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Our Superdelegates, Ourselves

03/01/2008 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When the Huffington Post put out the call for "citizen journalists" to create profiles of and to interview the Democratic Party's superdelegates, I clicked to volunteer myself without really much thought, perhaps not enough thought. I reckoned that the ominous rumblings of a possibly decisive roll for the superdelegates at a traumatic convention (to say nothing of complicating shenanigans with the liminal Michigan and Florida delegates) meant that the superdelegates needed some exposure to sunlight. A lot of sunlight. Since I interview strangers frequently for my day-job, I figured that this might be an opportunity for me to genuinely help. The 2008 election is really important. Really. The kind of lives my daughters will lead in the future (happier v. sadder) hang in the balance. I care, I clicked, I was committed.

I was assigned two superdelegates from Maine. I live in Greenfield in lovely western Massachusetts, but I thought, "That's okay. I've been to Maine a time or two. I should be able to recognize some of the place names. At least I know who the Senators are." Scheduling the interviews was surprisingly easy - my superdelegates were happy to talk, and to have our interview taped. I was surprised, but why?

Finding out information about my superdelegates was quite another matter. Their email addresses were easy: they are both superdelegates by virtue of their involvement with the Maine Democratic Party, and Mainedems.org led me straight to them. Next step: find something out about my superdelegates: Marianne Stevens and Sam Spencer. As I trolled the web, I was again surprised. Why was there so little information about these two floating around in cyberspace?

This puzzlement made me reflect on my assumptions. Perhaps prejudice is more accurate. The image of a superdelegate that I had was some guy, fat or with newscaster hair: a political apparatchik, a party boss, a professional pol. The latent script was one of operators who could be bought and sold through political favors, cash, or patronage. These operators would derail the Democrats' democratic party and make Senator Clinton the nominee when the people (like me) had called for Senator Obama. Thus ruined, the Democrats' would collapse. President McCain would bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb Iran. I'm probably not alone in this prejudice.

Like many (all?) prejudices, this one had difficulties standing up to a close look at reality. As I found out from infoscraps on the web, and as I would learn in much fuller detail in my interviews with them, Maine's Marianne Stevens and Sam Spencer were nothing like my image of the superdelegate. Marianne has retired to Maine, where she grew up, after a vocation as a training manager at the phone company in Massachusetts and an avocation as an unpaid campaign volunteer for Democratic campaigns. Inspired to political action by a father who took her to see JFK as a young girl, Marianne didn't sound like someone who would smoke cigars with Boss Tweed. As a retiree, she decided she could devote some serious time to the Democratic Party, becoming the Maine party's Vice-Chair, and to help insure that Supreme Court appointments will be done by someone who shares her stances on civil liberties and reproductive freedom. Again, this did not fit with someone who would sit across an onyx conference table from Dr. Evil.

My prejudices did not fare that well with Sam Spencer either. Initially, my prejudices thought that they had a shot: Sam went to Harvard as an undergrad and then to Vitamin H's business school. He has worked in the Clinton-Gore administration. He was now a real estate developer in the Portland area, and had been elected in 2004 to represent Maine on the DNC. "Aha!" my prejudice announced. What goes better than real estate development with political corruption? Perhaps only lobbying.

But when I spoke with Sam, my prejudice's hopes were dashed. Turns out he has what strikes me as the most ethical stance that a superdelegate could take, one that I'm not sure I would have thought up on my own. Oh, and the real estate development angle: turns out it's converting old brick mills into mixed commercial and residential spaces for community development. We have a lot of that around us in western Massachusetts. It's great. Sam's take on what he should do as a superdelegate is to do his best to take himself out of the equation. Refuse to endorse. Hope that the primaries and caucuses lead candidates to drop out of the race, leaving only candidate going into the convention. Bet on normal voters being determinative before the convention.

But what if that doesn't pan out? Well, Sam says that he'll have to choose between a number of possible methodologies for making his superdelgate vote reflect the will of those normal voters. He could vote to try and make the Maine superdelegate split mirror that of the results of the Maine caucus. He could vote for the candidate going into the convention with the greatest number of normal delegates. He could vote for the candidate with the greatest number of popular votes. Each method has its logic, its charm, and its warts, but each is aimed at, in effect, eliminating the role of superdelegates. A superdelegate who explicitly thinks having superdelegates is a bad idea? A superdelegate who is trying to eliminate the power of superdelegates? Sounds like something I hope I'd do if put in the same position.

And Marianne, who spoke to me just after putting her roast in the oven for Sunday supper, what's her take? She had endorsed Edwards early on. Now she's undecided, but may endorse before the convention. She's taken calls from President Clinton, Senator Clinton, and Senator Obama. Her decision about who to endorse will come when she has decided one basic question: Who has the better chance to win in November? It's as simple as that. For Marianne, the stakes are so high that she feels the right thing for her to do is to figure out who has the best odds of winning the general election and doing all that she can to make them the nominee. As for Florida and Michigan, Marianne and Sam were in agreement: they knew what they were doing and should live with the consequences.

It was Marianne who shared a thought with me that finally dispelled my preconceptions about superdelegates, and make me think "Our Superdelegates, Ourselves," echoing the title of a book that's been a perennial presence on the bookshelves of my home. Marianne said that from watching the media, you'd think all superdelegates were high powered political professionals like Donna Shelalea. "Not so," she said, "many of us are just ordinary people." I hope that's true. It certainly did seem to be the case with Marianne Stevens and Sam Spencer - they are just ordinary, unique individuals, who are thinking hard and struggling with the question of just what they should do, and when they should do it. That hard thinking and that struggle give me hope.