Blogging Gone Wild: Open Government or Gotcha Politics?

Jan. 29, 2007 — -- The Virginia State Legislature may be the oldest statehouse in the United States, but the minority Democratic Party is using modern video technology in its latest political tactic against the Republican majority.

Anger over Republicans killing bills without recording the vote, Democratic operatives began videotaping early morning and late-night statehouse proceedings and posting them on their assembly's blog and the Internet-based video site YouTube.

"We're providing openness and access to Virginia government," said Mark Bergman, spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party.

Bergman argues that the videos are the only way for Virginians to see these committee proceedings because the Republican majority changed the rules in 2006 to allow off-hour committee and subcommittee votes to go unrecorded.

Last week, House Republicans in Virginia defeated a Democratic measure without recording the vote that would have raised the state's minimum wage.

"They are scheduling these major votes in the wee hours of the morning or late at night, when no one from the public or press is there to see it," Bergman said. "Two or three members could effectively kill a bill at 7:30…in the morning when nobody's there and there's no record of the vote."

Bergman said Virginia Democrats have gotten good at using the Internet and video as a political tactic, and cited newly-elected Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., as a recruit of Virginia's blogging community.

The Webb campaign made major gains after a caught-on-tape campaign blunder featuring Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen calling a Webb volunteer of South Asian descent a "macaca" started making rounds on the Internet.

But Virginia Republicans said the video recordings of legislative proceedings have nothing to do with open government, instead accusing the Democrats of playing "gotcha" politics.

"It's an effort to demonize Republicans," said Shaun Kenney, communications director for the Virginia Republican Party. "It's about targeting and embarrassing Republican delegates," he said.

Kenney said the presence of video cameras inside the committee hearing is hampering political discourse and debate.

"The concern of a lot of folks, both Democrat and Republican, is that it would be one thing to record votes, but it's another thing to try to catch delegates doing something and use it politically," he said.

Kenney argued a key example is the edited video of Republican delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick.

"Take a look at that one," said Kenney. "This is about shaming or badgering Republicans."

Titled "Jeff Frederick, Hard at Work," the edited video has no audio except for the theme music to "The Pink Panther," and shows Frederick speaking to Republican staffers, then cuts to those staffers sitting in front of the camera in an apparent attempt to block the camera's view.

Captions run throughout the video, one reading: "Later, Jeff (walking back to his seat) sends us another friend," suggesting the delegate is spending the hearing plotting against the cameraman.

Kenney argued that Republicans changed the rules in 2006 to allow for unrecorded votes in order to combat "gotcha" bills sponsored by the Democrats.

"These were bad bills, designed to embarrass Republicans," he argued, saying one Democratic measure against child pornography would have criminalized people, including politicians, who may have been e-mailed child porn from an outside source, even if they immediately deleted it.

"These silly bills, these 'gotcha' bills don't have a place in civil discourse," Kenney said.

For now, however, the Democrats plan to continue taping proceedings and posting them to the Web, and the Republicans say there isn't anything they can do to stop them.