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This Debate will be a Public Event*

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*Not all members of the public are allowed.

A weird moment grabbed my inadvertent attention during last week’s United for Liberty (UFL) debate between Senator Mark Begich and his GOP challenger, Dan Sullivan. In the middle of a question about genetically modified food, I noticed an older man in a suit walking briskly toward me, navigating the narrow space in between seats of the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.

He dashed past me, almost taking my camera with him, and then promptly stopped a couple seats away in front of another gentleman, who also videotaping the forum.

In a hushed, steady voice he said: “Hi. The candidates specifically requested that trackers are not to be here.”

The man behind the camera — I later learned his name was Travis Neff; he was a tracker paid by an Outside Democratic group to follow Dan Sullivan around and record his every move and word — recoiled. “Excuse me?”

“The candidates specifically requested that trackers not be here. That was part of the understanding with the candidates,” he repeated. “The candidates specifically requested that their participation in this debate that there not be trackers allowed to film.”

“I’ve been here a long time, sir,” Neff responded, noting that this confrontation was happening over an hour into the debate.

“I understand. I just, they just pointed out to me,” he repeated. The pair said a few things which I couldn’t decipher, but one final sentence uttered by the event staffer clearly ended the discussion: “So, I’m asking you politely to turn off your camera.”

He turned and continued walking down the row. A few moments later I’d see him talking to someone else a few rose back, evidently delivering the same lines. Neff looked dumbstruck.

Much of the exchange is audible on the video I recorded. I didn’t swing the camera around to capture it because, well, I was unsure of what was going on and suspecting that whatever reason was being used to justify demanding one camera be shut off could likely be used to request the same of mine.

Alaska Libertarian Party Chair Michael Chambers, who organized the debate, said that he wasn’t sure of the specifics but confirmed that both candidates had requested that trackers be barred from filming. UFL, which comprises multiple conservative groups, agreed to the terms.

Chambers acknowledged the concerns about First Amendment rights implicated in such a restriction, but noted that no clear policy pertaining to trackers has been established; their involvement in campaigns is new territory. He said that UFL tried to respect the freedom of speech, and ultimately didn’t enforce the rule. Neff turned his camera back on moments after the exchange. “I’m not going to spend my entire time, like a drone, trying to do that,” Chambers told me.

He said he wishes that he had instructed moderator Dave Cuddy to “set down the rules of engagement” at the beginning of the event, and he intends to make such disclosures ahead of time in the future, should a similar situation present itself. “In the end,” he said, “We’re Alaskans. We try to do the best we can.”

The lingering question is why the campaigns made the request in the first place.

Trackers are a weird evolution of partisan campaigning. Nathaniel Herz brilliantly summed up the job description back in June: “entry-level political operatives aligned with both parties who are paid to follow the Senate candidates around Alaska with their cameras rolling, hoping for a gaffe.”

Trackers are paid to capture every moment a candidate opens his or her mouth, operating under the assumption that sooner or later, someone will say something dumb enough to doom the campaign. It could be considered free speech entrapment. And it obviously has a deleterious effect on our politics. Politicians become more guarded; more suspicious; their comments more homogenized. Transparency and openness become a liability which campaign staff obsessively pull their hair out trying to prevent. And the public’s access to the people that represent them vanishes.

But it’s also free speech, and one should be able to video tape a candidate for public office in a public venue by the public.

Trackers are often barred from private fundraisers, like functions at people’s homes. It’s awkward having a stranger with a camera-on-a-stick in your living room. That seems like a reasonable regulation to protect the privacy of a candidate’s supporters.

The Anchorage forum was a public event. A press release advertising it stated plainly: “Come hear Democrat Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan debate on the serious issues facing this nation[.]” That presumably was taken to mean anyone and everyone interested in hearing said candidates debate. Furthermore, the very nature of debates seems antithetical to a ban on a member of the public attending. Debates are occasions for candidates to deliver the messages they want, in nice thirty second soundbites, to as many people as can be packed into a room, and as many more folks as those people can go tell what happened.

Neff sat in a row predominantly made up of media. He sat between me and another news crew. All of us were video taping. I’ve been mistaken for a tracker more than once — I don’t have a giant camera or the well dressed correspondent to stand in front of it. But the staffer trotted right by me (in fact, he almost bowled over my camera). Neff was targeted specifically.

Alaska Dispatch News uploaded the event in its entirety to Youtube. What was the concern of having a tracker record something that was readily available to anyone with an internet connection? Were the campaigns afraid a tracker might get a better angle?

Certain things are private and warranting of at least a modicum of discretion when it comes to the guest list. Other things are public, and should be treated (and protected) accordingly. The attempt to bar specific people from a public event injected a lot of question marks into an otherwise fascinating discussion and served as the second exclusionary flub in the Alaska senate race, post-primary, in as many weeks.

The Begich campaign declined to comment. Sullivan’s campaign did not respond to inquiry.