Meet the Supers

By Beacon Staff

Over the last several weeks, the phone of Ed Tinsley has been ringing off the hook. Chelsea Clinton called. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called several times. Terry McAuliffe, current chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, called too. Each was hoping to influence Tinsley’s vote as one of the party’s 796 superdelegates.

Not to be outdone by the Clinton campaign, Barack Obama supporter and former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle has also called Tinsley. He estimates between 40 and 50 citizens also called him urging support for Obama’s presidential bid. Despite the attention from Clinton supporters, Tinsley, a Lewis and Clark County Commissioner and state Democratic National Committeeman, announced last week he was supporting Obama and planned to pledge for the Illinois senator as a superdelegate at the party’s August convention in Denver.

“In my best judgment, Barack Obama is the person best suited to be president,” Tinsley said. “My gut feeling tells me this thing’s going to get to a point where Obama’s candidacy is going to be an overriding force.”

Why would presidential campaigns pay so much attention to a Montana county commissioner? Because every day that the Democratic race remains close, the power of the party’s superdelegates grows. The system of using superdelegates at a nominating convention – in addition to the delegates granted by winning state primaries or caucuses – was created in the 1980s as a way to give elected officials more power over the process.

About half of the superdelegates remain uncommitted, a colossal prize for Clinton or Obama. Gaining the votes of these superdelegates would be the equivalent of winning California in a landslide. Unlike state delegates, superdelegates are not bound to vote for the winner of their state; they can vote for the candidate of their choice. This freedom opens up the possibility that superdelegates could hand the nomination to a candidate who did not win the popular vote. Montana’s 24 delegates must support the winner of the June 3 primary, but the state’s seven superdelegates can vote for whomever they choose.

These possibilities have liberal groups like MoveOn.org urging superdelegates to pledge to vote for the winner of the Democratic national popular vote. In Montana, discussion runs high on the blog LeftintheWest.com as to whether the state’s superdelegates should take a similar pledge to vote for the June 3 primary’s winner.

Three of Montana’s superdelegates are elected officials accustomed to public scrutiny: Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. But the other four – including Tinsley – are less known: state party chair Dennis McDonald of Melville; vice-chair Margarett Campbell, also a Poplar state representative; and state Democratic National Committeewoman Jean Lemire Dahlman of Forsyth.

Campbell recently received calls three nights in a row from the Clinton campaign. She missed the calls, but the name “Hillary Clinton” remained on her caller ID display, impressing Campbell’s granddaughter.

“Oh grandma, you must be moving up in the world; you’re ignoring calls from Hillary Clinton?” Campbell recalled her granddaughter saying. Campbell has also received calls from the Obama campaign, but far more from Clinton. The calls affirm for Campbell, at least in this election, “Out here in Montana, we do matter.”

Dahlman has received more calls from Obama’s campaign, while McDonald estimates he has received equal attention from both campaigns. Two people recently approached McDonald in Helena and urged him, as a superdelegate, not to take a position contrary to the wishes of Montana voters. Dahlman and Campbell said they do not believe many of their neighbors know they are superdelegates.

As for taking a pledge to cast their votes for the winner of Montana’s primary, all of the superdelegates are pulling up short of making such a commitment, though other than Tinsley, none have endorsed a candidate. Spokespeople for Schweitzer, Tester and Baucus all said their respective bosses would wait until after the state primary to make a decision about who to support.

McDonald is urging the other superdelegates to also wait until after the primary to make their choices, so as not to influence the outcome.

“The formal pledge, at this juncture, is not to make a pledge,” McDonald said. “Sometime between now and the national convention in Denver, we’ll make some choices as superdelegates.”

“I fully can’t imagine taking a position different than the majority here in Montana, in terms of how I cast my ballot as a superdelegate,” McDonald added.

But both Tinsley and Dahlman also emphasized that they were elected by Democrats to their positions – not necessarily to represent Montanans as a popularly elected official – but to use their judgment to vote for the best person and to represent the Montana Democratic Party.

“As a superdelegate, I was selected in a different way and I think I should make up my mind about what would be best for the people of Montana,” Dahlman said. “Superdelegates should be free to vote their consciences.”

Tinsley noted that as a superdelegate in 2004, he attended the national convention pledged to Wesley Clark, but went with John Kerry when it was clear he would be the party’s nominee. While Tinsley intends to stick to his pledge and believes Obama will win Montana and the nomination, should Hillary Clinton win the primary here, he will reconsider how he pledges as a superdelegate, adding “That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get there.”