State Democrats Fight Over Convention Rules

In a battle reminiscent of the party's 1980 national convention, Massachusetts Democrats are now wrangling over the rules governing this May's state gathering--arguing whether the convention should be allowed to effectively limit the number of candidates of the September primary ballot.

The fight two years ago between former President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass) centered on whether commitments made during the primaries should bind delegates at the convention. The battle now pitting former governor and current front-runner Michael S. Dukakis against Gov. Edward J. King and Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III concerns whether candidates' performances at the convention should determine if they are eligible for the primary.

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The rule currently being challenged stipulates that any candidate for statewide office must first get 15 percent of the votes in the otherwise non-binding convention to get his name on the primary ballot. That rule, upheld unanimously last week by the Supreme Judicial Court, could spell disaster for O'Neill, who is currently backed by no more than 10 percent of the delegates, selected in ward caucuses three months ago.

O'Neill has said he will try to persuade delegates to change their allegiances and also urge the delegates at the convention to wipe out the rule, which they can do by a majority vote.


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Dukakis supporters have strongly supported the provision, arguing that they are only playing by the rules established by party officials during the past four years. King, who many feel would benefit if O'Neill were to stay in the race, opposes the provision because it restricts delegates' "right to vote," an aide said yesterday. Roy Lyons, campaign press secretary, added that the governor has been opposed to the provisions of the convention since last April.


Lawrence H. Tribe, professor of Law, last week issued a one-and-a-half page memorandum criticizing the Court's support for the rule, calling it unconstitutional. He was responding to a section of the ruling, which cited an article he wrote upholding the right of parties to set rules. Tribe contended yesterday that the most recent decision went beyond what his article was advocating.

Tribe yesterday said he supports O'Neill, but argued that his overriding concern is that the court not set a "dangerous precedent."