KEEPING THE DEMOCRATIC establishment on its toes, so to speak, will be a major purpose of Sharpton’s run. You have to go back at least 10 years to find a presidential candidate running for the Democratic Party nomination from the left. In 1992, Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, tormented Bill Clinton. More relevant — and encouraging — to Sharpton are the strong campaigns run by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988: in ’88, Jackson came in first or second in 31 of 36 state primaries and garnered seven million votes. But Sharpton contends that the absence of a "true progressive" in the last three election cycles has allowed the Democratic Party to be dominated by the centrist DLC, which he dubs "the Democratic Leisure Class." Even more worrisome, he says, is the insidious effect that the absence of an exciting African-American candidate has had on black political advancement over the past decade.
Sharpton likes to emphasize the point that, even though Jackson didn’t win either the ’84 or ’88 election, those races nonetheless marked serious achievements for African-Americans in a number of ways. First, Jackson’s candidacy resulted in the registration of two million new black voters. The increase in black voters helped propel a new class of African-American officials into elected office — Douglas Wilder became the governor of Virginia, and Carol Mosely-Braun was elected a senator from Illinois. Wilder has since left office, and Peter Fitzgerald defeated Mosely-Braun in 1998. "What has happened since [Jackson] stopped running?" asks Sharpton. "All of that is gone. There are no black governors. No black US senators."
He further argues that since the last presidential election’s Florida debacle, where the US Supreme Court permitted state election officials to cease counting ballots, the Democratic Party needs his candidacy more than ever. "After the 2000 election, you’re going to have a hard job convincing a lot of young urban voters to come out and vote," says Sharpton. "The party that fears my run may find out that they need me to run more than they think to talk to the disaffected who’re even more disaffected after the debacle of 2000."
Sharpton gives one final reason to justify his run. He contends that only his candidacy can generate among African-Americans enough excitement for the Democratic Party to counteract George W. Bush’s small but potentially significant appeal among blacks. Bush garnered only five percent of the black vote in 2000, but with daily televised doses of Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, that number can only grow. "What is the black counterstrategy in the Democratic party?" Sharpton asks. "What are the Democrats going to show to counterbalance the black presence that Bush has shown? If he goes up to 12 to 15 percent of the black vote, there’s no way he can lose."
All that is well and good. But Sharpton may have other reasons for running, and for doing so now. Depending on how he does, Sharpton might accrue enough power to force other presidential candidates to follow the lead of statewide candidates in New York races and kowtow to him. When leading a tour of the 500-seat auditorium in his headquarters, Sharpton motions to the aluminum chairs and wood paneling and says, "We’ve had everybody here from Hillary Clinton to Michael Bloomberg to Winnie Mandela." After a strong primary run, Sharpton might want to pressure Edwards or Kerry to show up here as well — a potentially damaging moment for the Democrats in a national race.
At first blush, the notion that Sharpton could even match Jackson’s performance in the 1980s primaries seems ridiculous. First, Sharpton lacks Jackson’s authority — more important at that time — as the heir to King’s legacy and a witness to his murder. Second, the Democratic Party has changed. Bill Clinton’s unique brand of pragmatic politics has completely infused the Democratic Party apparatus. The only two-term Democratic president since Roosevelt, Clinton mastered the art of triangulation — running successfully against the extremes of right and left, while robbing both of key issues. Sharpton argues, like many others, that what was good for Clinton is not good for the Democratic Party or the country as a whole. That said, he contends that it might be good for his presidential hopes.
Sharpton’s plan is to distinguish himself from the other Democratic candidates, who are pro-business centrists, and who can’t play to African-Americans. "All of the above do not come with a strong urban base. All of the above do not have a Southern-minority base," says Sharpton. "If I put together a coalition of center and center-to-left voters and a strong black and Latino turnout in a four-five man race, you could look at major upsets in many primaries."
While Sharpton isn’t certain of the numbers — he has his exploratory committee crunching them right now — he’s aware of the same general facts available to most political observers. The black vote is becoming increasingly important to Democrats. As the South, in particular, has swung Republican, blacks now make up a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate. As Sharpton says, black voters already know him, while white voters are barely aware of most of the other Democratic hopefuls. "I don’t think a lot of people have thought about this — that Kerry, Edwards, and the rest are all going to have to try and become well-known to a base vote," he says. "I’m already well-known to my base vote. John Edwards will spend the next two years getting people outside of North Carolina to even know who he is."
But won’t fundraising heavyweights, such as Kerry and Edwards, be able to overwhelm Sharpton in the primaries? No, says Sharpton. So long as he can qualify on the ballot as a Democrat in 20 states, he could be entitled to up to $16.75 million in federal matching funds. With this money — more than he ever had in his New York Senate or mayoral runs — Sharpton can leverage his quotability and talent for attracting media attention to match his opponents’ paid advertising. If Sharpton qualifies for matching funds, he can make a claim to participate in the Democratic debates — and who knows where he can go from there. "Giving me matching-funds money is like giving me Michael Bloomberg kind of money," he says, referring to the billionaire who spent $70 million of his own money to become mayor of New York City. "I’ve always had to do what I’ve had to do with shoestrings. Imagine if I had shoes."
Commentators say Sharpton will also be aided by black radio and the Black Entertainment Television network, which were not as developed when Jackson ran in 1992. He also boasts 22 chapters of his National Action Network outside of New York — including three in John Edwards’s home state of North Carolina — that can boost his electoral efforts.
David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says his polling numbers indicate Sharpton will have a tougher time than Jackson had in ’84 or ’84. In a 2000 survey, Sharpton had a 37 percent favorability rating among blacks. His unfavorability rating was 29. Among the largely white general population, those numbers were 10 percent favorable to 41 percent unfavorable. Jackson, by comparison, enjoyed an 83 percent favorability rating among blacks with just nine percent unfavorable — among the general population 47 percent favorable and 38 percent unfavorable. Of the Black Belt in the Deep South — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina — where Sharpton hopes to do well, African-Americans make up between 35 and 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote, depending on turnout. "Sharpton might have one break-out," says Bositis, adding, "but it’s probably going to be too little too late."
Despite these poll numbers, Sharpton is determined to attract left-leaning white Democrats, Latinos, and even members of the white working class. While it is now often forgotten, Jackson succeeded in cobbling together a populist coalition in 1988. Sharpton hopes to do Jackson one better by taking up populist issues such as Enron and campaign-finance reform. (The New York Post’s February 14 Page Six reported on a meeting between Sharpton and Democratic political consultant Henry Sheinkopf, the main subject of which was Enron.)
"You have the chickens coming home to roost in terms of the deregulation of big business, Enron being a prime example," says Sharpton, who helped procure attorney Johnnie Cochran to represent a group of former Enron workers. "Deregulation is what led to this, and the fact that Enron and major companies are allowed to throw money around and influence, or at least have access to, people in government, and I’m going to talk about that fact." Sharpton singles out Vice-President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with Enron officials for special scrutiny. "How do you have a sitting vice-president talk about he’s not going to tell us about six meetings?" he asks. "We knew about Bill Clinton’s sex life. We can’t know about official meetings with a private corporation when you’re discussing government appointees?"
His new populist cry strikes a chord with historian and civil-rights activist Howard Zinn. "Given the one-party system that we have now developed, we’re in desperate need of alternative voices — people who will raise issues people in the two major parties won’t raise," says Zinn. He warns, however, of the personal motives behind Sharpton’s candidacy. "As for Sharpton himself as a person, I don’t know. I’ve always been a little skeptical about individuals who have a very high profile, who put themselves forward very dramatically."
Sharpton’s plans for primary success may be undermined by the fact that several states have decided to move up or front-load their election contests. This means more elections will take place earlier and be more clustered together — something Jackson never had to face. "Al Sharpton has to ask himself, ‘Can I win Iowa or New Hampshire?’ Because if he can’t, he has no chance of winning the nomination," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. "You don’t have a six-month election cycle to catch fire. Candidates like a Sharpton or a Jackson aren’t going to be helped by a shortened presidential primary cycle. A movement requires time to make its case."
Will Sharpton's bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination liven up the race to the White House? Or will his presence simply be a detriment to the Democrats? Respond here in the Phoenix Forum.