WASHINGTON – A politically conservative student armed with a video camera and a Web site is trying to force a Democratic congressional candidate out of his teaching job at Central Michigan University.
Dennis Lennox, a 23-year-old junior, has posted videos on YouTube of himself questioning assistant professor Gary Peters about campaigning for office while holding a prestigious position at the university.
Some say Lennox is persistent. Others accuse him of pandering for attention.
"What I'm doing isn't about getting media attention," said Lennox, a political science major. "I'm speaking for the hundreds of students, alumni, taxpayers and even legislators who have complained because Gary Peters won't pick between Congress and campus."
In one video Lennox posted online, Peters is seen walking to his car while Lennox asks him several questions, including whether he is angry about his campaign not getting "positive press." Peters doesn't respond.
Peters said in an interview this week with The Associated Press that his university position is part-time and privately funded.
"The bottom line is that people who run for public office still need to pay the bills and still need to work," he said. He drives 130 miles from a Detroit suburb to Mount Pleasant to teach class once a week.
Peters, 48, is seeking the Democratic nomination to face Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg in Oakland County, one of the top congressional targets for Democrats nationally in 2008.
"If I was running for Congress in a seat where I had no chance of winning, I probably wouldn't have any attention put on me at all," said Peters, a former state senator who lost a close race for Michigan attorney general in 2002.
He acknowledges it would be difficult to keep his $65,000-a-year job at the university if he gets elected to Congress, but says he will worry about that if he wins. Peters holds the Griffin Endowed Chair in American Government — named for a former Republican U.S. senator and Michigan Supreme Court justice.
Lennox helped start the group Students Against Gary Peters and created a Web site for what he calls "Petersgate." He insists that he isn't targeting Peters because he's a Democrat.
But some see it differently.
"Basically, he's just an extreme partisan. Anybody that's a Democrat, he's going to try to get at," said fellow political science major Eric Schulz.
Lennox's anti-Peters campaign shows no sign of slowing down, though his tactics have generated complaints.
Both Lennox and college Dean Pamela Gates filed police complaints against each other after Lennox requested Peters' e-mails under the Freedom of Information Act. At one point in the brief video, also posted online, Gates it seen gesturing into the camera at close range, and it then goes out of focus, as if it has been struck.
Lennox is heard saying, "Don't touch my camera," suggesting that Peters either touched it or attempted to.
Lennox said he started videotaping Gates after she refused to take the request and ordered him out of her office.
"She accosted, assaulted and battered me," Lennox said. "Whether you're a liberal or conservative, we all have to live and play by the same rules. I seemed to learn something in first grade that you keep your hands to yourself."
No charges have been filed and the university is investigating the incident. But spokesman Steve Smith said that "people get very uncomfortable when a camera is shoved in their face. Employees and students have a reasonable expectation to privacy."
When the school told Lennox he couldn't record employees or students without their permission, he filed a censorship complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is reviewing it.
Peters says requiring permission before filming is reasonable when it involves students' privacy, though he stops short of saying it should apply to public figures such as himself.
"When you run for public office, you've got to have a thick skin," he said.
Peters says somewhat ruefully that he has fulfilled his job description of bringing practical politics to campus.
"Students are definitely seeing what happens when somebody runs for public office in a high-profile race, the types of things they have to confront," he said.