02:10 - Source: CNN
Bernie Sanders rips the superdelegate system

Story highlights

Superdelegates were a key sticking point during the Democratic primary process last year

The DNC formed a "unity" commission to study the issue

Washington CNN —  

The Democratic drama over superdelegates is back.

A “unity reform commission” the party created last July – made up of leaders selected separately by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – is tasked with making a recommendation by the end of this year: Keep superdelegates, eliminate them, or something in between.

But the 21 members of the commission admit that almost a year after the Clinton vs. Sanders nominating fight ended, the bitter feelings still haven’t gone away.

“I think tensions will definitely start to rise as we get into the nitty-gritty of proposals,” said Jane Kleeb, the Nebraska Democratic chairwoman and a Sanders selection for the unity commission.

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“But I’m confident – and I guess hoping, at the same time – that it’s not just, ‘Oh, you’re a Bernie delegate, so of course you think that way,’” added Kleeb, who rose to national prominence as an activist against the Keystone XL pipeline.

The unity commission is headed into its second of four meetings this week in San Antonio. Superdelegates aren’t officially on the agenda until the third meeting, in Chicago in August – but several commission members said they expect behind-the-scenes talks on the issue to intensify over the summer.

Superdelegates became a flashpoint in the Clinton vs. Sanders contest, when members of Congress and other party leaders given the special status to cast a vote for their choice for the Democratic presidential nominee regardless of their states’ results overwhelmingly backed Clinton, in some cases allowing her to carry more delegates than Sanders in states where he won the primary or caucus.

They didn’t ultimately tip the nomination to Clinton – she won more pledged delegates than Sanders, too – but Sanders’ backers felt their early endorsements left many Democrats believing that Clinton’s nomination was predetermined.

Beating back efforts by Sanders’ supporters to eliminate superdelegates at July’s convention, the DNC launched a commission to study the issue – and started with the recommendation that members of Congress, governors and other elected officials retain their status, but that other party leaders lose it, potentially reducing the number of superdelegates by two-thirds.

“To go beyond that would be a push,” acknowledged Larry Cohen, a Democratic labor leader who is the unity panel’s co-chairman and the chairman of the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution.

Even if the unity commission sticks with that recommendation, it would then need the approval of the DNC’s Rules Committee and the full DNC.

Implementing at least that recommendation, though, Cohen said, is key, “because obviously this is aimed at 2020 and the DNC has to adopt it in some way.”

A leading proponent on the unity commission for keeping superdelegates in their current role, several members said, is Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a Clinton selection to the panel. Fudge declined an interview request.

The superdelegate system has been in place since the 1980s, when Democrats sought to avoid blowout losses like George McGovern had suffered in 1972 and President Jimmy Carter faced in 1980 by increasing the influence of party insiders.

After the 2008 contest between Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, a panel recommended reducing superdelegates’ influence, but the DNC never adopted the changes.

Other proposals to curb the influence of superdelegates that have floated around in conversations with unity commission members – including private conference calls the Clinton and Sanders sides are holding – includes keeping superdelegates but requiring them to vote according to their states’ results.

It’s one of several changes Sanders’ supporters hope to make. They are also seeking major changes to presidential debate scheduling, and are pushing to open primaries and caucuses to independents. The commission is also expected to examine the party’s nominating calendar – which features the overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire voting first, and a geographic mishmash of states voting in clusters on the same day.

The commission also includes members appointed by new DNC Chairman Tom Perez. And panel members described the early conversations as “Kumbaya” moments, even as they anticipate fights later this year.

“I think for us, we’re essentially not assuming that the Clinton or Perez delegates are only status quo thinking. In that until they prove otherwise, we’re going to continue on that mindset,” Kleeb said.