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Dayton's Mayor, A Superdelegate With 'No' of Steel

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

DAYTON, Ohio -- You'd think someone would have invented a Superdelegate Cape by now. Let's make that cape red. Then all the Democratic Party insiders could don their bright capes as a symbol of the extraordinary power they hold over their party's presidential nominating competition. And everybody would know where they are every minute.

Here's the deal: There are 796 party VIPs (once a replacement for the late Rep. Tom Lantos is named) who will serve as unpledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer, meaning they are not bound by primary or caucus results, meaning they can choose whichever candidate moves them, meaning they can commit, rescind their commitment, flip and flop like whales if they want to. Some of them already have. Who are these people? Members of Congress, governors, former presidents and vice presidents, former party chairmen, former House and Senate leaders, and DNC members nobody has ever heard of.

Here's the deal: Barack Obama leads Hillary Clinton in total delegates pledged through voting, 1187 to 1035, according to the Associated Press's tally. Hardly anyone thinks that either candidate can amass the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination without the help of the caped crusaders, all of whom are closely watching the outcomes of contests today in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island.

Should Obama do well and Clinton not close in on his delegate lead, pressure will mount on the superdelegates for an intervention. And by intervention, we mean either private nudges to Clinton to get out of the race or a flood of endorsements for Obama to create the same effect. The Clinton team's plea to superdelegates, who represent about a fifth of the delegate total: Hold on. Watch how we roll.

Here's the deal: Clinton leads Obama in superdelegates, 241 to 199, according to the AP. That leaves 356 whose intentions are unknown or who are uncommitted and whose lives are now full of extra drama. Surely they could use some kind of weaponry, some lasers or swords to go with their capes, to fend off all the bothersome entreaties. They've had their dinners interrupted at home, been reached on cellphones while getting pizza with friends. Actors have called, neighbors have stopped them on the street, even relatives have urged them to do the right thing. And the presidential contenders and their families? They've been relentless.

Which brings us to superdelegate Rhine McLin, the petite mayor of Dayton, who has handled the pressure splendidly. Which is to say she has tried mostly to avoid it. "I get really nervous about a lot of attention," she says.

Hillary Clinton called three times, husband Bill twice, daughter Chelsea twice. No Clinton could ever seem to reach McLin. "I got the numbers," she explains, "but I just didn't call them back. I just never felt the need to get on board, and I didn't want the push."

If it's any consolation to the Clintons, she treated the Obama clan much the same way. Michelle Obama called, as did many Obama surrogates. But none got return calls. The candidate himself, however, got lucky. He happened to call when McLin was sitting in her City Hall office, and she took the call. "I'd like to have you on board," the Illinois senator pitched. McLin was polite but resolute. She planned to stay neutral.

"I'm in an awkward position in the first place," she says. "I'm vice chairman of the state party. I'm a woman." She pauses. "Of color."

She sees some wonderful things in both candidates. So she made a decision: She will back whichever candidate carries her city of 167,000. "I'm putting the power into the people. I make decisions every day. There are not a lot of opportunities to have your constituents make a decision for you. They'll get to tell me exactly what they want. And that's how I see it."

You might think that would be the end of it, that people would leave her alone. But they were still calling yesterday.

Some pitches she didn't like. Mark Alexander, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, accompanied Newark Mayor Cory Booker to Dayton recently. McLin likes mayors, and is always hospitable to them. She met Booker at the Old Spaghetti Warehouse downtown (she won't meet surrogates at campaign events, so as not to give a false impression of support). She took a photo with him but made him cover up his Obama button. Booker was fine with all that. Alexander, on the other hand, was rather pushy, she thought. He talked about making history (an argument she deplores), urged her to "come out now if you're going to come out," according to the mayor, and told her she could share a stage with Obama before 10,000 screaming supporters. Wouldn't she enjoy that kind of limelight? Alexander must have misread this mayor. "I certainly thought we had a good meeting," he said. "I don't think of myself as a pushy person. I thought we left it open to further conversation. I want her to be part of our campaign."

McLin has presided since 2001 over this struggling, racially mixed city, with a poverty rate of 25 percent and a mortgage foreclosure rate that is one of the highest in Ohio. She drives herself around Dayton, which she calls "Mayberry on steroids," in a Saturn Vue, no retinue of security and advisers, just her. She has been known to answer her own phone at City Hall. She takes tap-dancing lessons on Monday evenings, and never goes anywhere without one of her signature hats, like the red fedora she wore over the weekend.

She did 13 neighborhood walks last year, talking to residents about waste collection, vandalism, potholes, vacant houses. Over the weekend, she was walking door-to-door in a precinct, urging residents to support a ballot initiative to increase funding for a local community college. A woman driving down the street parked her pickup truck and got out to greet McLin. "You cleaning up our neighborhood?" the woman asked as she hugged the mayor. "Not today," replied McLin, "but I'll be back to clean it up. You'll help me."

McLin, 59, is old-school, in that unpretentious way, the kind of mayor who stops on a sidewalk during her door-knocking to gaze at a vintage hot-pink Impala. When she was young, she reflected, looking at cars was fun. "We stood on the corner and sang songs. That was entertainment. We played hopscotch, tag, picked cherries for someone's mama to make pies."

Speaking at an Obama rally before 10,000 people? That wasn't going to thrill this mayor, whose eyeglasses have one round pane and one square pane. "That means Dayton is well rounded and you can get a square deal." Not that McLin doesn't understand her significance, in the scheme of Ohio politics. She is the first female mayor of Dayton, the first black woman elected to the Ohio Senate and also to serve as Senate minority leader. Her late father, C.J. McLin, was a legendary political figure here, serving 22 years as a state legislator.

Sitting for lunch at the Dublin Pub, she ordered a Shirley Temple, complete with cherry. Her legislative aide Bobbi Dillon was there, along with her friend, City Commissioner Nan Whaley. Both are Obama supporters. In fact, all four city commissioners have endorsed Obama, which makes the mayor odd woman out. "I said to the mayor, 'We can make it unanimous,' but I wasn't successful," said Whaley.

Turns out Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was in town to campaign for Obama over the weekend. McLin wanted to greet him, but again, not at an Obama event. So Fenty came to the Dublin Pub, sat and had some hot tea and honey. The two mayors exchanged gifts. She gave him ink pens from the city; he gave her District of Columbia cuff links. "You gave a nice address at the U.S. Conference of Mayors," McLin told Fenty, and he thanked her.

The two mayors talked about education and the foreclosure crisis, but not about politics. When it was time to take photos, McLin asked Fenty if he would mind hiding his button. No problem, said Fenty, who then discovered Whaley was an Obama supporter. So he asked one of his aides to hand him a small green box, another gift. This one was a special rhinestone pin by jewelry designer Ann Hand that spelled out "Obama 2008." Whaley was impressed. "See, mayor, you can have one of these," Whaley chided McLin.

As Fenty was about to depart for the next of several stops, a guy leaving the Dublin shouted, "Obama!"

Fenty smiled. "All right, fired up!" And then he and his entourage left, en route to an area pool hall, then to Springfield, then to Cincinnati.

"I liked him," said Whaley. "That was exciting."

McLin turned to serious politics for a minute. "I really do not want to see this go to the convention," she said of the Obama-Clinton battle. "So I would really like to see this resolved. The Democratic Party -- it's their race to lose, and if this doesn't get nipped in the bud there could be repercussions in the fall for state legislative races, all kinds of races. We need to have smooth sailing in November."

The purpose of the superdelegates, as envisioned when this system was created in 1982, was to moderate the influence of ideological activists and give party leaders more of a leavening role in the nominating process. But no one quite envisioned a campaign like this one, where the superdelegates have been strong-armed and sweet-talked for months.

McLin voted early, so she already has cast her personal choice. And she's not telling. After today's election, she'll put on her Superdelegate Cape, figuratively speaking, and get behind whomever Dayton decides it wants for president.

As she drove a visitor around the city, pointing out the hometown potato-chip company and Esther Price candies, pointing out blocks in East Dayton where residents beat pots and pans to chase the prostitutes away, pointing out the revitalized Wright-Dunbar community and the University of Dayton, we were wondering if she would leave any clues about her presidential leanings. At one point, she blurted out: "Can you believe all the Obama signs? I haven't seen a lot of Clinton signs."

But that was all.

"In my case," McLin said, "sometimes it plays to sit back and chill and watch the game unfold."

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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