NEW YORK — His enemies, and they are legion, say it is just another ego trip that has the potential to fan the smoldering embers of racial discontent. To more black Americans than may publicly admit it, he represents a chance to send the power elite a stinging rebuke. Republican politicos salivate at the mischief he might sow in the Democratic primaries. And Democratic operatives — at least those who know what to make of him — understand that the GOP has reason to gloat.
There is — for mainstream political America — no comfort in the Reverend Al Sharpton’s quixotic quest for the White House. There isn’t even comfort in the fact that he doesn’t stand a chance to win, because along the way he may well stir the political pot as it hasn’t been stirred in years.
Sharpton is waging a double-edged campaign. Through his presidential campaign, he hopes to bring together blacks, the economically disfranchised, and those on the left of the political spectrum. At the same time, he hopes to nudge himself closer to claiming the mantle of black leadership to which Malcolm X aspired and Martin Luther King attained. Currently, that mantle rests — more tentatively now than in previous years — on the shoulders of Jesse Jackson. But ultimately, Sharpton’s quest is not about Malcolm or Martin or Jesse. It is all about Al.
Nothing about Sharpton’s grand plan is evident at the corner of 125th Street and Madison Avenue, the site of his offices in Harlem. Customers line up in droves outside a corner fried-fish joint at lunch time. Street vendors sell incense to the strains of James Brown. Next door to a Caribbean roti place lies a dilapidated brownstone that houses the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
It is here that Sharpton, a 47-year-old preacher who elicits controversy and exudes charisma in equal parts, is planning his bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. He ventured to New Hampshire two weeks ago, where he visited Dartmouth College and met local community activists. He was in Des Moines, Iowa, last Tuesday. And he has assembled an exploratory committee chaired by Cornel West and Charles Ogletree, both professors at Harvard.
Sharpton is planning to do on the national level what he has already done in New York. Three times, Sharpton parlayed New York electoral runs into power and influence in the state. His candidacies eviscerated the senatorial hopes of former attorney general Robert Abrams in 1992 and the mayoral hopes of Mark Green in 2001. (His endorsement of Alfonse D’Amato also cost Green his Senate run in 1986.) In 1994, Sharpton took 25 percent of the vote against Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the US Senate nomination, and his 1997 mayoral run damaged fellow challenger Manhattan Borough president Ruth Messinger so badly that by the time she ran against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1997, she got trounced. "What he does in each of his runs is he positions himself as a guy who, unless you give him what he needs in prestige and standing, he’ll take you down in the general election," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank linked to the Democratic Leadership Council.
Given this history, Sharpton threatens to give something that most of the purported crop of 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls — North Carolina senator John Edwards, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Massachusetts senator John Kerry, Vermont governor Howard Dean, Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman — have never had to face: a spirited challenge from one of the most skillful and divisive political figures in modern American politics.
Both House minority leader Richard Gephardt and Al Gore remember all too well losing in 1988 to Jesse Jackson — the last major African-American contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the man Sharpton calls "my father" and "my mentor." And while the point is frequently made that a new generation of African-American business and political leaders has arisen to replace the personality-driven model of black leadership forged by Martin Luther King Jr. and sustained by Jackson, it lingers on just enough to help Sharpton’s candidacy, as long as he can achieve greater visibility. Besides, like prior "message" or "movement" candidates who used their candidacies to promote ideas — the activist Jackson; socialists Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas who made eight tries at the presidency between 1900 and 1948; and even, on the right, Patrick Buchanan, who ran in 1992, 1996, and 2000 — Sharpton must do well enough to sustain media interest in his campaign. (He has already been featured in a major piece in the February 18 issue of the New Yorker, which noted "the races he has taken on ... have all been manifestly unwinnable.... Running is, for him, an absurd decision, and given the scope of his ambition, an irresistible one.") Sharpton has a credible plan: he has his eye on big states with large black populations, such as New York, Illinois, and those in the Deep South. Before he can get there, however, he needs to keep the press interested as he struggles through lily-white contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
To both attract media attention and garner votes beyond his base, Sharpton is packaging his campaign as a vigorous call from the left — in a world where even the soporific Ralph Nader won almost three million votes in 2000. At least Sharpton keeps you awake. "The Democratic Party has floated way away from its roots," he says. "It is in many ways no longer the party of Roosevelt and Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell, a party that believes that government ought to be there to protect people. We began mimicking the Republican Party’s endeavors toward big business, toward trying to be right-of-center, and I think there needs to be a challenge to bring the party back to its roots."
Of those names currently floated as potential Democratic candidates, Sharpton says he sees little hope. "If you have a Daschle, a Gephardt, John Edwards, John Kerry race — they’re all picking from many of the same ideological and political demographics," he says. They will appeal to the center and to the center-right of the party.
Wearing his political-analyst hat, Sharpton ticks off some of his competitors weaknesses. On Edwards, a former plaintiff’s attorney: "Before he went to the Senate, what did he do? Get rich?" On Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran: "Kerry’s an admirable guy, but I don’t exactly think Kerry will electrify Bed-Stuy." On Lieberman, a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council: "He’s pro-business and anti–affirmative action. I don’t even think he’s center. I think he’s right-of-center."
All this means trouble for Democrats looking to rally the troops against a popular President George Bush in 2004. (Although his approval ratings have been dipping, they remain in the political stratosphere — hovering in the 70s five months after September 11.) Poised to better Jackson’s presidential campaigns of the mid and late 1980s, Sharpton believes he faces, at worst, the prospect of coming out in a position to play kingmaker — a role he relishes. At best he could emerge as the country’s top African-American leader and spokesperson within the Democratic Party.
The co-chair of his exploratory committee, Harvard’s Ogletree, contends that Sharpton has a chance. "If you think about people who have come from relative obscurity and the fact that people have had long careers in politics that are unsuccessful, there is no formula," says Ogletree. "Politics are pretty quixotic, and this is one of the times people ought to pay attention. This is not a flash-in-the-pan campaign."
Ogletree, who describes himself as "very close to both" Jackson and Sharpton, dismisses the notion that Sharpton’s run has anything to do with supplanting Jackson’s leadership: "I don’t see it as an either/or. I see it as a both/and. They may bump heads at times. But it doesn’t prevent them from taking on the problems of the community."
For his part, Sharpton is undaunted by the fact that some have compared his chances unfavorably to Jackson’s runs in 1984 and 1988. "Everybody keeps comparing me to Jackson, and that may be a fair comparison," he says. "But there aren’t a lot of Gary Harts and Walter Mondales I’m looking at running against either."
Clarence Page, a nationally syndicated columnist based at the Chicago Tribune, sums up Sharpton’s campaign as follows. "He hasn’t got a prayer of winning, but it’s interesting theater," says Page. "It keeps the Democratic establishment on its toes. He does wield enough clout that he can’t be ignored."
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