Exposing a policy that he says hamstrings not only his own upstart campaign but the Democratic Party apparatus nationwide, Florida congressional hopeful Tim Canova is crying foul on the state Democratic Party for denying him access to a critical voter file database and software that could help him in his bid against incumbent Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Canova, a professor at Nova Southeastern University and former attorney, announced his campaign to unseat the six-term congresswoman and chair of the Democratic National Committee in January. He requested access to the database, known as VAN, earlier this month.
According to a letter seen by Common Dreams and being delivered Monday to state Democratic Party chair Allison Tant, Canova was told by another party official "that, as a matter of 'policy,' the Florida Democratic Party will not allow me access to our party's database and software because I am running against an incumbent Democrat."
A committee spokesperson, Max Steele, confirmed as much to the Broward Palm Beach New Times, stating via email that the Florida Democratic Party does not offer data access "to candidates challenging incumbent members of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation. This policy has been applied uniformly across the board since 2010. We stand with our incumbent members of Congress and we’re proud of the job they do representing the people of Florida. The Voter File is proprietary software created and owned by the Democratic National Committee that is maintained and operated by the Florida Democratic Party here in state."
Canova's letter, a formal request for access to the database, concludes: "If the Florida Democratic Party continues to deny my request, please promptly provide us with a copy of the exact provision in the state party’s by-laws or rules upon which the denial is based, and all other provisions and agreements relating to this issue."
Canova told Common Dreams by phone Monday that the campaign is "considering litigation" depending on Tant's response. Operating without the database is basically like "running blind," he says.
In a blog post last week, Canova elaborated:
This is unfair and undemocratic. My opponent already has untold advantages against an insurgent progressive campaign like ours. We are refusing to take corporate money, while she has taken millions of dollars from Wall Street bankers, payday lenders, private prison companies, and other corporate special interests. How much more of an advantage does Wasserman Schultz need to silence the voices of grassroots voters in our district?
"This is nothing less than an entrenched establishment throwing up roadblocks against our political revolution," he wrote.
That's a charge akin to one voters heard in December, when Wasserman Schultz suspended Bernie Sanders' campaign's access to the 50-state version of the database. "We are taking on the establishment and I'm sure there are people within the Democratic establishment who are not happy about the overwhelming success that Bernie Sanders is having all across this country," Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver said at the time.
Canova sat on one of Sanders' Wall Street reform advisory committees and has adopted a similar campaign platform focused on reducing inequality, reining in corporate influence, Medicare for All, and tuition-free higher education.
And he claims that, like Sanders, he is feeling the heat because he poses a threat to the Democratic establishment, one which embraces a "corporatist agenda rather than a progressive agenda."
The Florida Democratic Party should be "inviting contested elections, not deterring" them, he said. Not doing so, he added, does a disservice to Democratic candidates who aren't forced to defend their ideas and in turn, suffer in the general election.
And Canova isn't the only one suffering from the party's "fixation on protecting incumbents," he says—others from the party's "progressive wing" are being "locked out," too.
Writing in February, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill media professor Daniel Kriess said state party VAN-access policy "with respect to challengers to incumbents in primaries varies."
For those that do limit or block access, the rationale "is that there needs to be an incentive for incumbents to continue to use the party’s voter data, and ultimately share their voter identification work back with other candidates, or they will view their electoral work across cycles simply as being used against them," he explained. "What this in effect means is that, in some states, challengers to incumbents cannot access the party’s extensive voter file and the competitive advantages it might entail."
Indeed, news outlets in Missouri reported last month on the fight over VAN access in that state, where "several Democratic candidates—who are also Ferguson movement leaders," were blocked from the files by the state party.
As one of the candidate's campaign managers put it, "The sign almost says, 'Newcomers need not apply.'"