Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. said yesterday that he will try to kill plans for a party midterm convention in 1986 because such meetings too easily become "a place for mischief" and a distraction from the campaign.
Kirk told reporters at a breakfast that he will recommend to next week's executive committee meeting and the meeting of the full Democratic National Committee in June that the "mini-convention," held in 1974, 1978 and 1982, not be repeated next summer.
The rules report adopted at the San Francisco convention last July said the party "should" have a 1986 mini-convention. But checks by The Washington Post indicated that Kirk would receive broad support from congressional leaders, prospective presidential candidates and state Democratic officials for his move to scrap the plans.
The new Democratic chairman said having a midterm conference would divert at least $1 million and a great deal of staff time from campaign efforts and would further damage the party by launching the battle for the 1988 presidential nomination long before most voters are interested in seeing it start.
But Kirk made it clear that his principal concern was to "minimize the risk" of such a gathering highlighting divisions among Democrats or spotlighting special-interest issues on the eve of next year's congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. "I just think it's wrong to spend a lot of money on . . . what becomes an exercise in damage control," he said.
Kirk's decision drew approving comments from Democratic congressional leaders, who traditionally have viewed such grass-roots gatherings as potential time bombs; from labor political operatives and from state party officials. It was even endorsed by Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a potential 1988 Democratic presidential contender who has been arguing for a "wide-open" debate within the party on future policies, and Larryann Willis of Oregon, one of the grass-roots feminist activists on the DNC.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said Kirk's announcement came as a surprise and added, "I don't know what it means."
Supporters of Jackson and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) had pressed for a mandated midterm convention in the 1984 rules report, and initially gained an agreement from backers of 1984 presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale, who were trying to avoid a blowup at the approaching San Francisco convention. But there was protest of that and other rules from state party leaders, and Mondale and Hart agreed -- over Jackson's protests -- to the qualified "should" language that opened the loophole Kirk is now exploiting.
The first mini-convention, in Kansas City in 1974, saw the adoption of the first national charter in the Democrats' history, but a bitter battle developed between women and minority caucuses, on one side, and organized labor on the other.
The second midterm, in Memphis in 1978, was marked by an emotional speech in which Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) challenged the budgetary and economic policies of President Carter in a prelude to their 1980 nomination fight.
The third mini-convention, in 1982 in Philadelphia, was a more harmonious affair and showcased speeches by almost all those who went on to contest for the 1984 nomination.