Thursday, June 14, 2012

Political Paranoia Hits Home

It's not everyday that a high stakes Congressional campaign comes to your neighborhood, but that's exactly what happened to me on my way into work Thursday.

As I was pulling out of  the driveway Thursday afternoon, my quiet Cheshire street was filled with cars. Now that in itself isn't unusual; one of my neighbors used to pack the neighborhood with visitors when she hosted Garden Club meetings in her home.

What made Thursday's gathering so unusual was the presence of more than a dozen members of a video or film crew shooting something with Democratic Fifth District Congressional Candidate Elizabeth Esty, who also lives in Cheshire.

Mrs. Esty (shown at left) was getting the full-blown star treatment: Lighting, expensive microphones and one of those umbrellas that photographers or videographers use to make sure their subjects are properly back lit. All that was missing was a wind machine blowing her hair back with an artificial breeze.

All of this was taking place on a public sidewalk, next to a public street, in a neighborhood that never sees the unblinking glare of cameras. And for the record, Mrs. Esty knows I live on that street; she once hand delivered a press release to my mailbox.

Now, even for a jaded journalist like me, it's pretty interesting when you get a behind-the-scenes look at a campaign in action. And I figured that New Haven Register readers might share that interest, too, if for no other reason than the Fifth District Congressional Race has gotten a whole lot more intriguing since the FBI arrested the campaign finance manger of Esty's Democratic rival, House Speaker Chris Donovan.

So I dutifully grabbed my pen, reporters notebook and Flip video camera and headed down the street, hoping to put together an interesting - and totally non-controversial - story on what the campaign was doing.

Evidently, that was a big mistake on my part. Because as I walked down the street to begin videotaping the crew that was working with Esty, her campaign spokesman, Jeb Fain, approached me.

I won't bore you with a word-for-word replay of the encounter, but suffice it to say that Fain told me that the campaign doesn't care to comment on its strategy leading up to the August primary that will decide whether Esty, Dovovan or Dan Roberti represents the party in November.

Now, having been a sportswriter as a young reporter, I fully understand the idea of not wanting to tip off your opponent to what your next play is going to be.

 But from my perspective, it's not a particularly bright idea turning down free publicity, especially when it doesn't involve having to answer really delicate questions about your candidate's chief rival and any illegal activities his campaign may or may not have engaged him. And being the shy, quiet soul that I am, I told Fain that.

 Politely, of course, because after all, he's not really a bad guy. I've even run into him at the local Stop & Shop once.

But with Fain unwilling to talk about what was going on that point, I figured that I'd just shoot a little video of the candidate and her camera crew at work and put it up on the New Haven Register's web site.

Doing that would have been pretty simple, except for the fact that Fain and a female campaign operative, whose name escapes me at the moment, weren't moving out of my way. And they kept repeating that they were "on a tight schedule today" like it was some mantra from the Hare Krishna movement.

I was tempted to tell them if they were in such a hurry, then let me do what I needed to do with my video camera and I'll stay out of the crew's way. But instead, I reminded them that they were on public property and I was within my rights to use my camera because of that.

Their response? "We'd really rather you didn't."

At that point, I probably should have pressed the record button on my Flip camera and started shooting. But  in the news business. sometimes you've got to pick your spot to push things to the limit and in my judgement this wasn't one of them. So, in an effort to save face, I told them I needed to call my editors to see what they wanted to do.

 I walked out of their earshot to call my bosses and in the time it took me to do that - no more than two minutes - every member of Team Esty had packed up their equipment, gotten in their cars and gone off to find another quiet suburban street, either in Cheshire or somewhere else in the Fifth District.

 Here's hoping that they didn't pick one of the other streets in Cheshire that I know reporters from various news organizations live on. I would have been happy to have given them a tour if they'd had more time

As the primary campaign gets closer to Aug. 14th, I'll be interested to see how Esty's team deploys this video. Given what has happened with Donovan's campaign, they ought to be looking at what happened to him as a gift, something that they can use to remind voters of how much more electable Esty could be based on the fact that her political name isn't mired in scandal right now.

But if my chance encounter with them on Thursday was any indication, this campaign is running scared. They're exhibiting the kind of political paranoia that views one simple daily campaign story as something that could blow Esty's chances to advance to November general election.


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