WASHINGTON — Democrats chose Paul G. Kirk Jr. as their new national chairman Friday after a bitter contest that indicated the party still has a long way to go to overcome some of the major problems that contributed to its defeat at the polls last November.
Even Kirk's supporters on the Democratic National Committee--which gave the former aide to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy 203.07 votes to 150.93 for former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford--were troubled by the signs of preoccupation with internal Democratic affairs and the influence of special interest groups. "We haven't learned our lesson yet," said Iowa party chairman Dave Nagle, whose state's five votes went for Kirk. "This organization is like a circle in which everybody takes two steps backward for every two steps forward."
Even before the meeting opened, the struggle for the chairmanship had reached a level of intensity and nastiness that some of those involved acknowledged was out of proportion to the significance of the job, which mainly oversees fund-raising and party housekeeping. While barnstorming across the nation seeking support, for example, Kirk, Sanford and five candidates who dropped out before the final balloting spent about $500,000.
Kirk's foes, pointing to his background as manager of Kennedy's unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign, contended he would try to mount another run for the White House in 1988 for the senator. Kirk, 46, who has been party treasurer for the last two years, protested that he was his own man.
Not everyone was convinced, however. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo--who many believe has presidential ambitions of his own in 1988--commanded his state's contingent on the committee to support former California state chairwoman Nancy Pelosi.
Representatives of organized labor, backing Kirk, sought to sway Cuomo to their side by belittling Pelosi's qualifications and, by her own account, referring to her as "an airhead."
Labor's political operators, meanwhile, also reminded their friends on the committee of a decade-old grievance against Sanford stemming from his role as chairman of the Democratic Charter Commission, which laid the groundwork for current party rules.
The struggle climaxed on the eve of Friday's showdown over just the sort of procedural question which, critics say, has too often divided and distracted Democratic leaders in the past.
At issue was the status of 25 at-large members of the 378-member committee. Kirk's opponents, mindful that 20 of the 25 were supporting Kirk, contended that the term of these members had expired before the meeting--which would make them ineligible to vote for party chairman.
Kirk's supporters retorted by complaining that no one had bothered to raise this objection until the meeting was about to begin and that it was too late to change the rules of the game. Some also pointedly reminded the committee members that most of the at-large group were representatives of labor unions, one of the bulwarks of the party and its candidates.
"Remember," admonished Joseph Crangle, a New York committee member who defied Cuomo's pro-Pelosi position, "when you vote against (the at-large members), you're voting against the best damn friends the Democratic Party has."
Kirk's forces won this fight, a victory that portended Kirk's own success Friday in the balloting for chairman. He succeeds Charles T. Manatt, a Los Angeles attorney whose term expired.
But the results left some Democrats uneasy about the potential hold on Kirk of organized labor, whose conspicuous role in the party, they feel, makes the Democrats vulnerable to the charge of being overly influenced by special-interest groups.
Labor is not the only interest group that plays a special part in internal Democratic politics. The national committee counts among its members no fewer than seven official caucuses--black, Hispanic, business and professional, women's, homosexual, liberal/progressive and Asian Pacific.
"We've become caucus junkies," complained Richard Koster, a Democratic Rules Committee member who sought to have the national committee's official recognition of these groups rescinded.
Koster's move failed, although the committee did revoke action by the 1984 national convention that gave seats on the standing committees of the national committee to representatives of the four most recently formed caucuses.
For all of these difficulties, Kirk's supporters claim there is reason for hope in the future, if only because the new chairman is well aware of the problems he faces.
Indeed, Kirk vowed in his acceptance speech Friday that he would ensure that "at least one group would not have a home in this party at this time--the group is called the 'not-to-worry Democrats.' A 'not-to-worry' attitude within our party in 1985 is absolutely irresponsible."