By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007
The Democratic National Committee sought to seize control of its unraveling nominating process yesterday, rejecting pleas from state party leaders and cracking down on Florida for scheduling a Jan. 29 presidential primary.
The DNC's rules and bylaws committee, which enforces party rules, voted yesterday morning to strip Florida of all its delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver -- the harshest penalty at its disposal.
The penalty will not take effect for 30 days, and rules committee members urged officials from the nation's fourth-most-populous state to use the time to schedule a later statewide caucus and thus regain its delegates.
By making an object lesson of Florida, Democrats hope to squelch other states' efforts to move their voting earlier, which have created chaos in the primary structure that the national party has established. But the decision to sanction such a pivotal, vote-rich state has risks.
The party punished Delaware in 1996 for similar rules violations. But Florida, a mega-state that has played a pivotal role in the past two presidential elections, is different. The clash leaves the presidential candidates in limbo about how to campaign there.
Asked what Hillary Rodham Clinton's plans are for the state, Harold Ickes, a DNC member and adviser to the New York senator, said, "I don't think anyone's going to answer that question, or cross that bridge, until we see what happens in the next 30 days."
Bill Burton, a spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said, "Hopefully, in the next 30 days, Florida and the DNC can reach agreement so Florida's delegates can contribute to the nomination contest."
Florida's state party chair, Karen L. Thurman, showed no signs of backing down yesterday. The former congresswoman said she will consult with state Democrats but added that she expects all the presidential candidates to ignore the national party's edict and campaign vigorously in advance of the Sunshine State's primary.
"Whether you get a delegate or don't get a delegate, a vote is a vote," a defiant Thurman said. "That is what Floridians are going to say is important."
The DNC rules stipulate that states that have not been granted a special waiver must schedule presidential nominating contests after Feb. 5.
"Rules are rules," said DNC member Garry S. Shays, of California, at the meeting. "California abided by them, and Florida should, as well. To ignore them would open the door to chaos."
Donna Brazile, a member of the rules committee who argued for a swift and harsh punishment for Florida, said states' desire to be more relevant in the nominating process does not excuse violations of rules intended to make the system fair for everyone.
"I understand how states crave to be first. I understand that they're envious of the role that Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally played," said Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "The truth is, we had a process. . . . We're going to back these rules."
Though the DNC's action was well-telegraphed, it came after emotional pleas from state party leaders, who blamed the initial selection of the date on Republicans who control the legislature. Thurman said she and her staff spent "countless hours" trying to persuade the legislature to pick another date.
Jon Ausman, a DNC member from Florida, begged his colleagues to make an exception for Florida because of those efforts.
"We're asking you for mercy, not judgment," Ausman said.
The rules committee was largely unmoved; only one member -- Florida's Allan Katz -- voted against imposing the sanctions.
Under the caucus alternative proposed yesterday, voters could still go to the polls on Jan. 29 to express their preferences for a presidential nominee, but the results would be ceremonial, much like the results of the Republican straw poll held in Ames, Iowa, this month.
"It's essentially a beauty contest. . . . There are no delegates now," said Alexis Herman, co-chair of the rules committee.
Thurman and other state leaders said there are several problems with the caucus suggestion.
She said a caucus could cost the state party as much as $8 million -- money she said the party and its benefactors do not have. She said a caucus in a state the size of Florida would be impractical and would have the effect of allowing far fewer people to participate.
State party officials also said they prefer to keep the official voting on Jan. 29 because a property tax initiative they hope to defeat will be on the ballot that day. Turning the Democratic presidential primary into a meaningless event would probably mean lower turnout among the party's faithful and make it harder to defeat the initiative, they said.
"Defeating a horrible referendum on Jan. 29 . . . is a top priority for every constituent group I am aware of," said Terrie Brady, a DNC member and former chair of the Florida state party.
Thurman declined to say whether she or state officials are likely to file a lawsuit against the national party, as was suggested by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) during a conference call Friday.
"Yeah, this is emotional for me, and it should be," she said. Asked whether she thought Florida had been treated fairly, she said, "We'll see in 30 days."
Both political parties have struggled over the years to determine how best to nominate their presidential candidates.
Iowa and New Hampshire have dominated that process since the late 1960s, in part by arguing that their relatively small size allows candidates to have more personal contact with voters. But in recent years, larger states and those with more ethnic diversity have argued that they should be at the front of the process, too. This year, those pressures have pushed presidential voting earlier than ever.
"I think this whole system is goofy. It's all out of kilter," Ickes said. "I think we start way too early."
Alice Germond, a West Virginia member of the DNC, said that "the process is still a mess."
The national parties face the prospect of further confrontations: South Carolina Republicans have moved their primary to Jan. 19, a decision that may force New Hampshire and Iowa to vote earlier in January. And Michigan's legislature is on the verge of approving a Jan. 15 date -- a move that would violate the same Democratic rule that Florida faces punishment for breaking.
The Michigan Republican State Committee voted yesterday to endorse the new date.
"Moving up the primary will make Michigan the first major industrial state to hold a presidential primary and will give our voters a chance to educate the next president of the United States about Michigan and its specific issues," state GOP Chairman Saulius "Saul" Anuzis said in a statement.