Political 'trackers' nothing new in Utah politics

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 24 2011 7:07 p.m. MDT

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert holds a press conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City in July 2010.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The GOP's use of a political "tracker" to monitor state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis' southern Utah tour this week is far from a first.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Utah have been sending undercover operatives to quietly record the public appearances of their political opposition for years.

State Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said Wednesday he's already deployed several people to serve as trackers since taking office at the beginning of the year.

"I won't get into the specifics because that gets into our strategy," Wright said, acknowledging only that Dabakis is being followed by a tracker on his four-day "Red Rocks Tour" that ends Thursday.

"It isn't the first time," Wright said. "It won't be the last."

Dabakis said even though this was his first encounter with a tracker, they've been used by his party before — and will be again.

"Sure, we do that," the newly elected Democratic leader said. "It's part of the game of politics."

Dabakis said he realized a tracker was trailing him when "this one guy kept showing up at everything and he had a video camera. … He didn't lie. He couldn't have been nicer."

Both Wright and Dabakis said the purpose of recording comments made by opposing politicians is to know exactly what they're saying publicly, not to exploit embarrassing gaffs.

Although technology now permits the information gathered to be disseminated faster than ever, Wright said he's careful about what, if anything, is shared with the public.

"Even if Jim said something that looked bad taken out of context, I would not use that," Wright said. "I think the public deserves better. Frankly, I think they're sick and tired of those moments."

Dabakis said the GOP's interest in his public comments is a result of a radio interview he did recently with some party leaders who expressed controversial viewpoints.

"I understand this, and I have no hard feelings about the Republicans sending someone around," he said. "Anytime they want my schedule, they can have it."

In the 2010 special gubernatorial election, both GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and his unsuccessful Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, utilized trackers.

Corroon's campaign manager in that race, Donald Dunn, said their trackers were told to not ask questions, to avoid any confrontation with Herbert or his campaign and to identify themselves if asked.

While the volunteers never came up with any "gotcha" statements from the Herbert camp, Dunn said they were key to gathering information.

So much so, that he said the campaign usually sent several trackers to a Herbert event, in case some were spotted and asked to leave.

Herbert's 2010 campaign manager, Joe Demma, said the number of Corroon trackers showing up at events "started off as annoying and it became humorous."

The governor also used volunteers as trackers.

"To be honest, I didn't have the resources to pay someone to just follow Peter around all the time," Demma said.

In the end, he said, little came from the trackers' efforts.

While trackers are expected to show up in high-profile political campaigns, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the public is largely unaware they exist.

But, he said, their power became clear after an incident in 2006, when former U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., referred to an Indian-American tracker for his Democratic opponent  as "macaca."

Captured on camera, Allen's use of the derogatory racial term was said to have cost him not only his re-election, but also a shot at the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.

The purpose of tracking, Burbank said, is to "capture that one particular gaff" made on the campaign trail so voters can see it for themselves. "There's nothing, in a way, more powerful."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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