CHICAGO — Democratic Party officials are on the verge of greenlighting a Bernie Sanders-endorsed plan to weaken the influence of superdelegates in the presidential nominating process. But it won’t be pretty.
As Democratic National Committee members arrived here Thursday for their annual summer meeting, outspoken opponents of the proposal acknowledged they were outnumbered. Still, they pledged an aggressive, last-ditch lobbying effort ahead of a Saturday vote, defying a call for unity from party leaders.
Story Continued Below
“We’re up against a wall,” said Bob Mulholland, a superdelegate and DNC member from California who helped organize opposition to the proposal. “We’re going to fight it like hell.”
The opposition campaign threatened to undercut a bid by party leaders to present a unified front before a critical midterm election, exasperating officials who have worked for months to design a compromise. Less than a day into the proceedings — and with the superdelegate controversy hanging heavily over the gathering — New York Assemblyman Michael Blake, vice chairman of the DNC, said “my patience is growing short.”
Leaving an executive committee meeting on Thursday morning, Blake said, “We’ve got real shit to get done, to go help people.”
The superdelegate issue has bedeviled the party for the past two years, ever since the bulk of superdelegates — the members of Congress, governors and DNC members and other top officials who made up about 15 percent of delegates during the 2016 convention — overwhelmingly sided with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary.
In some cases, their support for Clinton came in defiance of the popular vote outcome in their states, leading Sanders’ supporters to rage against a nominating process they contended was tilted in Clinton’s favor.
The current proposal, a priority of Sanders and his supporters since the Vermont senator’s defeat two years ago — a result of the “Unity Reform Commission” established at the 2016 national convention — would prohibit superdelegates from voting on the first presidential nominating ballot at a contested national convention, reducing their influence in a nominating process.
Its approval would allow Democrats to finally put one of the bitterest feuds of the last presidential primary behind them.
“If the DNC rejects this, it basically rejects the will of the convention,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “The left wing of the party would be outraged.”
By July, the measure had drawn the support not only of the party’s left flank, but many Clinton supporters, as well. Championed by Tom Perez, the party chairman, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee overwhelmingly approved the measure, which was endorsed not only by Sanders, but also two former DNC chairs — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate.
At a DNC executive committee meeting on Thursday morning, Jim Roosevelt, co-chairman of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, told members, “It’s about the future, it’s about not rehashing the past, but how do we bring people together for the victory that we have to have going forward.”
Yet opposition to the proposal appeared to pick up steam in recent weeks, when Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond argued publicly that the plan would disenfranchise elected officials who serve as superdelegates.
“There should be enough room in the process to include the perspective of local party activists and officials, and Members of Congress,” Richmond said in a letter to Perez. “One group should not be harmed at the expense of the other.”
Richmond, a Louisiana congressman, argued the rule change is “a solution in search of a problem,” adding that “unelected delegates have never gone against the will of primary voters in picking Democratic presidential nominees.”
Inside the Hyatt Regency convention halls, opponents of the proposal are raising objections both on substantive and procedural grounds. They argue, among other points, that such a significant rules change should require a two-thirds vote, not a simple majority — a position DNC officials reject.
If the proposal is adopted, superdelegates could vote on the first convention ballot only if a candidate earned enough pledged delegates from state parties and caucuses to win the nomination.
After meeting with about 15 opponents of the proposal at the convention hotel Thursday afternoon, William Owen, a DNC member from Tennessee who is helping to organize the resistance, said, “I think we’ve got a shot at trying to slow this thing down.”
He said he expected “a close vote and a contested vote.”
Even if the proposal ultimately is adopted, the tension surrounding the measure threatened to overshadow the DNC’s efforts to project an image of cohesion less than three months before the midterm elections.
Meeting down the street from the massive Trump International Hotel and Tower, Perez appealed to committee members to come together.
“Every issue we care about is on the ballot, and we need to leave Chicago united so that we can put Democrats in the best position to win across the country,” he said in an email to DNC members. “These reforms are all about the future. They’re about growing our party and restoring trust among voters, especially young people who share our values and who we need to get out and vote.”
Perez added, “I’m confident these reforms will make our party stronger, more diverse, and better positioned to win elections in November, 2020, and beyond. Let’s seize this moment together.”
The following morning, addressing members of the DNC’s executive committee, Perez said, “I’m confident that we can come out of here united.”
But the specter of a contested vote on Saturday hung heavily over the convention’s opening day. In front of the convention hotel on Thursday morning, a handful of supporters of the measure waved signs that read, “Support Rules & Bylaws Committee on ‘Superdelegates.’”
“We’ve got so much wrongheaded and uninformed backlash,” said Jeff Cohen, co-founder of RootsAction.org, an online activist group. “The stupidity would be, a couple of months before the election, picking a fight with the [Democratic] base.”