POLITICS ’88 : Kirk Rejects Jackson’s Bid to Share ‘Super Delegates’

Times Washington Bureau Chief

In a dispute that could spell serious trouble for the Democratic Party’s hopes of regaining the White House, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is on a collision course with party Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. over what to do about 645 “super delegates” who are expected to be crucial in naming the 1988 Democratic nominee.

The “super delegates” are party officials and Democratic officeholders, now uncommitted to any candidate, who will automatically be delegates to the nominating convention under party rules. And, because it is almost certain that no one will emerge from the caucuses and primaries with a majority of the convention delegates, the “super delegates” could be pivotal in determining the party’s nominee at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in July.

Jackson, who has won five states and finished second in 13 among the 27 states that have selected delegates so far, contends that he is entitled to a proportional share of those delegates, based on his showing in the popular vote. He wants the national party to change the rules to give him what he regards as his due.

Wants Delegates United


But, on Monday, Kirk, as chairman of the national committee, sharply rejected Jackson’s proposal, saying the “super delegates” should not be divided but instead should unite before the convention behind “the inevitable nominee.”

Jackson insisted on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday that the disagreement should be worked out within the party and said that “at this point, it’s not a matter of controversy.” Yet, it involves the kind of seemingly technical point that could boil up into a dispute over basic principles of fairness--with potentially disastrous consequences for the Democrats.

In the view of many party activists, Democratic hopes next November hinge on avoiding any open conflict with Jackson. The civil rights activist’s supporters are essential for the Democrats, but Democratic professionals worry that openly bowing to Jackson on a point such as this could alienate other voters who view Jackson with hostility or suspicion.

Moreover, the Democrats face the possibility of a brokered and perhaps boisterous and divisive convention if they cannot agree on a nominee beforehand.


Kirk Disagrees Strongly

Kirk, during a luncheon interview with reporters, made it clear that he disagreed strongly with Jackson’s request for a proportional division of the “super delegates” and would urge them to coalesce behind the candidate considered “the inevitable nominee” after the last four Democratic primaries on June 7.

Kirk said the “super delegates” had “a special responsibility to close ranks and bring a strong ticket to Atlanta . . . a special opportunity to put things together in a pragmatic way.”

The “super delegates,” he said, will have to “run and govern” with the eventual nominee and are obliged to see which candidate is “putting a winning pattern on the board” and unite behind that candidate.


At least one of Kirk’s predecessors as Democratic Party chairman, John C. White, disagreed with both Jackson and Kirk on the issue of “super delegates.”

“They’re both wrong,” White said. “As senior party people, the delegates should express their individual political preferences with the assumption that this will bring stability to the party. There’s nothing automatic to it.”

There still is the possibility that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the front-runner in a field of five candidates, could win two-thirds of the delegates yet to be chosen and emerge from the last four primaries--California, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico--with an outright majority and the nomination.

But that seems unlikely, given rules in most states requiring that delegates be apportioned according to popular vote.


Dukakis Plurality Seen

The most likely outcome, most political analysts believe, is that Dukakis will wind up in first place after the June 7 primaries, but short of the 2,082 delegates needed for nomination on the first ballot. Although Jackson, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee or Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri conceivably could threaten Dukakis’ first-place finish, they have little or no chance of winning enough delegates for a first-ballot victory themselves.

Since Super Tuesday, when Jackson won the popular vote in the 16 states holding primaries but finished second in the delegate count, he has made his claim to a proportional share of the “super delegates” a central point of his campaign message.

Jackson’s attitude about the issue appears to have strengthened along with his good showings since Super Tuesday in Alaska and South Carolina and his high hopes for a big share of the popular vote today in Illinois, where he has campaigned in areas where he has little chance of winning delegates but may be able to add to his vote total.


Last week, he said the idea that the delegate count should correspond with the popular vote was a prescription for the future. But, in recent days, he has clearly started a moral appeal, based on what he says is the principle of one-man, one-vote.

Jackson Not ‘Complaining’

Jackson, interviewed on his campaign plane by a small group of reporters, said he was not “complaining.” But, if the party is “operating with good will,” he said, it will work out procedures under which he will get “super delegates” based on his popular vote.

When pressed about whether he believes the party will accommodate him, Jackson said: “Why do you assume the party would be reluctant to do it? I think the party will. Let’s be positive about it.”


Although Jackson has portrayed himself as a unity candidate whose primary aim is to achieve a Democratic victory, his implied criticism of party rules governing delegate allotment sounds a discordant note just when party officials were telling reporters that they are convinced he would put party interest above personal ambitions.

Kirk, during his luncheon interview, said Jackson had been a positive force in the 1988 Democratic race and had not been “polarizing or beating up the party or calling for rules changes,” as he did during the 1984 race.

“My belief is Jesse Jackson wants the Democrats to win in November,” Kirk said. “I don’t believe he’ll take his eye off the ball . . . . He’s a pragmatist.”

Staff writer Douglas Jehl, traveling with the Jackson campaign, contributed to this story.