By Michael Sainato
Several grassroots and progressive congressional candidates are facing expensive lawsuits from the Democratic establishment, which is challenging their ballot petitions in hopes of clearing the primary field.
Anthony Clark was one of the first congressional candidates to receive the backing of Brand New Congress, an organization founded in late 2016 by former Bernie Sanders staffers aimed at replacing current members of Congress, Republican and Democrat. Clark is running as a Democrat against Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-IL), who has held the seat of Illinois’ 7th Congressional District since 1997. Davis’ campaign has tried to file several legal complaints to remove Clark and another primary opponent, Ahmed Salim.
On January 22, a judge overruled several objections filed by incumbent Rep. Davis’ surrogates, former State Senator Ricky Hendon and his staffer Cherita Logan, that alleged Clark’s signatures to get on the ballot were fraudulently obtained. This week, the board of elections will decide on whether to accept the judge’s recommendations.
The Davis campaign’s efforts to remove Clark from the ballot failed, but they did force Clark to spend vital campaign resources on legal fees. “At the end of the signature challenge it was clear, we were roughly 497 signatures over the minimum requirements,” Clark told The Real News Network. “It was his strategy to keep us off the campaign trail to have us expend a lot of our money. After that, instead of being done, he had his lawyer file a Rule 8 motion.”
That motion claimed Clark and his mother fraudulently obtained signatures to make the ballot, and targeted signatures from lower income communities where it would be more difficult to subpoena individuals to deny the claims. Clark noted, “A lot of their evidence was thrown out because it was hearsay. They tried to get notaries sign off on basically third-person accounts.”
According to Clark, his campaign spent $12,000 on legal fees and had to coordinate for people to testify on his behalf. He alleged Davis supporters engaged in intimidation tactics against his campaign throughout the process, from harassing phone calls to social media trolling. Throughout this entire process, Clark’s campaign was essentially on pause, and many local activist groups and organizations were apprehensive about formally supporting his campaign until his place on the ballot was secure.
The court hearing officer ruled in favor of objections made by the same Rep. Davis campaign surrogates against the third candidate in the race, Ahmed Salim, who will not be on the ballot as a result. “It is sad to see individuals who work for a politician take advantage of the system in order to protect their own interests,” Salim told The Real News Network in an interview. “If challengers are pushed off the ballot as a campaign tactic, the only ones who suffer are the people of this district.”
Challenging ballot signatures has been a frequent tactic used by establishment Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the 2016 election, the DCCC handpicked Mike Parrish, a former Republican and CEO of an oil company, to challenge Republican incumbent Congressman Ryan Costello in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. Leaked documents first obtained by The Hill revealed the DCCC was coordinating with Parrish’s campaign before he formally announced his candidacy.
Lindy Li, a 25 year old Princeton graduate, emerged as a surging progressive opponent against Parrish. She secured endorsements from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), but dropped out of the race after Parrish challenged Li’s signatures on her nominating petitions, because the notary who stamped the petitions made a mistake in not signing them or keeping a log. “He made technical complaints, like people not using their full first names or middle initials or not spelling out cardinal directions (eg, s street as opposed to south street),” said Li in an email to The Real News Network. Parrish lost by over 14 percentage points even though Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2016 presidential election.
In Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, Gene Scharer and Brianna Westbrook are currently facing legal challenges to try to remove their names from the ballot. Westbrook and Scharer are running to replace Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) in a special election after he resigned last year amid reports that he solicited his staffers to serve as pregnancy surrogates. Scharer was the Democratic nominee who lost to Franks in 2012, and Westbrook is running on the People’s Platform of progressive issues. The Democratic Party establishment candidate with endorsements from five Democratic congressional representatives, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, is not facing a challenge as the lawsuit was filed by her supporter, attorney Lynda Vescio.
“Our campaign feels that we have, like many others, faced legal challenges backed by personal wealth,” said Brianna Westbrook in an interview with the Real News Network. “Often we have been told this is an acceptable political tactic, but more and more we are seeing this be used as a political tactic by the wealthy on the poor. This is not democratic, this is class-based discrimination,” she added. “This is the type of tactic the Republicans pull. We are better than this.”
On January 22, the Maricopa County recorder certified Westbrook had enough signatures, but that Scharer did not, effectively removing him from the ballot for the February 27 primary. In a statement to the Real News Network, Attorney Lynda Vescio claimed, “I filed the lawsuits against two of the candidates because they had small margins and I had information that they may not have had sufficient signatures.” She noted that once Westbrook had the required amount of signatures, she dropped the lawsuit and has not pursued it further.