A chat with the “father” of the “super delegates”

This afternoon I had a conversation with Charles Manatt, the "godfather" of the Democratic Party’s "super delegates."  Click here to listen to the conversation .  The mp3 runs about nine minutes.  (UPDATE at 4:30 p.m.:  A transcript of the conversation is below.)

Manatt is a native of Audubon, Iowa, and a 1958 graduate of Iowa State University.  He got a law degree from George Washington University in 1962. He’s back on the Ames campus today and tomorrow he’ll be given one of the university’s "Distinguished Alumni" awards.

From 1981 to ’85, Manatt was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In 1983 he founded the system of "unpledged delegates" (he does not call them "super" delegates).  Manatt was co-chair of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and in 1999 President Clinton appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.  In 1965, Manatt founded the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Henderson:  "Take us back to 1983.  Why did you are chairman of the Democratic National Committee back then create these super delegates which I understand you like to refer to as unpledged delegates?"

Manatt:  "Either that or automatic delegates.  The reason is fairly straight forward.  Public officials would not run against their constituents to be delegates and so it was that at the 1980 convention we only had 19 senators or governors or congressman even show up at the convention and who are the people with the political organizations, with the get out of the vote operations, obviously fundraising operations once the convention is over and we face a presidential campaign?  It’s the governors, senators, congressmen and major city mayors and so that was the reason why, to begin with in 1983 we adopted a provision that would allow, again, the governors, senators, at that time 60 percent of the House and major city mayors to be automatic delegates to the convention."

Henderson:  "As you may know Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has suggested getting rid of these unpledged/super delegates, the system.  Do you think it should be junked and what’s your reaction to all this criticism of the system that you helped devise, that sprung up as this Clinton/Obama race has come down to the wire?"

Manatt:  "Well, we certainly always respect Senator Harkin’s views on important issues and we do on thsi one. I think the biggest rationale for the public officials is still there.  Let’s take Iowa as an example.  With Tom, with a great organization in place; Governor Culver; now our three congressmen that we have can really certainly big the boost and give the lift to carry California for the Democratic ticket this year as distinguished from four years ago.  That’s just one example.  New Mexico or California or other places I can cite additional examples that we all of the lift, all of the political leadership supporting our ticket and if they’re not at the convention and they’re not involved, chances are they won’t do that."  (TYPIST’S NOTE:  Manatt, I believe, misspoke in the first reference to California.  I think he meant to say Iowa instead.)

Henderson: "Now, as I understand it, you are one of these unpledges delegates and you were co-chair of the Clinton/Gore campaigns and I looked on Senator Clinton’s campaign website.  She lists you as one of the former Clinton Administration officials who’s supporting her candidacy.  Have you been lobbying other unpledged delegates on Senator Clinton’s behalf in the past few months?"

Manatt:  "Oh, a little bit but it’s real important that you understand how that comes about.  The first installment was mine, which was the public officials.  Then in ’88 the DNC was added.  Reverend Jackson was very active and brought about the expansion of the DNC and a variety of things and then four years later it was Ron Brown who added the former president, vice president and DNC chairman and federal legislative leaders.  So, it wasn’t in that first time, Kay, it was in that third installment that eventually picked up the former party leaders, the chairmen like myself and I have talked to a number, not a huge number, but a number of different ones in a similar situation."

Henderson:  "So, what argument have you been making?  You know everyone has been paying every close attention to this race and the idea is that perhaps Senator Clinton could go to the convention and win the nomination by capturing a majority of super or unpledged delegates?"

Manatt:  "Well, as you have well trained me, I don’t respond to hypotheticals.  I would as a young guy, but I don’t take the bait now.  My basic discussion and advice and the interplay we’ve had — some of us are unpledged but we’re committed.  By the same token, we very much want to win an election in the year 2008 for president and so a lot of people will be having discussions and we may well have a big gruop get together, you know, after Puerto Rico and after the June process is over with."

Henderson:  "So you anticipate that this will last until after, into the early week of June?"

Manatt:  "Well, it looks that way to me.  You know, some games are scheduled for nine innings and old boxing matches are scheduled for 15.  It looks to me as if this one is going to certainly go into the ninth inning. Sometime in June or July perhaps we’ll have the answer."

Henderson:  "As a party insider, what’s your analysis of the 2008 presidential race?"

Manatt:  "I’m sorry.  I didn’t hear your question."

Henderson:  "As a party insider, what’s your analysis of this 2008 presidential race compared to the ones that you participated in, you know, back to the early ’60s?"

Manatt:  "It would be a time of great opportunity for us Democrats to win back the presidency and the fact that we have somewhat extended the campaign troubles some people because they start so early now because the states have moved up many of their primaries and caucuses and the process, but again if you know history and geography the 1960 campaign got down to Wyoming on the first ballot before JFK was the nominee and we indeed were victorious that fall and so there’s a lot of ’em that have gone a long ways toward the convention times — FDR’s first nomination and others — people just don’t realize that it isn’t all going to be decided, necessarily, way ahead of the convention."

Henderson:  "As a former party chairman, do you have any advice for Howard Dean, perhaps a way to resolve the Michigan, Florida dilemma?"

Manatt:  "Well, I would have at an earlier time.  Now I think he has outlined two or three different approaches he’s going to be taking and just like the chairman of the Fed, we don’t second-guess our successors."

Henderson:  "As a native of Audubon, what is your view on the scheduling of the Iowa Caucuses as the first event in the presidential nominating season?"

Manatt:  "Well, it wouldn’t surprise you that I’m very supportive of the Iowa Caucuses being the first part of the process.  It would be more helpful if people nationally understood that we have our caucuses to organize our state party and they weren’t originally, as you know, created to pick a presidential nominee but I think they worked quite well over the years.  I hope we continue to have them first."

Henderson:  "Senator Clinton is not too fond of caucuses."

Manatt: "Yes, I’ve been told that and also I was concerned as far as the follow-on on the county conventions and now, as you know, we have the congressional district conventions.  Sometimes we don’t seem to want to fully participate in the process quite as long as I wish we did, but in any event, she has her views and I have mine."

Henderson:  "And when you say, ‘We’ are you referring to her or Iowans in general?  Who is the personal pronoun there referring to?"

Manatt:  "That would be the Iowans."

Henderson:  "Finally, you’re on the Iowa State campus this afternoon.  How do you compare or perhaps contrast the political involvement and intensity you see today with that of the early ’60s when you were a young man?"

Manatt:  "Well, we were the ’50s and Iowa was basically a Republican state then.  Story County was very Republican.  We had the Senators and then ’til ’58 I think all of the congressmen were all Republicans so from the Democratic standpoint there’s much more involvement, much more excitement I think.  The Caucuses now represent something they didn’t back in the ’60s because the presidential component wasn’t part of them then so I’m encouraged as to the greater political involvement for both the Democrats and the Republicans."

Time with Manatt over.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.