Momentum is growing within the Democratic National Committee for a significant reform to the party’s presidential nominating process, but the proposed change has caused a leading California Democrat to question whether Russian meddling is behind the effort.
The Californian, Bob Mulholland, could provide no proof for his claim. But his comments underscore the resistance the reform push is expected to encounter from some party stalwarts.
At issue is the clout exercised by so-called superdelegates in the party’s presidential nominating process. At a Friday meeting of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee in Rhode Island, a majority of that panel expressed support for dramatically reducing the power of superdelegates at the Democratic National Convention by barring them from having a vote on the convention’s first ballot.
Under the party’s current system, superdelegates automatically get convention seats and a vote, and they are not bound to support a candidate based on their state’s primary or caucus results.
Superdelegates ― who include Democrats serving in Congress and other key party officials ― comprised close to 15 percent of the overall delegate number at the party’s 2016 convention, and most supported Hillary Clinton. That was a bone of contention for supporters of the insurgent nomination bid by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and the continued existence of superdelegates remains a major sticking point for many of these activists.
Thus, stripping superdelegates of a first-ballot say in choosing the nominee would be an important step toward unifying the party ahead of the 2020 presidential election, especially given that the last time Democrats needed more than one ballot to anoint their nominee was in 1952.
But while the proposal has the backing of DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Deputy Chairman Keith Ellison (who’s also a House member from Minnesota), Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and top Sanders ally Larry Cohen, a small band of DNC members and some Democrats in Congress remain resolutely opposed to any effort to diminish the standing of superdelegates.
Mulholland, a DNC member and longtime key player in California Democratic politics, sent an email Friday to other DNC members from the Golden State that implied Russian President Vladimir Putin might be behind the reform effort.
The basis for his claim? An activist from West Virginia promoting the changes, who he had seen at two national party gatherings, admitted to him that she was a Green Party member and had voted for its nominee, Jill Stein, in the 2016 election.
“I concluded someone is picking up her expenses but there she and others are, demanding we change our Rules,” Mulholland wrote. “The Putin operation is still active.”
“I’m a big believer that Putin has not let off the gas.”
Contacted by HuffPost on Sunday, Mulholland conceded he had no evidence the woman, who he did not name, was bankrolled by Putin.
But he said that “when people show up who have no connection to the party and they show up at events, requiring transportation of hundreds of miles, I always think they’re working for somebody.”
He added, “I’m a big believer that Putin has not let off the gas. Anyone who thinks Putin would not be interfering with future elections needs to have their head examined.”
Michael Kapp, a fellow DNC member from California, blasted what he called Mulholland’s “completely unsubstantiated allegation,” saying “it would be laughable if it wasn’t so embarrassing.”
Kapp, who supports the superdelegate proposal and backed Clinton in the 2016 primary, said Mulholland, in airing his allegations, “does a disservice to the millions of Democratic and Democratic-leaning activists and voters who want to see the influence of superdelegates eliminated.”
In his Friday email, Mulholland said, “I don’t know how many DNC Members have been in Moscow having dinner with Putin but Jill Stein was and at Putin’s table.”
Votes that went for Stein in several key states ― including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania ― have caused some Democrats to blame her for Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump and wonder whether Russians helped promote the Green Party candidate as part of their interference in the presidential campaign.
Mulholland’s email also referenced a 2015 dinner Stein attended in Moscow for Russia Today, an international news channel owned by the Russian government.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a board member of the Sanders-linked group Our Revolution, dismissed any attempt to claim that superdelegate reform is the product of foreign meddling. She said a majority of Democrats support “reforming superdelegates’ role in nominating our next Presidential nominee.”
“Any Democrat who comes up with right-wing conspiracies in order to keep the status quo is part of the problem and not the solution,” Kleeb said.
Earlier Friday, Mulholland sent a separate email to Perez and Ellison in which he compared the push to diminish the clout of superdelegates to the violent suppression of the civil rights movement. In the email, first reported on by The Washington Post, Mulholland affixed a photo of police beating Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama.
“Now I understand that the two of you are conspiring with Bernie Sanders to block Congress members John Lewis (see photo of police beating Lewis), Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and the rest of the congressional delegation, Governors, State Party Chairs and the rest of us DNC Members from entering our Convention floor in 2020 as voters,” he wrote. “I don’t know if you will have paid thugs at the doorways to beat up Congressman Lewis and the rest of us or not.”
The effort to scale back superdelegates’ power began almost two years ago at the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting immediately preceding the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Sanders supporters pushed for a slate of reforms to the nominating process that were summarily rejected by the party.
But officials brokered a compromise to convene a Unity and Reform Commission that included Sanders appointees roughly proportional to his share of the primary vote and was charged with examining ways to improve the presidential nominating process and the functioning of the DNC. The commission released a series of recommendations in December, including a call for eliminating about two-thirds of the number of superdelegates.
The new plan to retain the number of superdelegates but prevent them from meaningfully affecting the nomination, if recent history is any guide, is agreeable to reformers because of its greater simplicity and likelihood of passage by the entire DNC membership.
Unlike the Unity Commission’s original proposal, which would have required approval by two-thirds of the DNC’s membership, the new superdelegate proposal would require just a simple majority.
The Rules and Bylaws Committee has until June 30 to decide on its final proposals to the entire DNC membership. The DNC will then vote on the recommendations at an Aug. 23-25 national meeting in Chicago.
The deliberations on the nomination process have not been without a significant defeat for reformers eager to make the party more accessible to independents and progressives who previously have stayed on the political sidelines. The party is poised to proceed with approving a rule requiring any candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to formally identify as a Democrat.
It is not clear that the rule would prohibit a second run by Sanders, who as an independent caucuses with Democrats in the Senate. Sanders could simply register as a Democrat to seek the nomination.
But the rule is unmistakably a reflection of many Democratic insiders’ resentment of the Vermont senator’s presidential run. And some progressives fear it could disenchant unaffiliated voters interested in trying to influence the party’s direction and its next presidential nominee.
This story has been updated with comments from Kapp and Kleeb.