Editor’s note: “Political tracking,” the practice of following candidates and constantly filming their public statements, is a common practice in big races and has recently become a tactic used in smaller, local races. Here, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, who was the Democratic candidate for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District in 2016, shares her experience dealing with political operatives who tried to catch her making statements that could be used against her out of context. Dishonesty, she says, is at the heart of what’s destroying our democracy. This piece first appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader, but some comments about her opponent’s tactics were edited. Here is her full story.
By Nancy Jo Kemper
The advertising season that everyone hates has arrived. If you aren’t ready to throw a shoe at your TV by Nov. 6, you will no doubt have worn out the mute button on your remote to silence all the nasty political attack ads coming your way.
But don’t stop paying attention because those ads often tell you as much about the character of the candidates throwing stones—and their slimy tactics, such as stalking—as they do about the opponents being pelted.
Negative political advertising has been part of American politics since our earliest days as a nation. Mudslinging, ad hominem attacks, dirty tricks, gaslighting, photographing an unflattering look, and furtive or underhanded efforts to catch candidates making statements that can be used against them—or worse—that can be clipped and used out of context, are all tools of the trade.
That should not be mistaken with honestly critiquing a candidate’s positions and votes on particular policies because that kind of advertising highlights significant differences between the candidates, and to my mind, is not mudslinging or muckraking.
Last week, a well-known Lexington citizen (whom I shall leave unnamed) displayed his ugly side when he confronted a worker of the Kentucky Democratic Party on the public sidewalk in front of his home prior to a fundraising party for U.S. Rep. Andy Barr. It was an encounter that bordered on assault of the Democratic operative, an action for which I was glad to see he later apologized.
The individual who was threatened by our well-known citizen was engaged in what is euphemistically called “tracking.” Tracking, or more accurately, stalking a candidate by the opposite party’s staff of volunteers, represents a particularly repulsive political tactic. The aim is to gain photographs, video material or statements that can be used —usually out of context—against the opposing candidate. It is a particularly underhanded and morally questionable political tactic no matter which political party or candidate engages in it.
In my campaign against Barr, he sent a 17-year-old high school student with very expensive video and recording equipment to stalk me. The student, whose identity I will also protect, was told to tell me an outright lie: He said he was working on a school project in a government class.
What I found morally repugnant was the fact that the Barr campaign taught a child that lying in politics is justified; that the ends justified the dishonest means. On another occasion, he sent a recent college graduate who also lied to me, saying she was working on a paper for one of her classes. I later found her photo on Barr’s campaign page listing her as a political intern.
This corruption of youth was the most appalling behavior I witnessed in Barr. I thought that if he would stoop so low as to teach young people that lying for political expedience is acceptable, then his integrity on any other matter would be questionable.
Dishonesty and political lies are immoral and, along with dark money, are at the heart of what is destroying our democracy.
Of all the things that make me proud of my campaign as the Democratic candidate for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District in 2016, the expressions of appreciation for the way we ran the campaign in a positive manner without attack ads—especially from young voters—rank very high.
Many younger voters said to me, “You made us feel that politics could be decent again.” That was reward enough for the 80-hours a week for nearly a year that I put into that effort to unseat the incumbent. Although I lost the election, I believe I won something far more important: I kept my integrity and demonstrated that politics could be decent.
Let’s elect people who are positive, who do not attack others falsely, who do not engage in dishonest campaign and advertising methods, and who are transparent about the sources of their money.
Nancy Jo Kemper has served as an ordained minister in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ for over 50 years. After serving as executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches for 18 years, she continued ministry at New Union Christian Church until 2017, where she is Minister Emerita. She was the first female graduate of Yale Divinity School to be awarded the William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice. In 2016, the Rev. Kemper was the Democratic candidate for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District.