D.C. Rep. Wary of Superdelegates' Influence

Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-D.C.) discusses the upcoming primaries in Washington, D.C., and neighboring Maryland and Virginia. The so-called Potomac primaries are set for Tuesday. Holmes-Norton also explains concerns about the role of superdelegates at the Democratic convention.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

With his wins over the weekend in nominating contests in four states and the Virgin Islands, the Illinois senator took the lead in pledged delegates according to network calculations. But the race is still close, and both he and Senator Clinton are still in the hunt for votes in this region tomorrow.

Here to talk more about the Potomac Primary is D.C. delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Delegate ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, District of Columbia): Thank you.

MARTIN: You just heard our interview with Senator Obama. Do you think there are any particular issues that are resonating in this area, perhaps more than in other parts of the country?

Del. HOLMES NORTON: Well, this area is - is - has two blue states and one rapidly turning blue, and he's the bluer candidate. So I don't think that the issues between Senator Clinton and Senator Barack are - is what is driving people towards Senator Barack. Particularly considering that perhaps we in this region know Senator Clinton better than most. I certainly know her very well because over eight years in the White House and the very special relationship that the District of Columbia as a federal city has with the White House and with the Congress.

But I've always come to know Barack very well, who is an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Both of them are fairly new senators. And Barack's momentum plays well with this particular area because you do have two blue states and he is better known here than he would be known in the rest of the country. The rest of the country had to know him, had to come to know him. I think people in this entire area - at least in Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs and in the district - perhaps knew him better. And frankly, because many of them are more government-oriented, perhaps for that reason also got to know him better.

MARTIN: I asked him about the fact that some of the voters are really torn between him and Senator Clinton. Now, you are among the few members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have not endorsed a candidate. As I last counted, it's almost half and half. Is this causing tension in the caucus?

Del. HOLMES NORTON: Is this what?

MARTIN: Causing tension in the caucus, this divide between…

Del. HOLMES NORTON: Oh, is it causing tension in the caucus? I don't think people know who's - who is for whom, and the caucus always splits in many different directions. I hadn't taken a position because I never did before the D.C. primary, only because I'm the district-only federal official. And it seemed, you know, to be no value added to take a position before the primary. I must say that the superdelegates, though, have never played into the equation the way they are now, and that is very troublesome to me. So while the primary is tomorrow and I will not take a position before then, I will probably take a position soon, because I do not like the fact that the superdelegates are seen in a way they were never intended. They were never intended as backroom politicians.

MARTIN: If you could just clarify that for the listeners who might not be completely clear about what we're talking about. There are distinguished party leaders, elected officials and former officials who were given a special role of a nominating convention back in '92, I believe. And there's been a fierce battle for their support. And I just want to hear more about how you feel about this. Some are saying that they shouldn't be - superdelegates shouldn't be committing in advanced. Some say they should be bound by how their constituents have voted.

Talk to me more about how you feel about this should be handled?

Del. HOLMES NORTON: Well, precisely because I wanted to avoid that dilemma, I have always committed to after the D.C. primary. But frankly, we've never had a superdelegates to be considered as anything but delegates, and some (unintelligible) people who could decide who the nominee would be. So, people - I think it's quite all right to take a position in advance, because nobody in the past - I must tell you, since we've had superdelegates - has ever been in a position where anybody thought the superdelegates were like everybody else, that they would take a position and some took a position because of their leadership role, for political reasons and other reasons.

This time, those who've taken a position are on the horns of a real dilemma, particularly if they have supported someone who is at odds with their own state or district. And I think you will see some sorting out in the future about how superdelegates behave. I don't think that there's anything wrong, however, was going out there because superdelegates are often elected officials who have a leadership role to play. You've got to decide for yourself what is best for your district or your state.

MARTIN: You do have a concern, though, that it will be viewed as - if there's some variance between the way the superdelegates go and the way the popular vote goes, that voters will believe that their votes don't count.

Del. HOLMES NORTON: Only if we get to the point, and we could get there. And people keep believing that it will be so close that it will, quote, "Fall to the superdelegates." That would be a tragedy. If by that they mean the superdelegates will get in a room and decide who the nominee will be, that is - was never the intent. We intended - I'm not sure that we ever thought this through the way we should. But we certainly intended after the Democrats have long had difficulty getting the presidency to have some delegates who would show leadership and would therefore be useful to the party. No one ever contemplated anything close to a tie. I myself believe we will not have a tie. I believe that this is going to sort itself out in the primary contest. I resent the fact that people are - perhaps it's the press only, but there is talk about, well, let's go to the superdelegates, and maybe Obama or Clinton can get enough superdelegates to win. I think that they will have to get and that they will get enough delegates one or the other of them in the primary (unintelligible).

MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much. I didn't get a chance to ask about the Republicans. Perhaps you'll come back and talk to us about that. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia and the House of Representatives. She joined us by phone from her office on Capitol Hill. Thank you so much.

Just ahead, we'll talk more about the Potomac primary. NPR's political editor Ken Rudin speaks with us about what's at stake for both parties. That's next on TELL ME MORE.

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Do Superdelegates Hold Super Powers?

Rep. Tim Walz

hide captionSuperdelegate Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) is also a Sergeant Major in the Army National Guard.

Courtesy of Rep. Tim Waltz

Unpledged GOP Delegates

Republicans do not technically have superdelegates. They do have 463 unpledged delegates that function in a similar way, however. Of those, 123 are members of the Republican National Committee. Though they are not bound by the electoral decisions in their state or district, they are likely committed to a particular candidate.

Superdelegates

hide captionFormer president Bill Clinton, former vice president Al Gore, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and former president Jimmy Carter are all superdelegates.

Getty

There is something magical about the term, "superdelegate," as if it's a representative with superhuman powers who might fly in at the last minute to save the election.

This is not totally far from the truth. Unless, of course, you don't approve of how the political superheroes use their special abilities. (Or, if you are a Republican. Technically, there aren't any superdelegates in the GOP).

Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama emerged from Super Tuesday neck and neck, separated by less than 100 delegates by most counts. This suggests — if the race continues to be similarly tight — that the technically uncommitted superdelegates could impact the final outcome.

If you don't know what a superdelegate is, don't feel bad. Even Superdelegate Tim Walz, a freshman Congressman from Minnesota and former high school civics teacher, admits that for a long time, he had no idea what belonging to this group entailed. He discusses his experience as a superdelegate with Madeleine Brand.

Who Are These People?

Superdelegates are elected officials, such as Walz, and party leaders, including former presidents (such as Bill Clinton), former vice presidents (such as Al Gore) and members of the Democratic National Committee. They make up roughly 20 percent of the total delegates.

Although superdelegates are "unpledged," meaning they are permitted to back any candidate they want at any point during the process, Walz has resisted throwing his vote to anyone until now.

"The reason that I've stayed out of voicing a public opinion is that I've felt that it was the citizens and constituents of my district and state's responsibility. My take on it — let's just let the people make up their mind and we'll cast it according to that," he says. "I don't believe I have any special insight to be a special delegate."

Not everyone feels this way. The Democratic Party devised the superdelegate system following the presidential election of 1972, when George McGovern lost to former President Richard Nixon in a landslide. Had party officials been more involved in choosing a nominee, perhaps they could have helped picked someone better-suited to win a national election, the logic goes. An exceptionally close primary is required, however, for this elite group's "super powers" to hold any sway.

The Dangers of Back-Room Politics

Presidential hopefuls are free to court the superdelegates — many of whom, like Walz, are also up for re-election. Walz admits that campaigning can get "back-roomy." A candidate is free to entice a superdelegate with allusions to past and future favors.

"The campaign says you've gotten help from these people, we try to say, 'Thank you, but we are going to stay neutral,'" he says. "I would hate to see a back-room deal make the decision when the people are voting on this."

Although Walz holds a coveted superdelegate position, he admits that the system is not without its flaws. It troubles him that superdelegates could potentially override the decision of voters.

"I think it should be more direct election," he says. "I think what I saw last night is what it should be: loud, chaotic, passionate. It was the people."

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