As a registered independent, Crown Heights resident Geoff Johnson didn’t have a dog in the fight over the Democratic presidential nomination: “There isn’t a Democrat who’s left enough for me,” he says. A 30-year-old Ph.D. candidate in history, Johnson had confined his political activity mostly to anti-war rallies. But when he heard that 796 “superdelegates”—party leaders and elected officials who have special voting rights at the Democratic National Convention—could swing the vote away from the will of the people, it just seemed wrong. So he dashed off dozens of e-mails to friends and neighbors, urging them to spam U.S. House members Yvette Clarke and Edolphus Towns into voting in line with their districts. Both Congress members had pledged their superdelegate support to Hillary Clinton months before their Brooklyn constituents voted in favor of Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Judy Goldberg, a Park Slope Obama supporter, had exactly the same idea, and drafted a petition warning Clarke not to defy the voters in her district. “I had to edit out the snide comments,” Goldberg recalls. And in Fort Greene, 25-year-old Michael O’Regan says he was so incensed at how superdelegates could rig the nomination that he stayed up all night creating a website to denounce the process.
These are just some of the Brooklynites who have spontaneously begun organizing separate campaigns to warn the party’s hacks not to piss them off. Some agitators are calling for superdelegates who hold elected office to vote in line with their constituents; others are asking all superdelegates to back the candidate with the most popular support at the end of primary season.
“Creation of the superdelegates was a conscious effort to make party elites decide the outcome,” says Johnson. “It would be suicidal if Obama wins the most states and the popular vote, and then the Clintons use their power to win with the superdelegates. It would kill off the grassroots excitement.”
It’s that excitement that prompted dozens of political novices— mostly Obama supporters—to delve into the nitty-gritty of party politics in the first place. “I didn’t even know what a superdelegate was a month ago,” says O’Regan. “Now I’m devoting half my waking hours to petitioning them.” His website, RespectOurVote.com, has garnered almost 800 signatures from around the nation, and similar petitions by MoveOn.org and Democrats for Democracy have elicited thousands more.
The Clinton camp contends that these appeals amount to “outright pressure and threats” from Obama supporters. “They have been hammering superdelegates—often in inappropriate ways—for weeks now,” says Clinton spokesman Jay Carson, though he couldn’t give specific examples of inappropriate behavior. The Clintonites have reason to be testy: They’ve lost a handful of superdelegates recently, most notably Congressman John Lewis, a revered civil-rights leader in Georgia who switched his allegiance to Obama last week.
Some of the local superdelegates aren’t too happy with the extra attention: Back in July, Clarke, who represents Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Kensington, and Park Slope, said she endorsed Clinton after “careful deliberations and discussions with the diverse base of my constituency.” That was before the primary. These days, when asked why Clarke hasn’t changed her support to reflect her constituents’ Obama love, her spokesman, Scott Levenson responded that she considers it the role of a superdelegate not to look only at the local popular vote: “That is, by definition, not the role of the superdelegate, or they would be a regular delegate.”
In such a close race, the tug-of-war for superdelegates has shed light on a process that was meant to remain discreetly behind the scenes. Democrats instituted the category of superdelegates after the 1980 election to ensure that party leaders remained in control of the nominating process; these superdelegates were crucial in choosing Walter Mondale as the presidential nominee in 1984.
Now, with a galvanized electorate—and a new wealth of information on sites like the Superdelegate Transparency Project—the increased scrutiny has put some heat on party leaders in both camps. Just as Clarke and Towns are being beaten up for their support of Clinton, Obama man Ted Kennedy has drawn the wrath of his own pro-Clinton electorate in Massachusetts. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a superdelegate from Illinois, also drew fire for pledging loyalty to the home team despite the wishes of his Clinton-loving constituents.
Agitators like Johnson and O’Regan say the skirmishes could be avoided next time around if the Democratic Party abolishes the category of superdelegates altogether. O’Regan says flatly: “It is undemocratic.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story characterized a quote from Clarke’s spokesman, Scott Levenson, as “all [he] has to say.” In fact, Levenson spoke at length to the Voice. The quote that was used reflected the gist of that conversation, but was not the sum total of what was said, and so that should not have been implied.