The makings of a super fiasco

With the exception of the moniker of Clark Kent’s timeless and legendary alter-ego, the word super has been on a steady decline that even the Man of Steel couldn’t stop. It’s had isolated moments — think Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Eli Manning and David Tyree’s Super Bowl XLII heroics — but otherwise the term’s not living up to its superlative status. When Supersize fast food meals and television shows like Supernanny and MTV’s Celebrity Rap Superstar start to become the norm, it’s a sad development.

Exhibit A for this etymological perversity is the Democratic Party’s superdelegates, which could wreak some serious havoc on the 2008 presidential election. Louisiana has its share of these so-called superdelegates, and if you voted in last Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary, you’ll want to get acquainted with this crew. (The Republican Party, by contrast, doesn’t have superdelegates.)

It’s a byzantine and eminently confusing system, but here’s how it works in a nutshell: superdelegates are elected officials and Democratic Party stalwarts who account for a portion of the delegates needed by either Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. The kicker is that these superdelegates are under no obligation for their delegate votes to reflect the popular vote. So let’s use the Feb. 9 Democratic presidential primary as an example. Even though Obama handily defeated Clinton by a 57 percent to 36 percent margin, the superdelegates could conceivably vote to tilt the delegate totals in the opposite direction. With Clinton and Obama currently neck-and-neck in delegate totals, and 796 superdelegates spread out across the country, these superdelegates are suddenly making a lot of new friends.

Louisiana has nine superdelegates U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, U.S. Rep. Charles Melancon, U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, State Party Chair Chris Whittington, 1st Vice-Chairman Mary Lou Winters, and Democratic Party members Buddy Leach, Ben Jeffers, Patsy Arceneaux and Renee Gill Pratt.

Before last Saturday’s primary, I set out calling and e-mailing the Louisiana superdelegates to see if they had already pledged support to a particular candidate. Unsurprisingly, Landrieu, Melancon and Jefferson are currently uncommitted and hedging their bets. Whittington and Winters cannot publicly pledge support to any candidate because their party positions are both up for re-election at a DSCC meeting March 15. Democratic Party spokeswoman Julie Vezinot says Whittington and Winters will not endorse any candidate until a nominee is chosen at the convention. Leach is also uncommitted.

That’s not the case with Patsy Arceneaux, who’s pledged her support to Hillary Clinton. “I like both of our candidates very much,” says Arceneaux. “I really will be happy with either candidate, and it was a tough decision.”

When I asked her what ultimately propelled her to support Clinton, there was a long pause.

“Her husband called,” she said. “He’s very persuasive.”

She called back 10 minutes later to assure me that Bill Clinton’s phone call wasn’t the only reason she was supporting Hillary. And Clinton isn’t the only one stumping; The New York Times reported that former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and 2004 party nominee John Kerry are courting superdelegates on behalf of Obama.

Jeffers did not return a call for comment.

Gill Pratt, the former New Orleans city councilwoman who was roundly criticized for appropriating an SUV donated by Daimler-Chrysler for first responders after Hurricane Katrina — and then donating it to a nonprofit run by William Jefferson’s brother just as she was leaving office — is also supporting Clinton. “I made the decision right after Christmas or New Year’s,” she says. “I respect her work with health care, and I was looking for the people’s candidate. And right after Katrina, she was here.”

I asked Gill Pratt if she’d heard any of the rumblings about superdelegates being able to subvert the popular vote. She hadn’t, and when I explained it, she noted, “It won’t be the first time the [presidential] convention will be interesting.”

I suspect a lot of voters won’t find it “interesting” if the superdelegates’ final tally doesn’t reflect the popular vote. And it’s not just the superdelegates’ votes that raise red flags; it’s the influence they wield. “The superdelegates are a bellwether and have more stroke in the state party,” says Vezinot. “They have the ability to encourage voting one way or another, and the candidates know that.”

Landrieu appears to know what’s at stake and what an absolute fiasco this could turn into for the state and national Democratic Party. “I intend to support the nominee chosen through this open and invigorating process, and believe that all our state’s delegate votes at the convention should reflect the proportions of Saturday’s popular vote,” she said in a statement.

The sentiment’s there but offers no guarantees or process to ensure the collective superdelegates heed that call.

Where’s Superman when you need him?