Loyalty vs. Voters: A Superdelegate's Dilemma

Members of Congress and other superdelegates who have endorsed a presidential candidate — only to have their districts vote for someone else — face a tough choice: loyalty vs. constituency.

It's an especially tough decision for members of the Congressional Black Caucus who support Sen. Hillary Clinton, despite Sen. Barack Obama's popularity among black voters.

Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement and long-serving Georgia congressman, had endorsed Clinton.

But The New York Times reported Friday that because Lewis's district voted overwhelmingly for Obama, the congressman would, too, as a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention. Lewis' office says The Times story is inaccurate.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, finds himself in a similar position.

He represents Missouri's 5th Congressional District, which includes Kansas City, and endorsed Clinton, his longtime friend, in August.

"This is an ethical entanglement," Cleaver tells Melissa Block.

"Do you maintain your loyalty and your word? Or, do you say, 'My district went one direction and I am therefore ethically obligated to follow the district,'" he says.

Cleaver's district saw a 50-50 split between Clinton and Obama, so he says he is not as compelled to follow the voters as some other members of Congress — although Missouri as a whole did go to Obama.

Cleaver says he hasn't faced lobbying from other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but that he and colleagues in the group, such as Jesse Jackson Jr., joke about his support of Clinton.

"We'll go back and forth and back and forth. He says to me, 'Cleaver, let's say we're at the convention in Denver and everything is all tied up and it all boils down to you, you have the last superdelegate vote. Do you want to go down in history as denying the first African American a seat in the Oval Office?' And it's a powerful question.

"I always answer the question by saying, 'Loyalty trumps everything,'" including race, Cleaver says.

Cleaver notes that some members of Congress who support Clinton are experiencing threats — not from fellow members but when they return home.

They have been told that they would face opposition in their next election if they do not support Obama, and Cleaver says some — such as John Lewis — have become the victims of "robo-calls." In Lewis' case, the calls said "very, very derogatory things about him."

Cleaver, too, has experienced some troubles.

"I had a person in my district send out a newsletter, for which I know he didn't pay, distributed primarily in the African-American community, in which he suggested that I had been paid by Sen. Clinton to support her. I don't know if there's anyone who [is African American] who hasn't taken some grief for supporting Sen. Clinton."

When he endorsed Clinton in August, Cleaver thought she would win the Democratic nomination — and he believes it now, too.

But he did not think the race would end up as close and as emotional as it had.

Nonetheless, Cleaver says he still would have endorsed Clinton, whom he calls "his friend, a person with whom I have a relationship."

Cleaver relates a story to illustrate his point.

During this year's State of the Union speech, Cleaver was sitting with his friend and colleague, Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee.

Cooper got up to leave temporarily and asked Cleaver to hold his seat. An African diplomat saw the empty seat and asked Cleaver if he could sit in it. Cleaver responded that he was holding the seat for someone.

When Cooper — who is white — returned, Cleaver told him, "I was holding a seat for you, but a black man came along, and I didn't know him well, didn't know him at all. ... Should I give this seat to a black man because he's black? Or should I hold the seat for my friend, someone who lives down the hall from me, who I work with every day?"

Cooper responded: "I get the point.'"

"For me, that's the way life is. You don't abandon your friends," Cleaver says.

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