Broward County

Florida Democratic Party reverses position, gives Wasserman Schultz challenger voter data

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz talks with the media after the meeting with Jewish community leaders at David Posnack Jewish Community Center on Sept. 3, 2015 in Davie.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz talks with the media after the meeting with Jewish community leaders at David Posnack Jewish Community Center on Sept. 3, 2015 in Davie.

A dispute over access to voter data in Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s congressional race is highlighting a divide between the Florida Democratic Party and its progressive caucus.

And it is a sign that Wasserman Schultz is facing a rare challenge for her South Florida seat where she has easily swatted away opponents in the past. As Democratic National Committee chair, she is one of the most prominent Democrats in Florida — and the rift shows that party leaders want to protect her.

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. Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and a Hollywood resident, has drawn national media attention for his uphill battle against Wasserman Schultz. He has tried to tap into discontent by some of those who question her leadership, taking money from corporate interests or policy positions including her opposition to the medical marijuana ballot initiative in 2014.

In an “open letter” sent Wednesday and provided to the Herald/Times, the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida asked Wasserman Schultz to intervene to ensure Canova has a fair shot.

By that point, Canova had already pleaded his case for more than a week on social media — and in person at a Broward County Democrats’ dinner Saturday to party chair Allison Tant.

On Thursday, the Florida Democratic Party reversed its position.

Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux told Canova Thursday that he will get the data after signing an agreement.

“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.

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 agreed — in this single instance — to give Canova access to the voter file “to avoid any appearance of favoritism,” Arceneaux 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.

Arceneaux said Tant’s conversation with Canova 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.

DNC spokesman Sean Bartlett declined to comment.

Wasserman Schultz of Weston has never faced a primary challenge since first winning her seat in 2004. So far, she has raised about $1.1 million in her race for the Broward/Miami-Dade seat. Canova recently tweeted that more than 20,000 individuals have given to his campaign, but he doesn’t have to reveal the total amount until his first report is due in April.

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.”

Smith wrote that the problem goes beyond the voter file; she references “issues arising out of the presidential preference primary.”

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.

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.

No other exceptions will be granted aside from the contest between Canova and Wasserman Schultz because of “the truly unique factors,” Arceneaux said.

Canova was unaware that the reversal only applied to his campaign.

“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 and blasted party leaders.

The caucus recently criticized President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for endorsing Patrick Murphy — over 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.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, @ByKristenMClark

Amy Sherman: @AmySherman1