtz said to McKenna's body man and spokesperson: "Drive safe, guys." They gave him the coldest of respectful recognitions in return. We headed to Wurtz's car, a Ford Ranger truck that he spends a lot of time in as he's chasing McKenna. "I've got rules," he tells me, lest I imagine him riding the Republican's bumper. One rule is that he doesn't drive right behind McKenna. Instead, just to mess with him, he'll pull ahead—the McKenna people know his car at this point—and then deliberately turn in what seems like the wrong direction. Then, Wurtz will circle around and show up right on time at the next event. Even if this doesn't actually mess with McKenna, it keeps Wurtz entertained.
So does the current McDonald's Monopoly game season. It's a weakness for Wurtz, who likes to gamble, and the floor of his car shows this. It's littered with discarded McDonald's cups with their Monopoly cards torn off, plus discarded water bottles, a discarded Mountain Dew can, and a pretty full-looking peanut-butter jar, all mingling with cords for charging his camera and phone via the car's cigarette lighter socket. Wurtz chose a stick-shift truck deliberately because of the high risk of draining a car's battery in his line of work. He tries to park his truck pointing downward on a hill whenever possible so that he can roll it into a jump start if need be and then race off to the next event.
On October 25, I headed down to a rally at the base of the Space Needle. A bunch of Republican women were protesting the criticism McKenna has been getting for not being a serious advocate of reproductive rights. A bunch of Inslee supporters, most of them women, were counterprotesting. Wurtz was there, Cougars hat firmly on, capturing the speeches from the pro-McKenna crowd. Schipper was there, too, wearing gray slacks, black loafers, and a black rain jacket, camera at stomach level, panning back and forth across the crowd of Inslee supporters. The sky was gray, and both of them looked a little gray themselves, perhaps a bit weary from all the months of rushing to stand and watch.
Schipper told me that he couldn't talk on the record. But on his Twitter feed, with just days to go before the election, he appeared to be reflecting on the end of a long road. "When I write [a] tell-all book on campaigns," he wrote, "I'm titling the chapter on tracking: 'We're the Rodney Dangerfield of politics, we get no respect.'" He noted that he used to make fun of his dad for complaining about a sore back after driving all day for work, but now "I feel his pain."
And Schipper joked—or maybe didn't joke—that he was going to miss the guy he'd spent so much time with, a guy he'd come to think of as, if not a friend, a kind of coworker. "This is the last week Jay Inslee and I are colleagues," Schipper tweeted. "I wonder if we should plan a 'farewell' potluck."
A lot of people are ready to think about something besides the election. A lot of people, after watching Inslee and McKenna go at each other for what feels like forever, just want to move on. Schipper almost sounds that way too, in some of his tweets, but he and Wurtz are still a breed apart, with deep reserves of interest and partisan venom (not to mention paychecks) to help them get up every day and keep tracking the next rally, the next noon lunch, the next evening forum. And for every ready-to-be-done tweet, Schipper has a lot more like the one he put up on October 25:
"The only job @JayInslee's '75 Point Jobs Plan' is going to create," Schipper wrote, mocking Inslee's familiar talking points, "is @RobMcKenna's new one as #wagov."