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Published: Friday, 2/15/2008

Michigan's Democratic leaders didn't count on Obama surge

DETROIT - So here's the situation: The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is the closest and most exciting in American history. And the Michigan Democratic Party has screwed things up almost beyond belief. They've insulted African-Americans, the single-largest bloc of Democratic voters in the state.

They've insulted young people. They have done everything they can to split the party and increase the chances that Arizona Sen. John McCain will win Michigan in November. They've done everything they could to make themselves irrelevant and meaningless.

They could still reverse course. But Mark Brewer, the longest-serving state party chairman in the nation, refuses to reconsider his position.

As of now, Michigan will have no votes at the Democratic National Convention. Michigan intends to be the only state where no one was, or will be, allowed to cast a primary or caucus vote for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, now the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

National Democratic officials have begged Mr. Brewer to reconsider the results of the botched primary. They would like him to hold a widely inclusive caucus.

Then Michigan Democrats would be able to choose between New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama. That might give the state the chance to really be the "decider." The state would get vast attention, and this time the result would be honored and the delegates seated.

And whoever won, the result would be widely accepted across a state Democrats must have to win the White House in November.

But Mark Brewer says no. He is utterly unwilling to change. What he evidently thinks he can do is bully the national party into seating a delegation that was elected illegally, in violation of party rules.

None of the candidates campaigned in Michigan. Most, including Mr. Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the favorite of much of labor, took their names off the ballot because the party asked them to. Mrs. Clinton left hers on, but told the media in New Hampshire it didn't matter, as Michigan's vote "is not going to count for anything."

The primary drew a scanty turnout, and those voters split 55 percent for Mrs. Clinton and 40 percent uncommitted.

That was fine at the time with Mr. Brewer and Debbie Dingell, the Democratic National Committeewoman who was the leading force in pushing the state to break the rules.

Mr. Brewer told the media that the Democratic National Committee didn't mean what it said about punishing Michigan.

Why, they would never enforce the rules against a state that was "so large and important," he said.

When he did that, the Democratic National Committee then canceled the Michigan delegation's hotel rooms in Denver.

The Brewer forces counted, as many people had, on Mrs. Clinton just bulldozing her way to the nomination, at which point they'd be allowed to join the coronation.

But they had never counted on Mr. Obama. This week, after he had won eight states in a row, the mood in some Michigan Democratic circles was near-panic. Incredibly, one very high Democratic official was still referring to him as "the civil-rights candidate," though it was clear that Mr. Obama had gotten a majority of the white vote in many states, even Virginia.

But the smarter of the hacks realized what would happen if Michigan, with its large and vocal black population, insisted on attempting to deliver the nomination to Mrs. Clinton - without giving anyone a chance to vote for Mr. Obama.

"You can forget about carrying Michigan for any Democrat for 20 years," one officeholder said. "You'll be too busy worrying about the riots that may break out instead."

The Rev. Al Sharpton weighed in, sternly warning the party that to seat the Michigan or Florida delegations "would not only violate the Democratic Party's rules of fairness, but also would be a grave injustice" against African-Americans. (Florida similarly had its delegates disenfranchised for holding a primary too early.)

Not only black voters were displeased. One white woman wrote on a political blog, "I thought it smelled fishy that Clinton left her name on the ballot and two days later [Gov. Jennifer] Granholm endorsed her. I'm extremely unhappy and don't know what to do beside writing to the Michigan Democratic Party. If Clinton's on the November ballot I will not vote for her. "

Frantically, ideas were being tossed around within Democratic circles. One scenario had the delegation being seated in return for their vow to divide their 156 votes equally - 78 for each contender.

Another wild suggestion was to tack a new Democratic presidential primary onto the August congressional primary, electing new delegates just three weeks before the convention in Denver.

What most of the Michigan Democratic leadership seem to want at this point was for a clear nominee to emerge soon, so that the focus and pressure would go away. But that seems highly unlikely to happen, unless the Clinton campaign suffers devastating defeats in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

So the nightmare scenario looks like this: The Democratic National Convention refuses to seat Michigan's all-Clinton delegation, and then nominates Mr. Obama. Bet he'll feel he owes a lot to the state that has the worst unemployment rate in the nation.

By the way why did Michigan Democrats do this? Believe it or not, it was to have more influence over the process.

Way to go.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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