Meet the Onetime Philadelphian Leading the Fight to Destroy Superdelegates
Diane Russell, a 39-year-old Democratic state representative from Maine, rested her raspberry cocktail on the bar table at Center City’s Sonesta Hotel and glanced at her cell phone. There was a torrent of notifications on her screen, but not the one she was waiting for. Any minute, she expected to get word from the New York Times that the final draft of an op-ed she’d written was good to go. (Check it out: It was published this morning.) But she discovered something else. “Oh my God. The Intercept. Just wrote about me,” Russell said, in staccato fashion, while covering her mouth.
The Intercept, of course, is the muckraking online publication with a passionate following that has reported extensively on the 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails that have been recently leaked by Wikileaks. Russell was the subject of one of the more scurrilous discoveries that cast the DNC in an unflattering light. “Someone leaked emails from the DNC mocking my work. I made the Intercept because people laughed at me!”
Russell, a Bernie Sanders supporter who lived in the Italian Market from 1999 to 2004, has been front-and-center in the national conversation over curtailing the influence of superdelegates in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination process. In May, Russell and colleagues changed the way Maine allocates its delegates, so that, starting in 2020, superdelegates will be required to be awarded proportionally to the vote of the state’s caucus. (In the leaked emails, DNC Vice Chair Donna Brazille called the efforts of Russell “another lunacy.”) The amendment does not eliminate superdelegates—only the DNC could make such a change—but it strips them of their most controversial power: their ability to pledge to a candidate, regardless of the popular vote. Russell has now introduced an amendment to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee that would essentially do the same thing on the national level. The committee votes later this afternoon on whether to allow the amendment to be taken up by the entirety of delegates at the convention next week.
This interview has been lightly edited for style and condensed.
How did you get involved with the superdelegate issue in the first place?
Do you remember the Huffington Post graphic, when you’d click on the button to put the superdelegates into the candidate’s total, and then you’d click on the button to take the superdelegates out? I couldn’t stop pushing the button. I got fixated.
Somebody else who knew DNC rules heard what we were working on and offered to help. There was a team that started working on it. One day, I emailed the Washington Post and said, “Hey, I’m working on this.” They did a story on it. I remember when that happened, I said, naively, “I really hope it catches fire.” Of course, you hope it catches fire when you’re from the backwoods of Maine and grew up in a trailer and your town had the last crank phones in the country. But then the [Sanders] campaign called me. They wanted my resolution. I gave it to them. They pushed it out into all the states. My Facebook page went up 500 friends in one week.
You’re still riding the wave?
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 states have passed some version of this.
The DNC Rules Committee votes on Saturday, and you’ll need to get 25 percent of the vote in order for the amendment to be taken up by the full convention next week. How are you feeling about it?
The Hillary people are not excited about it. But the campaigns are negotiating. The real question is not whether something passes. It’s whether what comes out of campaign negotiations are good outcomes. From what I’ve heard about those negotiations, the direction they’re going is not something that we support.
Wait. The Sanders campaign and the Clinton campaign are negotiating?
How could there really be compromise on this issue?
The compromise is about who gets to still be a superdelegate. That’s a really important question. Pew research did a study of the current superdelegates and 58 percent are male, 20 percent are African-American and 11 percent are Hispanic. In terms of diversity, they’re really going all in. (I’m joking about that.) States have to send delegates that have equal representation of gender. So there are some diversity requirements in that respect—at least on gender. But when only members of Congress are allowed to be superdelegates, whatever diversity was there disappears, because Congress skews ridiculously white and ridiculously male.
There’s no proof that superdelegates have changed the final outcome of an eletion. Is that the main argument you hear against making superdelegates tied to the popular vote?
I hear that one. But what I really hear is, “What about the Trump effect?” or “How do we control a potential Trump?” Which is really asking, “Wow do we control a potential McGovern?” Because if the Democratic Party ever had a candidate that was as misogynistic and racist as Trump, we’ve already lost our soul.
Bernie supporters decried superdelegates throughout the race. Do you think the system actually had an impact on how people voted?
It did! It impacted the headlines. It actually impacted the last Election Day, because the AP declared victory for Hillary. I’m not a Bernie-or-Buster. I really like Hillary Clinton. I have a lot of respect for her. I always have. But the reason they’re called “unpledged” party leaders and elected officials is because they’re not supposed to pledge until the convention. Had they just not pledged, this wouldn’t be an issue. They overplayed their hand.
Next week, what are you looking forward to most about the convention?
Superdelegates. To me, it’s a question of whether you can make a difference at the national level or not. Can a small-town girl make a difference? That question will be answered. But if we don’t win or don’t win entirely, we’ve changed the discussion around it completely. We’ve identified a real divide in our party around elitism and classism.
Now that you’re in the Intercept and the New York Times, you’re going to get so many friend requests. You should just declare for president right now.
Too many skeletons, I’m good.
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