The Missouri Democratic Party is trying to block several Democratic candidates – who are also Ferguson movement leaders – from using a campaign tool called the Voter Activation Network (VAN).

VAN is software that allows candidates to use voter information for things like robo-calling, door-knocking and email blasts. Congressional candidate Maria Chappelle-Nadal, state representative candidate Bruce Franks and U.S. Senate hopeful Cori Bush said the Missouri Democratic Party has told them “no” when they requested access to the VAN.

All are challenging incumbents or establishment contenders in the August 2 primary.

“The sign almost says, ‘Newcomers need not apply,’” said Rev. Darryl Gray, campaign manager for Bush. “But this is the year of the newcomer and the year of change. In New Hampshire, Democrats clearly said that we need a change and party bosses cannot dictate voters’ choice.”

Bush is running against Jason Kander in the Democratic primary to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican. Bush is an ordained pastor and Ferguson Frontline organizer. When her campaign first requested access to VAN, Gray said party leaders told them “no” because Kander, currently Missouri secretary of state, was already the party’s presumptive nominee.

Gray said for two weeks the party’s Executive Director Crystal Brinkley was too busy to meet with them, but they finally got a chance to sit down with her. They gained access to the network on February 9, he said.

“No one should have to jump through hoops, especially the party we are all committed to,” Gray said.

Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple said Bush was denied access because she didn’t have her campaign finance filing established with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Once Bush did that, Temple said, she was given access.

Gray said party staff never asked for the FEC documents. Further, he said the commission does not require candidates to establish a committee until they have spent or raised $5,000, which they have not yet done. Hence, they still haven’t established the “required” federal filing, yet the party gave them access.

Bruce Franks, an activist on community-police relations, is running against incumbent state Rep. Penny Hubbard of the 78th District. At first, Franks said party staffers told him there was a fee for access. However, according to Temple, there has not been a fee since 2014. Next they told him in two separate phone calls that they don’t provide VAN access during primary elections, he said.

Temple said that VAN is used in primaries. Staff members that Temple spoke with said they have never heard from Franks, Temple said. Regardless, he said, it’s the party’s practice to prohibit challengers from using VAN when there is an incumbent.

“Everyone kind of knew, if you are running against an incumbent, there were difficulties that you are going to face,” Temple said.

Chappelle-Nadal is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay of the 1st Congressional District. Last week, she vented her outrage at being denied access to the VAN on social media.

She said that on December 21 she exchanged text messages and phone calls with party staffers regarding access to VAN. At first, she was told that it would not be a problem, but then they said that she needed to write a letter to the 1st Congressional District Committee for access to network, she said.

“I didn't think an entity appointed by the sitting congressman would grant me access to the VAN,” she told The American

She sent the letter on December 28 anyway, she said, but didn’t receive a reply.

On February 5, she said, Brinkley told her on the phone that she could not have access to VAN and her decision was based on a “practice,” not a policy. Chappelle-Nadal said she requested that decision in writing, along with the policy or practice. She said she has not received it.

Chappelle-Nadal said a volunteer called the party right before Thanksgiving to obtain access. The party granted access to the volunteer for 48 hours, she said, but they had trouble with the network. When Chappelle-Nadal called personally to fix the problem, that’s when the “rules changed,” she said. 

Party practice with VAN access is clearly inconsistent. Cara Spencer gained access to VAN during her campaign against incumbent St. Louis Alderman Craig Schmid last March. Spencer told The American that state Rep. Tracy McCreery made some phone calls to obtain access for her.

Gray said even though the Bush campaign has visited the party office several times, staff will still not acknowledge her as a candidate. On their last visit, he said, they hung a poster on the wall next Kander’s so staff will stop saying, “Cori who?” when they call.

“She is running because far too often political bosses and money determine political campaigns,” Gray said. “We can’t afford that to happen in 2016 – not with the apathy that is out there.”

Follow this reporter on Twitter @RebeccaRivas.

Under the VAN

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