Southern and western Democratic elected officials yesterday launched a new leadership council, signaling their desire to make the party more conservative and challenging the power of Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr.
Kirk, who lobbied against creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) on grounds that it could undermine his efforts to reduce the power of special interests inside the DNC, declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the announcement.
Since his election last month, Kirk has begun to put together his own group, the Democratic National Policy Council (DNPC), with the idea of giving elected officials a greater voice in party affairs.
"The irony of this is that Kirk is trying to free the party of its liberal image with his policy council, and the other group threatens to scuttle that effort which the leaders profess to support," said a Kirk associate who declined to be identified. "You don't make a party look moderate by having a group of southern and western males start their own organization."
Leaders of the competing group yesterday unveiled a roster of about 40 founding members.
They said they intended to cooperate fully with Kirk and his group, but one supporter of the DLC called it "an insurance policy" in the event Kirk is unable to make changes inside the party.
"The perception is that the party has moved away from mainstream America," Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.) said. "We want to move it back to the mainstream."
Nunn was a principal organizer of the new group, along with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who will serve as its chairman, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt.
The membership roster made public yesterday was considerably larger than the group's leaders talked about a few days ago, and included such prominent party leaders as House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (Tex.); Sen. Dale Bumpers (Ark.); Rep. Tony Coelho (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Sen. Lawton Chiles (Fla.) and Rep. James R. Jones (Okla.), former chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Most of the initial members are from the South and the West, and nearly all are white men. There are two blacks, Rep. William H. Gray III (Pa.), House Budget Committee chairman, and Rep. Alan D. Wheat (Mo.).
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (Ohio), the only woman listed in the group, said yesterday that her inclusion was a mistake and that she would not participate. "I'm not going to be part of it," she said. "I don't think it contributes to unification of the party."
Gephardt said the organization would "complement" Kirk's group, but Robb said some disaffected Democrats need "a way station" before they will come back into the national party structure.
Kirk supporters express bitterness over the new group, and even some Democrats who sympathize with the DLC's goals say privately that its leaders, who opposed Kirk's election, look "like spoilsports."