WisDems delegates call for reform of primary system

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Just days before Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the Wisconsin Democratic Party passed a resolution calling on the national party either to eliminate superdelegates from its presidential nominating process or require superdelegates to distribute their support according to a state’s primary results.

Superdelegates are mostly current or former party officials who are not bound to support a particular candidate. Unlike pledged delegates, who must vote on the first ballot for the candidates who won primaries in their districts, superdelegates can back whomever they wish.

The resolution was adopted on a voice vote at the party’s state convention in Green Bay, where about 1,000 party activists, officeholders and candidates focused more attention on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump than on their internal divisions.

Conventioneers also approved a second resolution urging Wisconsin’s 10 superdelegates to vote in proportion to the state’s primary results at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, which begins July 25. The resolutions are non-binding.

Six of the superdelegates have said they support Clinton, one is for Bernie Sanders and three others are undecided.

Sanders won the Democratic primary in Wisconsin on April 5 by 57 to 43 percent. But because of that superdelegate support for Clinton, Sanders holds only a five-delegate advantage among Wisconsin’s delegation of 94 party members.

Sanders supporters have heaped criticism on the system, calling it “rigged” by the party establishment. They complain most of the superdelegates announced their support for Clinton before primary voting even began.

Democratic parties in some other states have passed similar resolutions calling for elimination of the superdelegate system.

Nationally, Clinton has the support of 571 superdelegates compared with 48 who back Sanders, who has never run before as a Democrat.

Although Clinton led by more than 300 pledged delegates and more than 3 million votes at the time, it was the additional backing of superdelegates that pushed her over the top June 6, making her the party’s presumptive nominee — and the first woman ever to carry that title for a major political party.

Clinton solidified her lead among grassroots voters on June 7 by scoring blowout wins in New Jersey and California, as well as prevailing in New Mexico and South Dakota.

‘Complicated and messy’

Some Wisconsin Democratic delegates to the convention also pointed to other problems in the nominating process beyond the superdelegate system.

For instance, Kaja Rebane, who helped to write the anti-superdelegate resolutions approved at the convention, believes the states should have uniform primary rules — and that all primaries should be open, meaning nonpartisan.

“Right now the patchwork of primaries and caucuses is complicated and messy,” she said.

Longtime Democrat Glendon Ward agreed primary elections should be conducted in a nonpartisan manner, the same way municipal elections are held in Wisconsin, with the top two vote getters moving into the general election regardless of political affiliation. Ward supported the resolutions adopted by the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

He also echoed Rebane in saying the current nominating process negatively influences people’s perception of the party.

“The majority of people can’t understand the convoluted way that they do things,” he said. “It makes it look to the outside world like we’re doing something shady. And we can’t do that — we have to look like we’re on the up-and-up.”

Not every delegate agreed with the resolutions, however. Marlene Ott said she opposes changing the current system, because it acts as a “safeguard.”

“I think it provides some assurance that some gifted, charismatic speaker can’t come along and captivate people without being supportive of Democratic ideals,” she said. “I think the Republicans would pay a lot of money to change their system right now so they wouldn’t have gotten Donald Trump.”

Republicans do have superdelegates, but far fewer than Democrats.

Despite disagreements within the party, the state Democratic convention was largely a show of unity. There were no hecklers or demonstrators and no one was shouted down.

“There’s already been division, and it’s up to all of us to work together … to move beyond some of those bad feelings,” Rebane said.

Trump roast and the big rematch

Wisconsin Democrats were certainly united in their disdain for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. The convention at times felt like a Trump roast.

Wisconsin’s Democratic officeholders made Trump the brunt of jokes and pointed political jabs, as well as the focus of a video highlight reel.

Trump is a “loose cannon” who “lacks the temperament to hold the most important job in the world,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairwoman Martha Laning at the start of the convention.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, of Milwaukee, even brought out a Trump bobblehead doll as a prop for a speech in which she compared him to villains in Grimms’ fairy tales.

The focus on Trump at times overshadowed the biggest Wisconsin race this year — the rematch between Russ Feingold and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. One of the most closely watched races nationally, the contest has already drawn millions of dollars in television ads paid for by third-party groups.

Democrats are eyeing Johnson as vulnerable in a presidential year. Wisconsin hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, and that pattern generally provides a bump for Democrats in down-ticket races.

Johnson has said he supports Trump (but does not endorse him), which also might damage his chances.

In his speech to the convention, Feingold joined in the free-for-all against Trump.

“We won’t pay our bills with anger and insults,” he said. “Complaining doesn’t create good-paying jobs. Showing up all the time on Fox News doesn’t clean our drinking water. And sitting behind a desk deciding which ethnic or religious group to blame today won’t move Wisconsin or the United States forward.”

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse said he was “shocked and dismayed” that Trump would be the Republican nominee. “We cannot allow a person like Donald Trump to be an occupant in the Oval Office for one minute,” he said.

Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, the minority leader in the state Assembly, noted U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s endorsement of Trump and predicted all of the state’s top Republicans would soon fall in line and get behind “the Trumpster.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison showed comments made by Trump and other Republicans that Pocan dubbed a “collection of intellectual incoherence.” Calling on the crowd to say Trump’s name after listing several of his most controversial policy proposals, Pocan joked that the Democrats had said “Trump” more times than state Republicans did during their entire convention.

Most Republicans did not refer to Trump by name at their convention last month.

“We can’t let Donald Trump and the Trumpettes win this fall,” Pocan said to loud cheers.

Democrats pledged to unite to defeat Trump. Video footage of both Sanders and Clinton on the campaign trail elicited loud cheers from supporters of each, with no audible booing.

“It’s time to turn the page and unite, vote and win in November,” Laning said in a call for unity.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.