JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Local leaders are calling for a write-in candidate to withdraw as the race to be the next top prosecutor continues to heat up to a boiling point.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of voters claims Kenny Leigh's candidacy is "a sham" and he is only running to force the Aug. 30 primary to be limited to Republican voters. That leaves hundreds of thousands of Democratic and Independent voters unable to vote, protesters said Wednesday.
Republican State Attorney Angela Corey is running for re-election, and is facing Republican primary opposition from two former employees, Wesley White and Melissa Nelson.
Leigh, a local attorney, filed to run as a write-in candidate, closing that primary to only registered Republicans, which some said gives Corey, the incumbent, an advantage.
Corey's campaign manager admits to helping Leigh -- an outspoken supporter and donor to Corey's campaign -- file papers with state election officials.
Leigh, an attorney himself, said it was perfectly legal and told the court the lawsuit has no merit.
But local lawmakers and activists are crying foul, saying it isn't fair to have a closed primary, which is why they're fighting it in court.
“Who can be considered opposition when they contribute to your campaign?” Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson said.
Gibson and former state Sen. Tony Hill joined Elder Lee Harris, the state director of the African-American Ministers Leadership Council; Isaiah Rumlin, the president of the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP; and Moné Holder, regional director of the New Florida Majority, at a news conference Wednesday denouncing a delay in the case that stemmed from the judge assigned to it recusing himself.
Judge James Daniel stepped down Monday, after Leigh accused him of being biased. Judge Richard Townsend from Clay County was appointed to replace him.
The protesters asserted that Daniel’s recusal means the window to reopen the primary by the June 24 qualifying deadline, which sets the stage for the printing of ballots, is closing rapidly.
“We are running against a time clock,” Gibson said. “And you know we wouldn't have to do this at all if the sham candidate would simply withdraw. And if he doesn't want to withdraw on his own, then certainly Ms. Corey on the ethics note should have him withdrawn.”
Those protesting Wednesday said a good number of the voters left out if the primary is closed will be minorities.
“Elections should be free, fair and accessible regardless of race or party affiliation,” Holder said.
But the demonstrators said that's not the case when it comes to the race for state attorney.
“It is a very big deal when over 400,000 people's rights are being disenfranchised,” Rumlin said.
Reid Oxley, a voter who's not afraid to speak out, said he thinks if he can't vote in the election his rights are violated.
“We as citizens should not be cut out of a vote with some type of a law like this,” Oxley said.
Nearly two weeks ago, Daniel heard arguments and was set to rule on Leigh's motion to dismiss in the now closed primary.
But Sunday, Leigh’s attorney filed a motion asking Daniel to recuse himself. The motion was filed just days after a teleconference Friday in which Daniel was quoted as telling Leigh, "I do not care about your rights.”
The judge then attempted to clarify his comments, saying, “I meant that your rights are not relevant as to this issue.”
Leigh’s lawyer said the comment showed that Daniel was biased against him, and was unable to give Leigh a fair trial.
There will be a hearing on the lawsuit at 9:30 a.m. Monday before newly appointed Judge Townsend.
Corey's campaign manager and Leigh have not returned requests for comment
Candidate Wes White said Wednesday that "it's time for Ms. Corey to give Mr. Leigh permission to pull out of this race and to stop this silliness."
Candidate Melissa Nelson has not responded to a request for comment.