Superdelegates Feel the Pressure

As the Democratic national convention draws closer and the race between Sens. Obama and Clinton narrows, all eyes are on the superdelegates, who will likely choose the nominee. Indiana Democratic Congressman Andre Carson, a superdelegate supporting Obama; and Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, a superdelegate supporting Clinton, discuss how the race is shaping up in their states.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, you grew up in the "Age of Aquarius." You did it all, you saw it all. Now, what are you going to tell the kids about all that? One writer thought a lot about that and tells us what she decided. That's in just a few minutes. But first, voters in North Carolina and Indiana cast ballots tomorrow in the Democratic presidential primary. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been busy wooing individual voters in both states, but the two senators also want to win the approval of the superdelegates. With the contest so close, superdelegates have become the focus of an intense battle between the two campaigns. Even those who have already committed are feeling the pressure, so how are they bearing up? We will ask a superdelegate from each state.

First, Democratic Congressman Andre Carson is a superdelegate for Indiana and an Obama supporter. He represents the Seventh Congressional District which is based in Indianapolis. Congressman Carson succeeded his grandmother, Julia Carson, who had held the seat for a decade when she died in December. Andre Carson is on the campaign trail and he joins us now by phone. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Congressman ANDRE CARSON (Democrat, Indiana, Superdelegate): Hello, Michel. It's an honor to be here.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. First, if I may say, I'm so sorry for the loss of your grandmother.

Congressman CARSON: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

MARTIN: Had you always seen yourself following in her footsteps?

Congressman CARSON: Well, I got my political feet wet in 1984 at the Democratic National Convention in California, and I didn't have much of a choice. She made me tag along with her and it got into my system over time, you know? I loved public service, I loved helping people, and I couldn't resist it and here we are.

MARTIN: As I understand it, you're one of 12 superdelegates in Indiana and you're a superdelegate because you're a sitting member of Congress, is that right?

Congressman CARSON: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: OK. Now, five are supporting Senator Obama, four are for Senator Clinton and three are undecided, if I have that right. Why did you decide to support Senator Obama?

Congressman CARSON: Well, I support the senator because I believe he can move this country in a new direction. I mean, right now, you have hard-working families all across the nation. They're struggling to make ends meet because of the slowing economy. You have the housing crisis and high energy prices. I think the senator has the judgment, he has the experience to help solve some of our nation's most pressing problems.

MARTIN: What about the experience argument? Senator Clinton says she's ready on Day One to be a great president, there's just no way he could be.

Congressman CARSON: Senator Clinton is certainly brilliant, she's fascinating, our family has deep love and affection for the Clinton family. For me, it's a personal decision. I felt in my heart that Senator Obama has the kind of message that resonates with the voters and resonates with the people. If you look at what he's done in Iowa, Alabama, Georgia and Minnesota, you can see the kind of affect and the kind of change that people are waiting for. He embodies the change that we're looking for.

If you look at his work as a community organizer in Chicago, helping low-income and working families improve their standards. He was a great leader in the Illinois State Senate, the fact that he had the judgment to oppose the war from the very beginning. I mean, even in the U.S. Senate, he's worked with his colleagues through ethics reform legislation and supported initiatives such as arms control and SCHIP. I mean, he has the vision of this country.

MARTIN: Are you, in a way, having to make the same case for yourself that you're making for Senator Obama? That it's perhaps judgment is more important than years in the job since you're pretty young, 33, as I understand it.

Congressman CARSON: Thirty-three, yes.

MARTIN: And so, you're going to have to - you're not only having to campaign for Senator Obama, you're campaigning to keep your own seat. So in a way are you - are the arguments similar for yourself and for him?

Congressman CARSON: In a sense. I mean, if you look at my history as well as the senator's, you see a long history of public service. People talk about elective service, but we're talking about public service, community involvement, community activism. You know, some people want to run for office, Michel, because they've done all these other things and they're bored and they say, well, I think I'll run for Congress or I think I'll run for Senate, but here there's a commitment, there's a grassroots commitment here for speaking up for the disenfranchised. At a younger point in my life, I stayed in a shelter. I'm sensitive to the needs of the people. Senator Obama has that same sensitivity. So, I think we need more servants in office who are true public servants and not self-servants.

MARTIN: The other detail I wanted to point out is that you are the second person of the Muslim faith to be elected to Congress.

Congressman CARSON: True.

MARTIN: And this, you know, Senator Obama has been subjected to, I think it's fair to say, a smear campaign directed at him. There's sort of an Internet-based campaign trying to suggest that he is, in fact, a Muslim, even though he is not, and I just wonder, how is that striking you? How are you dealing with that as a Muslim yourself, as a person who is a surrogate for him, having to defend him against something which one should not have to defend against, but which is a novelty for some people, which is not familiar to some people?

Congressman CARSON: Well, I know particularly, in the great Hoosier state of Indiana, you know, Hoosiers are very smart people. I have friendships across racial, religious or social lines. Hoosiers at the end of the day - and Americans are very intelligent. Americans are thoughtful. We've come a long way. You know, the Founding Fathers were brilliant men. They weren't perfect men, they got race wrong, they got gender wrong, but they got religion right. There should be no religious test to hold public office. I think it's brilliant. But I think at the end of the day, we all want the same thing, Michel.

In March alone, 80,000 Americans lost their jobs, many of them right here in the great state of Indiana. We have troops over in Iraq. My best friend is over in Iraq. I had a lady give me a pendant the other day. She said, Andre, I'm giving you this pendant because it represents two things. It represents peace and it represents my son who'll be shipped off to Iraq. Her son will join my best friend, father of two twin girls, for war. We've already spent over a trillion dollars to build roads and to build schools. Our own schools are failing and there are potholes all over the city of Indianapolis. So, at the end of the day, we want the same things. We want an improved economy, we want to improve our school system, we want to bring our troops home and we need a universal health-care system that makes sure all Americans are covered. At the very least, our children.

MARTIN: And finally, Congressman, there's a question now that given how close the race is, of how the superdelegates should go about deciding. If your state chooses Senator Clinton, does that change your mind about supporting Senator Obama? Will you feel that you should go the way your constituents go?

Congressman CARSON: Well, in the Seventh Congressional District, Senator Obama polls very highly, of course, but for me it was a personal decision. I will stay committed to Senator Obama and what his campaign represents and his campaign that unifies people and that brings people together, and I think he very well articulates an agenda that the people are yearning to hear.

MARTIN: Congressman Andre Carson represents the Seventh Congressional District of Indiana. He is an Obama superdelegate and he joined us by phone from the campaign trail in Indiana. Thank you so much, Congressman.

Congressman CARSON: It was an honor. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now I want to bring in another superdelegate, this time from North Carolina, the Tar Heel state, where the polls show the Democratic contest is getting tighter. Susan Burgess is mayor pro tem of Charlotte, North Carolina. She's a superdelegate supporting Senator Hillary Clinton. Welcome, thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. SUSAN BURGESS (Mayor Pro Tem, Charlotte, N.C., Superdelegate): Thank you, Michel. It's so nice to be with you.

MARTIN: How did you get to be a superdelegate?

Ms. BURGESS: I chaired Democratic municipal officials, mayors, and city council members across the country, and in that role I am a superdelegate.

MARTIN: As I understand it, North Carolina has 19 superdelegates. Senator Clinton has the support of two, six back Senator Obama, 11 not yet decided. Why did you decide to support Senator Clinton?

Ms. BURGESS: Well, for me it was an easy decision because I yearn for the peace and prosperity of the last Clinton administration. President Clinton led from basic, moderate, democratic principles of being pro-business and socially progressive, and it's proven to work. In fact, our country was never in better shape than under the last Clinton administration. And I know that we have a lot of work to do to reverse the damage that, in fact, all the progress that Clinton made, that the Bush administration has managed to reverse. So we need a proven leader and Senator Clinton has 35 years of experience.

And that's exactly what we need, somebody to get to work and fix the problems. North Carolina issues are probably a little different. We have been hit hard in our jobs and our economy because of the loss of jobs in furniture, textile and tobacco industries. But I believe that Senator Clinton's positions on the issues that are most important to all Americans are better, actually, for the economy, for health care that will cover every single American - man, woman and child.

She has an outstanding record in public education, higher education. She has a plan to end the war with honor. And also, I think one of her strongest positions are on the environment.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things that have occurred, forgive me for interrupting, but one of the interesting, sort of, splits that has emerged, is that Senator Obama seems to be doing better in large urban areas. And Senator Clinton seems to be doing better in smaller towns, in rural areas. Why do you think that might be?

Ms. BURGESS: Well, because I think that the Democrats are more moderate in those rural areas and much more progressive in urban areas, where there are larger minority populations.

MARTIN: Do you really think that the policy differences are that pronounced, or do you think it's more of a cultural thing?

Ms. BURGESS: Well, it's probably more of a cultural thing, to be honest, but I think when the candidates hit the ground in North Carolina, people started really paying attention to the differences in their positions. And when that happened, you saw the poll numbers change, with Clinton rising.

MARTIN: And what do you think they're paying attention to?

Ms. BURGESS: I think they're paying attention to health care, in particular, and also the economy. Those are two big, big issues in North Carolina.

MARTIN: And what is it about, you think, Senator Clinton's policies that is that distinct from Senator Obama's? Because you know, they both want to end the war, they both want to offer health care, they're both concerned about, you know what I mean. So what do you think, is there something particular, is it, you think, people have a reservoir of good will, just like you said, they remember the Clinton administration as being one of prosperity and general success, or is there something about Senator Obama that's rubbing them the wrong way? I mean, is it kind of a love her-hate him, or is it just like-her-more?

Ms. BURGESS: Well, I think it's like-her-more and I think that the big difference is health care policy where she would cover every single American. Also, her jobs proposal of rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and we have an incredible problem with that in North Carolina. We just haven't addressed it and we certainly have gotten almost no assistance from the federal government to help us in that regard.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask if you could - we need to take a short break, but I was going to ask if you could just stay with us for just a few more minutes and visit with us.

Ms. BURGESS: Of course.

MARTIN: And talk more about this. Just ahead, we're going to have more of North Carolina Mayer, North Carolina Charlotte Pro Tem, Susan Burgess, about the joy and pain of being a superdelegate. And later in the program, how much do you tell your kids about your wild past? That's coming up, and the conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our weekly look inside the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. This week, what to tell the kids about your days of sowing wild oats, and I cannot believe I just dated myself by using that metaphor. But first, we have more on the Democratic presidential races tomorrow.

Ms. BURGESS: Of course.

MARTIN: Well, there has been this whole debate on the issue of superdelegates. How they should decide whom to support. I asked Congressman Carson this, so I'd like to ask you the same thing. Obviously, two points of view: One, that the superdelegates should follow their constituents, the other, that they should exercise their own best judgment. Now you've already committed, but how did you think that through, when you were trying figure out whom to support?

Ms. BURGESS: Well, for me, it was easy. I just am more aligned with the policies of Hillary Clinton. I've known the Clinton's from before he was president. And I know the intelligence and experience of Hillary Clinton. I'm a great admirer of her, and of Senator Obama, I have to say, he's very inspiring. But she just has the experience, I believe, that has proven to lead our country in the right direction.

Plus, I don't believe that ever in history have there been heads of Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsing, and Senator Clinton has two of those, plus many, many generals. I think that the military, and we have a huge military presence in North Carolina, that the military is backing her, as well. As far as being a superdelegate...

MARTIN: Well, no, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, certainly endorsed before - I mean, when he supported George W. Bush. Are you saying, do you think it's unusual for military leaders of that caliber to support a Democrat? Or - because they certainly have endorsed before.

Ms. BURGESS: OK. I didn't realize that was public endorsement, but these are very public endorsements. General Shelton, Hugh Shelton is appearing with her at different events. But as far as being a superdelegate, superdelegates were created, as you know, in the early '80s by the DNC to assure that the Democratic Party presents a nominee that's electable. And that commission, called The Hunt Commission, was actually chaired by our former governor Jim Hunt.

And really, superdelegates are supposed to have independent opinions and votes and really not representing constituents but representing their own best judgment. I'm not sure if I had been there in the early '80s, I would have supported the whole concept of superdelegates, but now that I am one, I'm doing my best to exercise my best judgment. And getting a candidate that I believe is more electable.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that if the superdelegates overturn the will of the voters, of the popular vote, that that will create a rift in the Democratic party that will be very hard to bridge come November, and in fact beyond that?

Ms. BURGESS: The answer to that question is that indeed will happen, but I believe that whichever candidate is not on the winning side will work hard to overturn opinions and passions and emotions of people who didn't get their way. But I do also think that the fear of four more years of this kind of leadership will unite us all. Not only Democrats but unaffiliated independent voters that even though we may not have liked the outcome, we're certainly going to unite and make sure that our country is led in a different direction than we are now.

MARTIN: Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess is a superdelegate supporting Senator Hillary Clinton. She joined us from Charlotte, North Carolina. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BURGESS: Oh, it's a pleasure and an honor Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness, well, have a great day tomorrow.

Ms. BURGESS: Oh, it's going to be so exciting, I've never seen this kind of political involvement in North Carolina and for me it's just a thrill.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much.

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