Progressives call out Florida Democratic Party on behalf of Wasserman Schultz's challenger
A dispute over access to voter data in a South Florida congressional race is highlighting a divide between the Florida Democratic Party and its progressive caucus.
For the second time this month, leaders of the progressive caucus are openly criticizing their party leaders, this time on behalf of Debbie Wasserman Schultz's primary opponent.
But the caucus' complaints were immediately rendered moot, though, because -- unbeknownst to them and independent of their grievances -- Florida Democratic Party leaders already agreed to make a special exception that addresses critics' concerns.
The controversy stems from a decision by party leaders earlier this month to deny Wasserman Schultz's challenger, Democrat Tim Canova, access to its voter database.
In an "open letter" sent Wednesday and provided to the Herald/Times, the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida asked Wasserman Schultz -- a Weston congresswoman and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee -- to intervene to ensure her challenger has a fair shot in the primary race.
Party voter files are a treasure trove of data and information that campaigns collect, curate and share between their state and national political parties, and they're especially valuable to political newcomers -- if they can get access to them.
It's been the policy of the Florida Democratic Party for the past six years to withhold access to candidates challenging incumbent Democratic members of Congress.
But the party has changed its mind this week -- in this single instance -- and will now give Canova access to the voter file "to avoid any appearance of favoritism," Scott Arceneaux, the state party's executive director, told the Herald/Times on Thursday.
"This is a truly unique set of circumstances where we have an incumbent member of our delegation who's also our DNC chair," Arceneaux said.
Canova, a Hollywood resident and law professor at Nova Southeastern University, is challenging Wasserman Schultz in the August Democratic primary, a rarity for a high-profile congressional incumbent -- and party leader -- to face.
Canova blogged on March 14 about the Florida Democratic Party's initial decision to deny him the voter file, calling it "unfair and undemocratic." He solicited campaign donations off the experience.
Arceneaux said Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant spoke with Canova at a Broward County dinner last weekend, which ultimately led to the party's reversed decision.
He said no one at the DNC or within the state party's progressive caucus was involved in those discussions.
Canova told the Miami Herald that he heard around noon Thursday that he will get access to the voter file. He expects to get it in a few days after he signs an agreement.
“We got a call from the Florida Democratic Party from Scott Arceneaux, the executive director, informing us the party changed its position and was agreeing to provide access on usual terms and conditions,” Canova said.
Arceneaux didn’t say specifically why the party had changed its position, Canova said, except that he said that it creates an unusual set of circumstances to have the DNC chair running for re-election to Congress. Canova described their conversation as “amicable.”
“I can only imagine the Florida Democratic Party was hearing from a lot of our supporters and ... I imagine they were hearing some heat about it,” Canova said.
Arceneaux said the progressive caucus didn't air its grievances with the state party "privately or publicly" at any time, before firing off its letter to Wasserman Schultz and the DNC.
He said he wasn't aware of the letter until the Herald/Times asked for party leaders' response to it Thursday morning.
In the letter to Wasserman Schultz, caucus chairwoman Susan Smith said Canova came to them with concerns that he wasn't being treated fairly by the state party. The progressive caucus is an official subsection of the Florida Democratic Party.
Smith warned party leaders: "When the official organs of the Democratic Party give the appearance of preventing free and open primary contests, it sends a dangerously discouraging message to grassroots Democrats, on whom the party depends for volunteer support, and to qualified Democrats who might consider running for office."
"It benefits the party to expand the Democratic talent pool in Florida, by not excluding or disadvantaging qualified candidates," she added, telling Wasserman Schultz: "Assuming you do prevail over Mr. Canova in this primary, I am sure that you would not want that victory tainted by this misguided attempt by the Florida Democratic Party to put their thumb on the scale of the democratic process on your behalf."
Smith wrote that the problem goes beyond the voter file; she references "issues arising out of the presidential preference primary" and "accusations" the Democratic Party faced "of being undemocratic because of the so-called super delegates."
"I’m sure you will agree, additional negative attention, which might reinforce that theme, should be avoided if possible," Smith wrote.
Wasserman Schultz has found herself at the center of controversy in the presidential primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, when earlier this year Sanders supporters accused her of using her power as head of the DNC to favor Clinton. A similar scandal over Sanders' access to the DNC voter file temporarily made headlines late last year.
Sean Bartlett, a DNC spokesman, had no comment.
The voter file is housed and maintained by the DNC, but the Florida Democratic Party manages the database for the state and controls Florida candidates' access to it.
Arceneaux said most candidates can get it, but the state party has had a policy since 2010 to not give it to primary opponents challenging incumbent Democrats representing Florida in Congress.
"We do support all of our incumbent members of congress for re-election. We think they do a great job and we want to help them get elected," he said.
He said that policy will stand in every other congressional race. No other exceptions will be granted aside from the contest between Canova and Wasserman Schultz because of "the truly unique factors," Arceneaux said.
When the Herald asked Canova if he thinks it is acceptable that the reversal was only for his campaign and not for all primary challengers, Canova said he was unaware of that and hadn’t asked Arceneaux about whether the reversal was just for himself.
“I hate to be critical at a moment when I am thankful, but I think that is bad policy,” Canova said. “I don’t think state parties should be putting their fingers on the scales to favor an incumbent. There has to be some accountability, and that should be a primary election in which voters decide.”
While Smith said the state progressive caucus hasn't endorsed in the South Florida congressional race, this is the second time this month that the group has sided with progressive candidates in high-profile races and blasted its own party leaders in the process.
The caucus recently criticized President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for endorsing Patrick Murphy (over progressive Alan Grayson) in Florida's U.S. Senate race.
Arceneaux said the caucus' open criticism of its party leaders "doesn't have any effect on us."
"This particular caucus supports candidates it supports and they do so by either attacking the president or the national party or us," he said. "It's unfortunate."
Miami Herald reporter Amy Sherman contributed to this story.