Superdelegates. It’s a word barely noticed before this year, a special breed of Democrat guaranteed a seat at the party’s quadrennial nominating convention because of who they are or what offices they hold.
Some are U.S. senators like Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. Some are members of Congress. Others are party functionaries like current state Democratic chairman Art Torres and Bob Mulholland, the Chico resident who is nominally the party’s “campaign adviser” but also is the heir to the late, legendary anti-Republican prankster Dick Tuck, who was best known for bedeviling Richard Nixon’s various California campaigns.
There is also Charles Manatt, a former state and national party chairman who heads a law firm best known for its high-powered lobbying in Washington, Sacramento and Los Angeles.
Altogether, California has 66 of the 796 superdelegates, and the longer the presidential nomination contest between Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York goes on, the greater the chance that these people will decide who becomes the Democratic nominee for president and quite possibly the next person with a finger on the nuclear button.
The party’s proportional representation rules make it impossible for either candidate to collect a dominating number of delegates in any state, since some kind of split is always mandated. But superdelegates are not bound by popular votes, anyway. They can go wherever they like, perhaps for whoever offers them the most.
For sure, they are getting frequent calls from ex-President Bill Clinton, senators and former presidential nominees. What’s promised in those calls is anybody’s guess.
The congressional component of the superdelegate bunch is well known and mostly already committed to one candidate or the other. In fact, about two-thirds of the California contingent is already promised - although they can change their votes anytime they like and risk only their reputations for keeping their word.
But who are the rest? Many are members of the Democratic National Committee, placed there by state party officials. There is Rachel Binah, from the small coastal town of Little River in Mendocino County, who started in politics as an activist against offshore oil drilling and has licked a lot of envelopes for Democratic candidates over the last 20 years.
There are Christopher Stampolis, a community college trustee from Santa Clara and Keith Umemoto, executive director of the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. There is Christine Pelosi, whose mom Nancy - also an uncommitted superdelegate - just happens to be speaker of the House. There are Los Angeles lawyer Garry Shay and Steve Ybarra, a retired attorney now teaching at Sacramento City College.
There’s Aleita Huguenin, former manager of government relations for the California Teachers Association, which tries constantly to influence government decisions. And there’s Edward Espinoza, a public relations man who has worked in one Bill Clinton campaign and several others in California and four other states. There is also Carole Migden, a state senator from San Francisco who cut her political teeth as a gay rights advocate and now is in the fight or her political life, challenged in the June primary by one sitting assemblyman and another who was termed out. Will either presidential candidate endorse her if she first endorses one of them?
These are merely some of the uncommitted California superdelegates. Add the heir to the late Tom Lantos’ San Mateo-based congressional seat to the list.
There’s no known moral dirt on any of these people. But none was elected by anyone as a convention delegate. Many got their seats on the DNC as rewards for longtime party activism and fund-raising, with no one seriously expecting they would have anything much to do with choosing a president.
But things can work out strangely. After more than 50 years of not mattering much, the Democratic National Convention just might actually decide something other than an esoteric platform plan that 99 percent of Americans will quickly forget.
And these few Californians could be the ones who swing it one way or the other. The question: Do they deserve that role? Do you want them deciding the fate of the nation and possibly yourself?
If not, then it’s time for rank-and-file Democrats to begin publicly insisting superdelegates vote the way the majority of Californians did in the primary, or the way their congressional districts went. Could that actually influence anything? For sure, the uproar over strange ballots in Los Angeles County caused the counting of tens of thousands of votes that would otherwise have been discarded.
Maybe the ongoing outcry by MoveOn.org and others can move at least some superdelegates to let others in on their decisions, or even help with them. It already seems to have moved Nancy Pelosi, who called the other day for superdelegates not to veto the people’s choice, whoever that may be.
Elias is author of the bestselling book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.