Who are these folks, and why should you care?

The life of a Democratic Party superdelegate is not always so super. It can lead to twitchy nerves and sleepless nights, Minnesotans are finding.

But it also can be pretty heady, particularly if you’re uncommitted among the 796 superdelegates, made up of Democratic officeholders and party officials across the nation.

Suddenly, an uncommitted superdelegate becomes the superfriend of hundreds of people who want to chat about presidential politics. Overnight, a superdelegate becomes the sort of person getting phone calls from former presidents and Hollywood stars.

One Minnesota uncommitted superdelegate even had a heart-to-heart chat with Hillary Rodham Clinton about what a headache husbands can be.

Obama has current edge among state’s superdelegates
As it stands now in Minnesota, Barack Obama is the leader among the state’s 14 superdelegates chosen thus far, with six supporters. Two more superdelegates will be selected at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party state convention in June.

U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Jim Oberstar and Tim Walz all have announced their support for Obama, as have Democratic National Committee members Ken Foxworth and Mee Moua, a state senator from St. Paul.

There are five uncommitted superdelegates: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL Party chairman Brian Melendez, party vice chair Donna Cassutt and DNC member Nancy Larson.

Three superdelegates are supporting Hillary Clinton: former Vice President Walter Mondale, and DNC members Rick Stafford and Jackie Stevenson. At the state convention, a slate of 72 regular delegates also will be chosen for the national convention. They’ll be picked in proportion to the outcome of the chaotic Feb. 5 caucuses. That split will give 48 delegates to Obama and 24 to Clinton when the convention convenes in Denver in August.

But it’s the superdelegates who are in play, because they are obligated to nothing, save their own consciences. Uncommitted superdelegates are especially coveted targets of both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, particularly if the race for delegates remains tight through the rest of the state contests. (You can see the latest breakdown of superdelegates here.)

Celebrity phone calls, emails hound Larson
Nancy Larson, a small-town advocate by vocation, has turned little Dassel, Minn., into a national political hot spot by virtue of being uncommitted. She’s appeared on CNN. She is sought out by journalists and pols.

Earlier this month, Larson picked up her ringing phone. It was Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, calling.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, Madeleine Albright is calling me,”’ said Larson, who probably is best known as Sen. John Marty’s running mate in his failed bid to wrest the governorship from Arne Carlson in 1994.

Albright wanted to let Larson know what a fine president Clinton would be. She gave Larson her cell phone number, in case she had any questions.

A few days later, Chelsea Clinton called.

“What a charming young lady,” Larson said. “She just talked to me about why her mom would be a great president.”

Then, it was Bill Clinton’s turn. 

“I picked up the phone, and this woman says, ‘Just a moment, the president is on the line,’ ” said Larson. “This guy’s got charisma and sex appeal, but I was not too thrilled with him because of the trouble he caused in South Carolina. I didn’t tell him that, but I did say to him that I hoped all the rancor in the campaign would end.”

And then, the candidate herself called. The two had a nice conversation, Larson said.

“I told her that our husbands were kind of alike,” Larson said. “I told her that when I was running for statewide office, I finally had to tell my husband, Merrill, to just stay home because every time he came out with me, he just caused trouble. She said, ‘Thank you for understanding.’ ”

How did the Obama camp respond in trying to counter a secretary of state and three Clintons?

“Dick Cohen stopped by to see me,” she said.

Hmmm. Dick Cohen. He’s a fine DFL state senator from St. Paul. But, well, not quite in the Clinton-Albright league.

“I told him about the calls from the Clintons,” Larson said. “He laughed and said, ‘Well, I can have George Clooney call you.’ I said, ‘No, that’s OK. That’s not necessary.’ Now all my friends are mad at me. ‘You turned down a chance to get a phone call from George Clooney!?’ ”

Larson says the approaches of the two candidates have almost mirrored their national campaigns. The Clintons come on hard, with old-line power. Obama counters with grass-roots.

“I’ve received hundreds of emails from Obama supporters,” she said. “They are very heartfelt about the way they feel about their candidate. It’s very grass-roots.”

What will she do?

Mostly, she fervently hopes she will have to do nothing; that the race will be decided by the voters in the remaining primaries. Meantime, she said, she will wait to make a decision.

“The way I look at it, those of us who are uncommitted have to stay and watch it play out,” she said. “I don’t think we should be in a position to ‘overtime’ what the electorate seems to want.”

Stevenson annoyed at efforts to have her abandon Clinton
Superdelegate Jackie Stevenson sees things differently. Stevenson has been heavily involved in DFL politics since the early 1950s, when she licked envelopes for a young congressman, Eugene McCarthy. She was – and is – a leading feminist in the state. She is an unapologetic Clinton supporter. She is upset by some of the emails she has received from Obama supporters.

“I get emails telling me that it’s incumbent on me to switch from Hillary to Obama because of how well he did in the caucuses,” she said. “I’m trying to calm down from those, but it really bothers me. I want to tell those people that they should contact me after John Kerry and Ted Kennedy switch from Obama to Hillary in Massachusetts.” (Clinton easily won the Massachusetts primary, despite Obama’s support from Kennedy and Kerry.)

Stevenson isn’t as troubled by the superdelegate concept as Larson is. After all, the nominee represents the Democratic Party. Why shouldn’t those who have invested the most in the party have some say in who represents it?  Besides, Stevenson notes, Clinton deserves at least the same proportion of support among Minnesota’s superdelegates as she received on caucus night.

“As long as she’s a candidate, she has my support,” said Stevenson. “I’ve got these people (Obama supporters) sending me veiled threats. They’re saying I won’t get re-elected to the DNC (at the state convention) if I don’t support Obama. Well, I don’t even know if I’m going to run for re-election.”

The battle about whether insiders have too much power is an old one.  Party rules have changed over time in reaction to election outcomes and public attitudes. Minnesotans have always seemed to be in the thick of the various reformations.

Party keeps tweaking rules to balance insider power
In 1968, Hubert Humphrey came out of the Chicago convention as the bruised winner of the presidential nomination thanks in part to the support of party bosses who had the clout to deliver whole state delegations. But there was so much hostility among Democrats about the convention that party leaders decided it was time to diminish the muscle of the old-time bosses.

A reform movement, led by George McGovern, changed the rules to open the nomination process to the great unwashed. McGovern turned those rule changes into a nomination for himself in 1972. But the thumping he took led the insiders to think that the outsiders had too much say. Some “un-reforming” needed to be done.

The term “superdelegate” became part of the party vocabulary by 1980. By 1984, Mondale won the Democratic nomination, in part because of strong superdelegate support. In fact, Gary Hart, who competed with Mondale for the nomination, has re-written history to the point that he claims Mondale won  because of superdelegates.

“Mr. Hart seems to forget that the superdelegates had nothing to do with his zipper problem,” said Stafford, a longtime party activist who has watched the rise and fall of insider power over the years.

The current system, in which roughly 20 percent of the strength at the convention will be held by superdelegates, came from reform efforts following Mondale’s loss. These rules, written in 1986 by the Democratic National Committee, were opposed by Minnesota’s three DNC members, Stafford, Sue Rockne and Paul Wellstone.

“We thought they were too elitist,” said Stafford of the thinking of the Minnesotans at the time. “We didn’t want any superdelegates.”

Superdelegate Stafford wants the position eliminated
Stafford still would like to see superdelegates eliminated from future conventions. But until the rules are changed, he will stand by his candidate, Clinton, who he still thinks will win the nomination before superdelegates ever get to vote.

“People are going to be calling her the Comeback Kid,” Stafford said, confidently. There was a long pause before he added this: “I’ve been known to be wrong before.”

It should be noted that Republicans, too, have special delegates — though not referred to as “super” — seated at their national convention.  In Minnesota, three of the 41 spots on the national convention roster will automatically be filled by the members of the Republican National Committee, which includes party chairman Ron Carey, Brian  Sullivan and Evie Axdahl. The remainder of the delegates will be selected at either congressional conventions or at the state convention. Though Minnesota Republicans heavily favored Mitt Romney at their caucuses, the straw poll had no binding impact on the makeup of the convention delegation.

But it’s the Democrats who may be headed to a brokered convention and, therefore, it’s the Democrats’ system that is under a microscope. It’s not a position most superdelegates ever thought they’d be in. After all, there hasn’t been a brokered Democratic convention since 1952.

“Being a superdelegate is not the job I ran for,” said Melendez, the DFL party chair. “From my perspective, I’d rather not have superdelegates at all — or at least a lot fewer of them.  I remain hopeful that this gets settled by the voters.”

If it doesn’t?

“I have people in both camps trying to convince me to announce who I support,” Melendez said. “But as long as there are two horses in the race, there is no benefit for me, or the party, to publicly support one or the other. What good does it do for the party for me to offend one camp or the other?”

Melendez does say he knows exactly what he will do if the superdelegates actually end up being the key players.

“It’s purely a process for me,” Melendez said. “But if I told you the process, you’d know who I’ll support. The last thing I want to create is a minor civil war within the party.”

It may not be so minor.

Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 02/15/2008 - 12:51 pm.

    This exemplifies why the caucus system needs to be tossed in favor of a primary that is “winner take all.” I’m tired of the party “insiders” brokering their own deals.

  2. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 02/15/2008 - 12:57 pm.

    Thanks for providing important information I’ve wanted to know and haven’t gotten around to finding. It’s another step in the democratic process of electing leadership to transform America. I hope the undecided agree with my choice of nominee but regardless I trust their years of investment in the electoral process will lead to a well reasoned decision and that will actively support the winning candidate. I can only wish more Americans would take elections as seriously as these folks do.

  3. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 02/15/2008 - 03:29 pm.

    I am concerned that if Superdelegates are forced into the position of having to put their fingers on the scales, tipping the balance in one way or another, that it could have two separate and equally damaging results.

    First it could result in significant problems for these Superdelegates with their official constituencies and volunteers. Second, it could be 1968 again, except this time the riot would be inside the convention. These bad results could ripple far beyond the convention or even the general election.

    Roughly one half of the Superdelegates for the Democratic Convention have that automatic status by way of their current or former participation with the DNC. The rest are current or former public officials.

    Personally I advocate adopting a Blue Kryponite Amendment that would remove the authority of Superdelegates voting in the Presidential endorsement process (both voting rights and necessary thresholds would be amended). Such an amendment would still allow the Superdelegates to continue to attend and vote on matters relating solely to the functioning of the national party. Of course the individuals involved could still run for ordinary delegate status just like us non-super potential delegates.

    All these well-seasoned luminaries could still exert influence on the race through their endorsements and campaigning for their chosen candidate, but this influence would be only persuasive, not conclusive.

    I think the discussion of this part of our endorsement process is good. It is amazing what a little sunshine will do to clear the air.

    By the way, it would sure look like the Republicans have automatic and unpledged delegates too, though aparently not as many or as large in proportion to their total delegate count.


  4. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/17/2008 - 12:43 pm.

    “The term “superdelegate” became part of the party vocabulary by 1980. By 1984, Mondale won the Democratic nomination, in part because of strong superdelegate support. In fact, Gary Hart, who competed with Mondale for the nomination, has re-written history to the point that he claims Mondale won because of superdelegates.

    “Mr. Hart seems to forget that the superdelegates had nothing to do with his zipper problem,” said Stafford, a longtime party activist who has watched the rise and fall of insider power over the years.”

    The only problem is that Hart’s “zipper problem” came up during the 1988 campaign. There was no (known) zipper problem in 1984.

Leave a Reply