SHARPTON HAS spent some 10 years preparing for his new role. He has helped lead protests against America’s training runs on the Puerto Rican isle of Vieques ("an environmental issue and certainly not an African-American issue"); taken up the cause of Gideon Busch, a mentally troubled Hasidic Jew slain by police; and galvanized New York around the police killing of Amadou Diallou and brutalization of Abner Louima ("the most successful nonviolent civil-rights protest in this country in the last decade"). He has also been almost alone among African-American leaders to speak out about slavery in Sudan — an issue many in the black community haven’t wanted to touch. "I’ll run the broadest campaign of everyone because most of my opponents have a very narrow, white-male campaign," says Sharpton. "Broad to them means white, broad to me means everybody."
Everything he says makes a degree of sense. But Sharpton’s case for running a broad-based campaign becomes much harder to make in light of certain events in his past. He has gained national notoriety by pushing the envelope and involving himself with some less-than-reputable causes. Soon after Sharpton first burst onto the national scene as a civil-rights leader protesting the killing of Michael Griffiths in Howard Beach, New York, his reputation became blemished by his involvement in the Tawana Brawley case. Brawley claimed she had been raped by a gang of whites north of New York City. A grand jury found it could not bring an indictment based on Brawley’s claims, but Sharpton had already made outrageous claims in the case, including the charge that prosecutor Steven Pagones had participated in Brawley’s rape. In 1998, Pagones won a $65,000 defamation claim against Sharpton, which the latter says he is appealing. Later, in 1991, Sharpton helped fuel the flames of hate in Crown Heights, New York, following a car accident in which a Hasidic driver killed a Caribbean child. Sharpton urged protesters to converge on Crown Heights. The incident sparked three days of anti-Jewish violence in which an Australian rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed. Sharpton also led protests against Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem not far from his office, referring to Freddy as a "white interloper." A deranged man later burst into the store and set it aflame, killing himself and seven others. Not exactly a promising résumé for a presidential candidate.
Sharpton has responses to each of these incidents. Regarding Brawley, he stresses that his comments about Pagones came before the Grand Jury ruled — not after — adding that he believes he will be vindicated on appeal. Of Crown Heights, he has told reporters that his protests there were nonviolent and peaceful. Of Freddy’s, the most serious incident, he again distances himself from the perpetrator. "I called him an interloper. I shouldn’t have referred to his race," says Sharpton. "Three months after I made the statement, a guy who was openly very critical of me and didn’t believe in nonviolent protest went in there and killed himself and some people in the store." As for whether Sharpton had helped contribute to the "climate of hate" which lead up to the killings, he draws an odd analogy between his predicament to that of the Israeli struggle with the Palestinians. "That means, then, that if we support the state of Israel, then we’re responsible if an Israeli soldier go kills a Palestinian," says Sharpton to the suggestion that he may bear some moral culpability for the Freddy’s incident — even if he himself did not light the match. "That’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous," he says, stressing his commitment to nonviolent protest, even after he got stabbed during the period of the 1991 Bensonhurst protests.
Sharpton does his best to parse those incidents where his actions have been called into question. He is technically in the right when he makes the point that nobody has been able to find direct links between his "peaceful" actions and the violence that erupted in Crown Heights. But when somebody hopes to run for the highest office in the land, a higher standard is in play. USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham ably made that point in his column last July. "Sharpton wants to be viewed as more than a political gadfly," Wickham wrote, focusing on the Brawley case. "But to be a serious candidate, he has to rid himself of the taint [acting] as ... Brawley’s adviser has brought him." The same could be said of the Crown Heights and Freddy’s affairs. Says Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League: "At times he seems to be a serious person. Then he has outbursts and reversions to the street guy. He still has not dealt with Crown Heights, Freddy’s, or Brawley adequately."
Former New York mayor Ed Koch, who has worked with Sharpton on the Second Chance Program, agrees that Sharpton needs to come to better terms with his past to be taken seriously, but notes that Sharpton is not necessarily trying to become the next president. "I don’t think he expects to win. I think that if he decides he’s actually going to run, it is simply to have a venue — opportunities around the country to speak and become known," says Koch, the first mayor to have Sharpton arrested.
That doesn’t mean his dicey history will stop Sharpton from possibly playing a major role in the 2004 primaries. Sharpton himself makes the point that whatever anyone thinks of his past actions, other past and present presidential aspirants have their own personal crosses to bear. When discussing Freddy’s and the Brawley case, he compares his situation to that of Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. "You talk about me and Brawley — look at what Ted Kennedy had to deal with, and he did very well against an incumbent Democratic president. He’s now being lauded by the president of the United States, Mr. Bush," says Sharpton, implying a comparison between his past and, apparently, Kennedy’s experience at Chappaquiddick. Sharpton is quick to state that he is not "anti-Kennedy": "I think Kennedy has been one of the holdovers who has stood up for some liberal programs. I’m not trying to kick Kennedy. But I think there is a double standard of how they treat not only me, how they treat others."
Adds the Chicago Tribune’s Page: "We still have a role in our society for the gadfly or agitator. I’d put Jackson and Sharpton, where I’d put Ralph Nader. They still have a role in giving voice to the voiceless."
THE QUESTION of how to handle Sharpton’s candidacy has not entered the thoughts of most political analysts. But a few have paid attention. Among them, the prevalent view is that Sharpton’s candidacy will help centrist Democrats define themselves and make the eventual nominee stronger. If an Edwards or Kerry stands up to Sharpton, it could help the candidate play better in Middle America and the South in a general election. They point to Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment in 1992, when the Arkansas governor, standing near Jackson, denounced a controversial female rapper, thus making an implicit bid for white votes. But judging by how Sharpton has been treated in New York — as a power broker rather than as someone from whom to gain distance — that may be wishful thinking.
In January, the New York Post reported that Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe had sent a letter to local New York politicians citing a new DNC "anti-bigotry" resolution and upbraided them for trying to discredit mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer because of his relationship with Sharpton. "The resolution reflects our disappointment that the tone and conduct of this year’s New York mayoral race did not live up to our party’s historic ideals," McAuliffe wrote. "Future divisiveness will threaten the electoral viability of our party and undermine our efforts to the cause of racial justice in society as a whole." McAuliffe’s not-so-subtle message for future Democrats looking for a Sister Souljah moment: don’t do it. Ultimately, however, that may not be a wise approach for the Democrats if they hope to retake the Oval Office in 2004.
For his part, Sharpton welcomes a tangle with other Democrats. He says that, unlike Jackson in 1992, he’s not going to take it. "I’m next generation," he says. "You’re not going to hit me like you did my father. His generation said, ‘We’ll take the high road on Sister Souljah.’ My generation is, ‘You hit me, I may not swing back, but I’m not going to help you either.’"
It was that sort of thinking that helped Bloomberg defeat Green in 2001. Conservatives and a prominent local African-American leader believe that such an approach will help Republicans in 2004. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas called a Sharpton candidacy "great news for Republicans" in a January column; George Will called him "the Democratic Party’s nightmare." Reverend Gene Rivers of Boston says Sharpton’s "candidacy is a Republican political operative’s dream." He adds, "In fact, I suspect there are some Republicans who will send generous checks to support his political initiative. It weakens an already diminished Democratic Party by splitting the party further."
It may split the Democrats further, but it also may help Sharpton in his bid to supplant Jackson. "He is on a crusade to replace Jackson as the ‘premier black leader’ in the media’s eyes," says Page. "When it comes to rolling into town and rallying people, Sharpton can do it. He has that kind of rock-star appeal that Jackson had in his early days."
One thing is clear. A Sharpton candidacy in 2004 will certainly mean news.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com
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