In the course of about 24 hours this week, Sharon Mast heard from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former first child Chelsea...

Share story

OLYMPIA — In the course of about 24 hours this week, Sharon Mast heard from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former first child Chelsea Clinton.

They called to personally urge Mast, a retired teacher from Bellevue, to support Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president.

That’s way beyond the sort of campaign pitch most Democratic voters are hearing as the race between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama heads into its most crucial stretch.

But Mast, a member of the Democratic National Committee, is not your average voter.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

She is one of the party’s so-called “superdelegates” who receive an automatic pass to participate in the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer.

The elite group includes party leaders, all Democratic members of Congress, Democratic governors and former high-ranking elected officials, such as former presidents and House speakers.

In a race that’s shaping up as perhaps the closest in decades, the final decision on the nomination could come down to people such as Mast.

Mast, who used to work on campaigns for former Rep. Don Bonker and served as secretary of the state Democratic Party, has been a Democratic National Committee member since fall.

Unlike regular, “pledged” delegates who are selected by voters through the party’s precinct caucuses and primary elections, superdelegates are part of the nominating process by virtue of their positions.

They get to make up their own minds about which candidate to support, and they can change their minds anywhere along the way.

Washington has 17 superdelegates, and there are 796 nationwide. Together, they make up nearly 20 percent of the party’s 4,049 delegates to the national convention.

Members of the Republican National Committee also serve as automatic delegates to that party’s national convention. But they make up less than 5 percent of the party’s 2,345 delegates nationwide. Three of Washington’s 40 delegates are RNC members.

As of this week, seven of Washington’s Democratic superdelegates had publicly committed to a candidate — five for Clinton and two for Obama. Nationwide, about one-third of superdelegates have committed, with Clinton holding a nearly 2-1 edge over Obama, according to several surveys.

That likely will change quickly if one of the candidates jumps to a big lead Tuesday, when 1,681 regular delegates will be up for grabs through caucuses and primary elections in 22 states and one territory.

“The superdelegates are kind of like birds on the telephone wire,” said Robert DiClerico, a West Virginia University professor of political science who studies the presidency. “If they see the winner coming along, they’ll all leave the wire and flock to the winner.”

Like Mast, Gov. Christine Gregoire has been under a lot of pressure lately to pick a candidate. As a superdelegate, she met with Clinton supporter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and missed several calls from former President Clinton and from Obama.

“And that’s just in the past couple of days,” Gregoire said Tuesday.

The governor said she is deeply torn between Obama’s “message of hope” and Clinton’s experience. But she said she plans to make a decision soon and announce her preference before the party’s Feb. 9 precinct caucuses.

Some of Washington’s superdelegates committed early. In November, for instance, King County Executive Ron Sims and Rep. Jay Inslee signed on as co-chairmen for Clinton’s state steering committee.

Rep. Adam Smith is serving in the same capacity for Obama.

Pat Notter, a Democratic National Committee member from Wenatchee, said she committed on the spot to Obama after meeting with him last month in Washington, D.C.

“I knew it was going to be close and that early commitments would make a difference,” Notter said.

For that same reason, however, others are holding out.

DNC member David McDonald, a Seattle attorney who frequently represents the state party, said he thinks it’s likely that the race between Obama and Clinton will drag on for weeks. Given that, he said, it makes sense for him to remain neutral for now.

“One reason for having the superdelegates is so they can have a little more distance and objectivity,” McDonald said.

DiClerico said the Democratic Party’s nominating process was controlled for decades by people who had ex-officio status as delegates — senators, governors, state party leaders and big-city bosses. That system was scrapped in the early 1970s after anti-Vietnam War activists gained control of the party’s nominating rules.

The pendulum swung the other way a decade later, and the superdelegates were created to again give party leaders more say.

The only time superdelegates have played a pivotal role was in 1984, when support from party insiders helped Walter Mondale fend off a challenge by insurgent Gary Hart.

DiClerico said it’s growing more likely that superdelegates will play a similar role this year. But it could come at a cost. For instance, he said, if Clinton wins the nomination on the backs of superdelegates, the party could face a backlash from Obama supporters.

But Paul Berendt, former chairman of the state party, isn’t worried about such a scenario.

“If it comes down to a deadlocked situation,” Berendt said, “we’re going to be lucky to have a lot of seasoned politicians helping us make this decision.”

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.