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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Superdelegates!

They aren’t directly elected by anyone to the job, and many of them are unknown to the larger public — who’s Jeremy Bernard? — but this year the so-called superdelegates are likely to determine the fate of the Democratic nominee for president. This may come as a surprise to those who voted for a candidate in the primary election and thought the majority ruled.

A spate of well-known California politicians are among those superdelegates who have yet to endorse a candidate, including L.A.-area congressmen Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Reps. Mike Honda and Pete Stark, state Sen. Carole Migden of San Francisco and Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno. State Democratic Party chairman Art Torres also hasn’t endorsed — and isn’t likely to, since professional party staffers like to stay out of the fray.

Characterized as backroom wheeler-dealers by their critics and reform-minded stalwarts by their supporters, the superdelegates are really a little of both — and more. “They tend to be seasoned people who have been in the process a long time,” said state Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland, himself one of the superdelegates by virtue of his position on the Democratic National Committee.

While some of the people on the list are well known to political insiders, others are not. And yet these are the people who may hold the Democratic presidential nomination in their hands.

They are people like Rachel Binah from Little River and Mary Ellen Early from Sherman Oaks; Steven Alari from Long Beach and Keith Umemoto from Sacramento.

Of California’s 441 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, the lion’s share — 370 — were chosen according to their performance in the vote, with 129 apportioned according to the statewide vote and 241 divided up according to the vote in each of California’s 53 congressional districts.

The remaining 71 are the superdelegates — five of whom will be named May 18 at a delegation meeting — who are members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation or officials in the DNC. One, Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo, died this week and his replacement will be chosen on April 8 or June 3, depending on scheduling. Another, political attorney Chuck Manatt, is a sort of superdelegate emeritus because he is a former DNC chairman. Nationally, there are 794 superdelegates, which include some 718 “regular” superdelegates and 76 so-called add-ons.

“I think the system has worked quite well,” said Manatt, who has been at or near the center of every major Democratic dispute for four decades. “By the way, ‘superdelegates’ is your word. I call them ‘unpledged delegates.’”

The flurry of numbers is daunting, but the bottom line is this: The superdelegates control about 40 percent of the 2,024 delegates needed for the nomination, which means they are being courted heavily for their support. As of Wednesday morning, public declarations by California’s superdelegates showed 26 for Hillary Clinton, 11 for Barack Obama, 27 undecided and the rest not surveyed. The tally is a moving target and shifts almost daily. The superdelegates report personal phone calls from Hillary and Bill Clinton, and daughter Chelsea; and Barack Obama and some of his key supporters, including Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, among others.

“What’s important to remember is that every superdelegate has a constituency to represent,” said Crystal Strait, 28, a California superdelegate and leader of the Young Democrats. She has not yet endorsed a candidate. “The media are giving the superdelegates a lot of attention right now because of how close the race is. But we’ve been meeting with the campaigns for months. It’s important when I meet with these people to bring up the issues that young voters talk about, to get the message to as many young people as possible.”

On Feb. 5, in California’s Democratic primary election, voters favored Hillary Clinton by about 9 percentage points. The victory gave her 207 delegates, while Barack Obama received 163, according to ElectionTrack.com. The figure does not include the superdelegates’ endorsements.

Nationally, Obama led in the national Democratic county of regular and super delegates, according to Democratic and media trackers. As of Wednesday afternoon, Obama had 1,208 delegates to Hillary Clinton’s 1,187, a ranking that does not include the delegates from Michigan and Florida. The Democratic delegates in those two states were stripped of their right to be seated at the national nominating convention because they flouted party rules and pushed their primaries ahead of Feb. 5. If the Michigan and Florida delegations are included, then Hillary Clinton has 1,372 to Obama’s 1,162. A contender needs 2,024 delegates to clinch the nomination.

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