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Chappelle-Nadal invokes Ferguson in party battle over voter list

Provided by Chappelle-Nadal's office

The Missouri Democratic Party’s voter list is once again a target of candidates who currently can’t get access to the sought-after files – this time because they’re challenging Democratic incumbents.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, is furious that so far she is blocked from the file – known as VAN – for the 1st Congressional District. She is challenging U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, in the August Democratic primary. And although Clay and his rival are African-American, Chappelle-Nadal contends that race may be an issue in the voter-file fight.

Chappelle-Nadal asserted in an interview that the state party was behaving in a manner that was “undemocratic’’ and amounted to “voter suppression.”

She also contended that many of the challengers denied access to the list so far were African Americans who, like her, were “inspired by the events in Ferguson’’ to run for office this year, even if it meant taking on incumbent Democrats.

Chappelle-Nadal registered many of her complaints over the past week on Twitter, and on the floor of the state Senate. Her cause has caught the attention of a number of national web sites.

Aid in targeting likely voters

The Missouri Democratic Party’s computer voter file, like its GOP counterpart, is sought after because candidates can use the file to target frequent voters and those who have self-identified as leaning Democratic or Republican. Missouri does not register voters by party, so the files might offer candidates the best clues of which voters are most likely to show up at primary elections, which often see low turnouts.

Chappelle-Nadal said she’s been trying to gain access to the 1st District portion of the file since late December, and has talked to several party officials. She contends that party leaders ignored her request until she recently brought up the issue to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the party’s likely nominee for governor this fall.

State Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple said in an interview that there has been "a series of ongoing conversations'' with Chappelle-Nadal.  He observed that it’s unusual for challengers to seek the file or gain access to it. He said it was up to Democratic officials in the 1st District to decide whether to allow access to Chappelle-Nadal.

The 1st District would presumably be loyal to Clay.

Incumbent officeholders often have helped assemble the file or raised money for its upkeep. As a result, some party activists privately say they fear that incumbents wouldn’t be so committed to keeping the file up to date if its contents could be used against them.

Temple noted that in 2014, he made the file available for free for all Democratic candidates who were not challenging incumbents.

And he emphasized Tuesday that Chappelle-Nadal does have access to the voter file for her legislative district, which lies within the 1st Congressional District.

Questions lack of formal policy

Chappelle-Nadal said one of her biggest beefs was that the state party didn’t appear to have a formal policy documenting that file access was denied to challengers.

Rep. Lacy Clay
Credit St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay

Temple said the matter will be presented to the state party’s executive committee when it meets later this month. Party leaders also will discuss whether to resume charging a fee for those candidates allowed access to the file.

The file has touched off internal Democratic fights before.

In 2012, Democratic candidates for St. Louis city treasurer tangled with the party for access to the city portion of the voter list. Because then-incumbent Larry Williams wasn’t seeking re-election, the state party – then chaired by Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders – opted after some debate to allow access to all candidates who were up to date on their party dues and willing to pay $2,000 for the St. Louis portion of the file.

Chappelle-Nadal has mixed feelings about a fee being charged. But she added that no party officials have mentioned money in their discussions with her.

In any case, the campaign of her primary rival -- Clay -- has yet to comment.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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