Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The Michigan and Florida mess

It may be as close as this campaign gets to a convention floor fight. In a Washington hotel ballroom, the Clinton and Obama campaigns do battle over the disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida and the interpretation of arcane party rules. It might be Clinton's last stand. It will be a long day.

Larry Eichel reports...

7:15 p.m.

It's over. Clinton picks up a net of 24 delegates, which probably isn't enough to make much of a difference. Whether this is the end of the matter, we'll see. She can appeal to the credentials committee. But the race may be over by then.

7:10 p.m.

On to Michigan. The first resolution calls for giving each Michigan delegate half a vote in accordance with the compromise proposed by the state Democratic Party. So there'd be 34.5 votes for Clinton, 29.5 for Obama. Superdelegates also get half-votes. Don Fowler, a Clinton backer, says he'll support it.

But Harold Ickes of the Clinton campaign says he's against it for the reasons he laid out earlier. "This body of 30 individuals has decided that it's going to substitute its judgment for 600,000 votes. That's what I call democracy...I am stunned that we have the gaul and the chutzpah to substitue our judgment for 600,000 voters...There's been a lot of talk about party unity...I submit to you that hijacking four delegates, notwithstanding the flawed election, is not a good way to start down the path to party unity,..One more thing. Mrs. Clinton has instructed me to reserve her rights to take this to the credentials committee."

Thomas Hynes, an Obama supporter on the committee, says this plan does reflect the will of the Michigan Democratic Party. To jeers, he says he wants to congratulate Sen. Obama on his leadership. Everett Ward, an Obama backer from North Carolina, says rather sternly that this proposal gives the people of Michigan the opportunity to participate and is what the Michigan Party wants. Without naming him, Ward accuses Ickes of "political posturing."

The resolution passes, 19-8, And Michigan is resolved. Another chant of "Den-ver!" fills the hall.

6:47 p.m.

The next resolution calls for letting all of the Florida delegates go to the convention with half-votes. Same goes for the superdelegates. Clinton gets 52.5 votes, Obama, 33.5, Edwards 6.5. Some of the Clinton supporters on the rules committee indicate they'll support this, on the grounds that something is better than nothing. Alice Huffman, who made the earlier proposal for full seating, says this "is not perfect but it's good" and she'll vote for it. Harold Ickes, senior Clinton adviser, says he's going to vote for it, too. The motion passes 27-0. Florida is resolved.

6:40 p.m.

The first motion is to seat Florida in its entirety according to the primary results. This would give Clinton a net gain of 38 delegates. Even supporters acknowledge that it's going to lose. But they want to have a vote on it. Opponents say that the rules have to be enforced. The Clintonites in the crowd are not happy. The motion fails 12-15. The Clintonites in the crowd chant, "Den-ver, Den-ver, Den-ver!"

The meeting was supposed to resume at 4:15. It actually resumes at 6:15.

5:45 p.m.

Not back yet. The thought/hope/wish is that the members of the rules committee are hashing out their compromises behind closed door and that they'll proceed to announce, debate and enact them in short order once the formal meeting resumes. 

4:50 p.m.

Still not back from lunch. Well, I am. They aren't.

The thinking around here is that the committee has reached agreement on Florida -- recognize the primary, seat the delegates, giving each one a half vote and Clinton a net gain of 19 or so -- but are having a harder time with Michigan. The sticking point there may be whether to give the uncommitted delegates to Obama or leave them as uncommitted, even though everyone knows that the vast majority of those delegates will end up being for Obama.

In the real world, this may be a distinction without a difference. But to the keepers of the party rules, this is very big stuff.

We'll let you know when the show resumes.

2:55 p.m.

Speaking for Obama, former U.S. Rep. David Bonior (D., Mich.) calls for the state's delegates to be split evenly between Clinton and Obama, regardless of whether the committee decides to cut the size of the delegation's voting poiwer in half. For his thoughts, Bonior gets roundly booed by the Clinton supporters in the crowd.

This option is necessary, he says, because Michigan "was not anything close to a normal presidential election." He points out that Clinton told a radio interviewer in New Hampshire that the Michigan primary "would not count." He says that a lot of Michigan Democrats, as a result, didn't vote -- having been told by the candidates and the national Democratic Party that the primary would not count -- or voted instead in the Republican primary. And, of course, Obama's name was not on the ballot in Michigan.

Speaking for Clinton, former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard said the issue is how we honor the voters of the state. He makes a reference to the need for lunch. Cheers all around. He says the problem wasn't that the primary was flawed. It was that four candidates had a flawed strategy and took their names off the ballot. He favors allocation in keeping with the primary results, 73 for Clinton, 55 uncommitted, and thereby restoring all of the delegates. So far, he says, 36 uncommitted delegates have been named, and the vast majority are Obama supporters. "Our party leaders and our state have already been punished," he says. "If you turn your back on Michigan and Florida, you'll be flirting with a McCain victory."

Under questioning from Hynes, an Obama supporter, Blanchard says, "I agree you should have rules but not rules that shouldn't disenfranchise voters." Donna Brazile, who's uncommitted and belongs to the committee, told Blanchard: "My momma always taught me to play by the rules. When you try to change the rules int he middle of the game, the end of the game, that's referred to as cheating." Replies Blanchard, "Hillary Clinton did play by the rules."

So much for party unity.

At long last, lunch. Deliberations and voting later this afternoon.

1:45 p.m.

Clinton's man, Harold Ickes, is really giving it to Sen. Levin. The Michigan proposal, he says, "does enormous violence" to party rules in two respects. One is that "uncommitted" is just like a candidate and has to be respected. The other is the "stunning" call to take away delegates from Clinton and give them to Obama. Asks Ickes: "Why not take ten of them, take twenty of them, keep on going?"

What's violated, Ickes says, in the concept of "fair reflection," that the delegate allocation should reflect the results of the voting. He says this is as sacred to the Democratic Party as the First Amendment is to the country at large.

Slightly exasperated, Levin replies: "You're calling for a fair reflection of a flawed primary." 

1:30 p.m.

In questioning Levin, committee member Alice Germond, who's uncommitted, captured the Michigan (and Florida) problems in a nutshell: "Our troubles occur because we are retroactively trying to certify and give out delegates from an event we said wasn't going to count...That is really tough."

No kidding. 

1:20 p.m.

Next, U.S. Sen Carl Levin (D., Mich.), also speaking on behalf of the 69-59 solution proposed by the Michigan Democratic Party. He's the man who got Michigan in this mess in the first place. He pushed the state to hold its primary on Jan. 15 in an attempt to maximize its influence. For years, Levin has been trying to reduce the "perpetual privilege" of Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nominating process. He claims that those two states are horribly unrepresentative of the country -- and that no state or states have the right to go first all the time. And he explains that Michigan scheduled its early primary to protest the rules committee allowed New Hampshire to game the process.

Says Levin: "The Democratic Party needs unity in the middle of this contentious battle between these two strong candidates. The Michigan Democratic Party has achieved unity. We're asking you to preserve it." He adds; "It was a flawed primary, folks. Believe me, we know it."

The press has, quite accurately, portrayed the fight that's going on here today as a battle for delegates between Clinton and Obama. But in the conversation, the names of the two candidates rarely get mentioned. The real battle is buried underneath all sorts of bureaucratic and legalistic verbiage. These people really care about rules and precedents and the like. 

1:00 p.m.

Mark Brewer, the state Democratic chairman, is speaking on behalf of the Michigan appeal. The state is proposing that all 128 of its pledged delegates be seated. He says that reducing the size of the delegation will only help John McCain carry the state in the fall. The Michigan proposal is that Clinton get 69 and Obama 59.

If the delegates were allocated according to the primary, it would be 73 delegates for Clinton, 55 for uncommitted. But Brewer says that's not a fair reflection of voter preference at the time. The uncommitted votes were really votes for Obama and John Edwards, he says. Brewer cites exit polls in making his case and notes that the party actually instructed voters who supported those candidates (who weren't on the ballot) to vote "uncommitted." He says, "Thus, it can not be said that the 55 delegates represent voters who are truly uncommitted."

He also says that 73 delegates for Clinton would overstate her true leve of support. His argument on this point is more than a little tortured and depends on exit poll information and uncounted write-in votes that might or might not have been for Obama  So 69-59 reflects voter preference, he says, based not just on the primary but on all the available information.

Elaine Kamarck, a committee member from Massachusetts who supports Clinton, says she has no doubt that most of the uncommitted votes were for Obama. But she says she has problems with the "willy-nilly, arbitrary assignment" of delegates from "uncommitted" -- which she notes is a legitimate presidential preference -- to Obama on the basis of information other than the primary results themselves. "It seems to me this way lies choas," she says.

Don Fowler, a committee member from South Carolina and another Clinton supporter, says that if the 2004 election were decided on exit polls John Kerry would be president today. The only valid source of information here, Fowler says, are the primary results themselves. The Michigan proposal, he says, is something "out of Alice in Wonderland."

Brewer is asked what party rule he's citing to justify his plan. He replies, amazingly, that there isn't any, that he and the Michigan party are just trying to come up with something to deal with a "unique" situation.

Thomas Hynes, a committee member from Illinois and an Obama supporter, says he understands what Brewer is trying to do, arguing that an election between "uncommitted" and someone as well known as Hillary Clinton is not much on an election. "These numbers are not all that reliable. But they're all we have." He also talks about the people who didn't vote in the primary because their candidates' names weren't on the ballot and because they were told that the results wouldn't matter anyway. "I think you've done a good job in bringing in other factors" and that relying just on these election returns "fails miserably."

12:30 p.m.

So much for Florida. On to Michigan. Which is harder. And messier. A lot messier. 

12:25 p.m.

It's U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D., Fla.) on Obama's behalf. He's very intense in his presentation, almost angry. And he advocates that the committee give Florida half of its delegation back in accordance with the Ausman appeal. He says: "Sen. Obama should be commended for his willingness to offer this extraordinary concession" which would produce a net gain in delegates for Clinton. These words, predictably, elicit loud cheers and jeers from the partisans in the crowd. Wexler says he wants superdelegates, including himself, reinstated with half votes. Ausman had called for full votes.

The reason that 100 percent reinstatement is not appropriate, Wexler suggests, "is that this contest (on Jan. 29) was not a normal primary election." He says that Obama, as the lesser known candidate, was hurt more than Clinton by not being able to campaign in the state. And he says that the turnout would have been much higher than it was had Clinton and Obama campaigned in the state and had voters been told in advance that their votes counted. This is why, he says, a compromise is necessary.

Tina Flournoy of South Carolina, a committee member from South Carolina and a high-ranking Clintonite, asks if Wexler would oppose full reinstatement of the delegation. Wexler doesn't want to give a yes or no answer to that question. He says he's asking for all that the party rules allow, which is 50 percent reinstatement. "Let us unify," he says.

Harold Ickes, also a committee member and an even higher-ranking Clintonite, asks: "What concession is being made?" by Barack Obama. Wexler says Obama is conceding that Clinton will have a net gain of 19 delegates, which is about what she picked up in toto in the hard-fought primaries of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ickes' implication, of course, is that Clinton is entitled a net gain of twice that many delegates through full reinstatement.

Alice Huffman, a committee member from California who supports Clinton, asks why restoring 100 percent of the delegates wouldn't be a step toward unity. That, of course, is the Clinton position. Wexler said that the rules commitee (including Huffman) didn't have to be so harsh on Florida in the first place.

Now things are getting a little pissy. Huffman says Wexler didn't answer her question and said "she's concerned about the voters." She says she's not being cute or confrontational and that she couldn't foresee a year ago (when she voted for the punishment for Florida) where things would be now.  So what's wrong, she asks, with 100 percent reinstatement? This exchange is getting the partisans in the audience riled up, pro and con.

11:45 a.m.

Now the candidates' spokespeople get to talk. For Clinton, it's a state senator from Florida, Arthenia Joyner, who says: "I can assure you that my state has already suffered enough" from not getting to see the candidates in person. "Florida Democrats are demanding that their votes be counted." She asks that the delegates be seated in full, saying that Floridians feel that their votes have been stolen from them. "In life, you don't get everything that you want. But I want it all."

She also explains that Democrats in the Florida state legislature voted for the bill that included the Jan. 29 date for the primary because it also included a provision to require that there be a paper trail for all votes in the states. She says that Democrats voted for it only after trying and failing to get the too-early primary date removed from the legislation.

She gets a standing ovation from the Hillary supporters in the room. 

11:20 a.m.

Now it's Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, speaking on behalf of the Florida Democratic Party. He says that the party must recognize the votes from the Jan. 29 primary and allocate delegates on the basis of that primary. He'd prefer that the state get 100 percent of its delegates back. But he's not insisting on that. "These voters violated no rule. They committed no crime...yet they are the ones who would be unfairly punished."

Nelson also has to fend off questions from Obama supporters on the committee asking what about people who didn't vote in the primary because they'd been told it didn't count and how come Democrats in the state legislature voted for the too-early Jan. 29 primary. Republicans control state government in Florida. So how Democratic legislators voted is largely irrelevent. The questions are getting Nelson riled up. He keeps saying that "in the spirit of unity" he'd rather not rehash all of this. But he does so anyway.

10:40 a.m.

After the introductory speeches, the focus shifts first to the Florida challenge, made by Jon Ausman, a member of the DNC from Florida. To understand his every word, you've got to be conversant with the party rules and the party charter. A lot of talk of subsections, Robert's Rules of Order and the definition of the word "shall."

But his key point is this: "We're not arguing for one hundred percent (restoration of the delegates). We recognize that Florida has violated the timing rules." He's asking that the state get half of its pledged delegates back (92 out of 185) and all of its superdelegates. The party rules say that losing half the delegates is the "automatic" penalty. He's likely to get most of what he wants. That would probably make the Obama people happy but not the Clinton camp. 

10:10 a.m.

The meeting began with a speech from DNC Chairman Howard Dean. He said he hoped this meeting would help unify the party. That remains to be seen.

Said Dean: "We are strong enough to struggle and disagree and even be angry and disappointed and come together at the end of the day and be united."

Dean said that the rules committee should be guided by three principles.

1. Respect the voters of Michigan and Florida who "did not cause this problem."

2. Respect the two candidates.

3. Respect the 48 states that did not violate the rules.

Dean said he expected the compromises to be reached "won't satisfy everyone completely." No doubt about that.

We're reporting from the much-ballyhooed meeting of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee to resolve the long-festering dispute over the Michigan and Florida delegations to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The two states committed the heinous crime of holding their primaries too early. For that, they had all of their delegates taken away. Hillary Clinton won both primaries, and she'd like to see all of the delegates reinstated. If she succeeds, which is not likely, the long odds against her candidacy will get a little less long.

The meeting is expected to last until late afternoon or early evening, with presentations in the morning, deliberations in the afternoon. Already, hundreds of demonstrators are outside at the entrance to the driveway of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel here in northwest Washington. They're mostly women, many from Florida, and all for Clinton. Barack Obama told his people to stay away. The demonstrators are chanting stuff like "Count Every Vote" and holding signs: Real Democrats County Votes, 50 States Not 48, and No Nomination Without Representation.

One of the demonstrators is Nancy Hoppe, 76, of Largo, Fla. She'll be a Clinton delegate in Denver assuming there are Florida delegates in Denver. She told me that the 1.75 million Florida Democrats who voted in the disputed Jan. 29 primary knew what they were doing, that they'd watched the debates, consumed the news coverage and hadn't needed to see the candidates in person -- the candidates stayed away.

"I feel as if we're children who've been put in the corner." she said. "It's time to let us out. We've been punished long enough. We're realy people and we're real voters."

The proceedings are supposed to start at 9:30.