Two former chairs of the DFL Party are taking the party's current leaders to task for publicly backing Barack Obama, saying it violates a historic party tradition of neutrality for people in their position.

Former Minnesota Attorney General Warren Spannaus and Koryne Horbal, founder of the party's feminist caucus, sent letters to DFL chair Brian Melendez and vice chair Donna Cassutt, blasting what Horbal called their "cavalier disregard" for the party's constitution and traditions and asking that their endorsements be withdrawn.

Melendez has brushed off the criticism in a letter of his own. He wrote that he and Cassutt had not personally endorsed Obama but had said that, as Democratic superdelegates, they would back his nomination because he had won the Minnesota caucuses. In an interview, Melendez said this "is a real non-issue in the party." Everything he does draws complaint from someone, he said.

The imbroglio comes two months after Republicans got embroiled in a similar tiff, when state GOP chairman Ron Carey endorsed Mike Huckabee for president.

In both parties, the moves raised eyebrows because party chiefs have usually remained neutral in presidential campaigns.

The Republicans' controversy has since blown over, a spokesman said. But the DFL's could continue to be divisive, because of Melendez's and Cassutt's positions as superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in August.

As such, they and 793 other party heavyweights who are superdelegates currently hold the balance of power. With the support of a majority of them, neither Obama nor Hillary Rodham Clinton can secure the nomination. Superdelegates are free to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Based on the results of Minnesota's Feb. 5 caucuses, Obama won 48 pledged delegates to Clinton's 24. Of the state's 16 superdelegates, Obama is backed by eight, Clinton by three.

In a letter to the DFL's central committee last month, Melendez and Cassutt wrote, "we were elected as the state Party's stewards, and basing our support on the caucus results is the best way of discharging that stewardship."

Effect on unity questioned

Horbal was state party chairwoman during the 1968 campaign, when native sons Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy were battling for the party's presidential nomination.

"Humphrey was my mentor," Horbal said, "but the rule always was you didn't endorse until the entire process was done."

A Clinton supporter now, she said the decision by Melendez and Cassutt "certainly isn't helping to unify the party."

Melendez said the DFL "doesn't work today the way it did 40 years ago, and she hasn't figured that out."

Spannaus, an Obama supporter, said the endorsements "were premature -- they've got until August to do that. The party consists of people on both sides. Why alienate one side when you're going to have to put together the party?"

Horbal asked Mike Erlandson, Melendez's immediate predecessor, to send his own letter, but declined. "I don't anticipate weighing in -- I don't have a dog in this fight," he said. "I know some folks are upset, but sometimes in that job it's much harder to not endorse than to endorse."

Melendez said he believed that no more than about 10 of the central committee's 600 members are upset about his action and that "I've maybe gotten six e-mails from people saying they wish I hadn't done that."

But referring to the fact that the chair and co-chair are up for reelection next year, Horbal said, "I suppose we could try to impeach them, but there's no point in that. But we could make things very difficult for them next year."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184

Read the full exchange of letters over the DFL leaders' support of Obama at