Florida lawsuit questions Sanders' Democratic bona fides

BOBBY CAINA CALVAN
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during First in the South Dinner, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In a state where elections and litigation are intertwined, add this to Florida's ballot box saga: A pair of Floridians are asking a court to remove Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front-runner for president, from the state's March 17 primary ballot.

Although Sanders is registered as a Democrat with the Federal Election Commission, a lawsuit filed in Leon County asserts he is a political interloper and not a bona fide Democrat.

Sanders, who has spent three decades in the U.S. Capitol, first as a congressman and now as a senator representing Vermont, has steadfastly refused to formally identify as a Democrat, even if he caucuses with the party.

As he has solidified himself as the party front-runner, the Democratic establishment and some of the party faithful, including the two octogenarians behind the Florida lawsuit filed this week, have expressed doubt about whether Sanders will be loyal to the party, even if he does not end up being its standard bearer.

“Defendant Sanders is clearly an Independent, and is clearly not a Democrat, by his own definitions. His current 'day job' is as a United States Senator and he has consistently, proudly asserted his service in that role as Independent," contends the suit filed on behalf of the two registered Democrats who want Sanders off the ballot.

They say Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, should run as an Independent.

“We’re aware of the spurious complaint and it will not affect us. Bernie will be on the ballot in Florida,"' said Sanders spokesperson Kolby Lee.

Florida's ballot box has been the source of continuing legal strife, with cases currently being litigated over the right of felons to vote, early voting on college campuses and even the order in which names appear on ballots.

With Sanders now the clear front-runner to become the Democratic nominee for the White House, his rivals are looking to slow his momentum.

Fellow presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg took aim at Sanders' party bona fides.

"We have to wake up as a party," Buttigieg said at last week's debate in Nevada. “Lets put forward somebody who is actually a Democrat.”

Sanders has said he is functionally a Democrat in Congress, even if he hasn't officially joined the party.

“I am a member of the Democratic leadership in the United States Senate,” he said at a CNN town early last year.

Last spring, Sanders and other Democratic hopefuls at the time signed a pledge that they would “run and serve as a member of the Democratic Party.”

That hardly satisfies George Brown, an 80-year-old former member of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, who was one of those who is suing to get Sanders off the Florida ballot.

“In our political climate today, Democrats need to have a voice,” Brown said.

“He's eliminating my vote as a Democrat,” added the other plaintiff, Frank Bach, 82, a Korean War veteran who retired from the U.S. Air Force as an airman first class. “I'm very upset with the president we have right now.”

Last year, the state Democratic Party voted unanimously to place Sanders on the March 17 ballot.

Because Florida has a closed primary, the lawsuit contends, Sanders has no place on the Democratic ballot.

“The lawsuit is ridiculous,” said Juan Peñalosa, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Sanders, the national Democratic Party and Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

“Votes cast for the Senator are valid and must be counted,” he said.