In 1994, Al Sharpton drew 26 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary against Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In the 1997 mayoral primaries, he pulled 32 percent of the vote, nearly forcing a runoff with the heavily favored Ruth Messinger. Although he lacks the support to actually win office, the reverend’s surprising strength at the polls has won him the respect–or at least the attention–of state Democrats. “He is the single most powerful Democrat in terms of being a kingmaker,” asserts Fred Siegel, a political scientist at Manhattan’s Cooper Union.
While that may overstate Sharpton’s influence a tad, New York Democrats say candidates ignore him at their peril. “He’s certainly a force to be reckoned with because of his loyal activists and voters,” says one party operative. As a result, come campaign season, look for Hillary Clinton and her entourage to make at least one pilgrimage uptown to Sharpton’s 125th Street headquarters.
One flight up from the Flavored With One Love Caribbean restaurant, the NAN offices are decidedly more down-with-the-people than the first lady’s usual Manhattan haunts. Inside the main auditorium, white metal ceiling fans wobble overhead, a modest pulpit stands at the front of the room, and neat rows of metal chairs dominate the space. Odds and ends are piled along the perimeter: folding tables, coat hangers, a pail of hot-pink artificial flowers, and a glass display case offering mechanical pencils (two for $1), earrings, gaily patterned hats, greeting cards, and campaign buttons declaring: “Latinos para Sharpton ’97.” The walls are covered with images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, Al Sharpton.
The office atmosphere is that of barely controlled chaos. During my hour-long wait to see the reverend, the phones jangle incessantly. Conversations range from the colorful to the bizarre, with much talk of gunshots, hate crimes, and New York cops. One NAN member spends 30 minutes counseling a caller on how to get a dead relative autopsied, offering such practical tips as: “First, you have to clean the body. Then it is your property.” When I am at last granted an audience with Sharpton, our time together is interrupted by phone calls, people drifting through the room, and staffers yelling questions from the outer office.
Kicked back behind his desk, his gold cuff links glowing against white, embroidered cuffs, his ample form spilling out of his chair, the reverend clearly relishes his image as New York’s Democratic don. Already, he is taking an interest in Clinton’s Senate aspirations. “I’ve had several conversations with various elected officials and people in the civil rights community,” he says. “Everyone feels that she would be a formidable candidate. The question is whether she would aggressively support an agenda that really highlights our concerns.”
Her husband’s support within the black community notwithstanding, the first lady will have to prove herself to Sharpton. “Hillary’s running does not necessarily mean that those of us who consider ourselves progressive think we have a standard bearer,” he says. “Many of us have problems with Mr. Clinton’s policies in terms of the crime bill and his relative silence on police brutality until late. And many people question the welfare reform bill.” Unless Hillary Clinton reaches out to the city’s people of color, he cautions, she could find herself in trouble come Election Day. “There is no question that the majority of people in the African American and Latino community, many of whom support me, would support a Hillary Clinton. The question is: Can she turn them out?” And this, explains Sharpton in his booming baritone, “is the reason Hillary Clinton at some point is gonna have to deal with people like me. If she only goes with the traditional club and union kind of campaign–that’s what we had in ’93 when Dave Dinkins lost.”
Sharpton’s political juice has drawn a number of top New York Democrats to his doorstep in recent years, including state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Senator Chuck Schumer. “Schumer came here twice and sought our support,” notes Sharpton with pride. “In fact, this was the first place in the black community he came when he was elected. He came the Saturday after the elections to thank us.”
Sharpton makes it clear that he expects a similar show of respect should Clinton decide to run. “Though I clearly would never support Rudy Giuliani,” he warns, “how enthusiastic[ally] I would support her would be based on how she respects and regards the new dynamics of New York politics. She cannot assume that those of us that now have come into our own will allow others to deliver us. She’s gonna have to deal with the new breed herself.”
First lady or not, Hillary Clinton will be expected to kiss the ring.
Of course, whatever the political advantages Sharpton has to offer, there are also the risks. To many, he remains a hate-mongering demagogue. Yes, the recent shooting death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of police has given Sharpton a compelling cause. (It was an incredible break, says Frank Mercado-Valdes, Sharpton’s unofficial political adviser and one of his top funders. After the ’97 elections, the reverend’s supporters were furiously searching for a way to raise his credibility among whites and middle-class blacks, explains Mercado-Valdes without a trace of irony. The Diallo tragedy, it seems, was just the ticket.) But Sharpton clings to his polarizing style. He still won’t apologize for the Brawley fiasco, insisting that whites are simply trying to make an example of him. “It’s all about submission,” he told The Village Voice last July. “They are asking me to grovel…. They want black children to say they forced a black man coming out of the hard-core ghetto to his knees.”
In April, when the Reverend Calvin Butts publicly embraced Mayor Giuliani and apologized for having called him racist, Sharpton lashed out at the rival black leader. “Everybody that wants to come to town and take a shot at me takes a shot at me,” he said at a Brooklyn rally that afternoon. “But you got these Uncle Remuses running around, selling out the movement, and nobody will say nothing.” Sharpton denounced Butts for apologizing to a man whose workfare program is “the closest thing to slavery in modern times.” In June, in the wake of a New Jersey police shooting that killed a black motorist–who had reportedly led officers on a high-speed chase that ended when the driver rammed his car into police vehicles–Sharpton told supporters at a rally in Harlem that this shows “they can shoot down you and me.”
The reverend’s past flirtations with the Nation of Islam could make a SharptonClinton alliance a particularly bitter pill for New York’s politically powerful Jewish community (bad news for a candidate still trying to live down her call for a Palestinian state). The grumbling has already begun. When William Rapfogel, head of New York’s Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, learned that Sharpton had been invited to a White House ceremony honoring the New York Yankees, he promptly canceled his own plans to attend. “I just couldn’t bring myself to go,” he says. In the June 18 edition of New York’s Jewish weekly the Forward, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein suggested Sharpton’s presence at the event would hurt Clinton down the campaign trail. “She’s very happy to be associated with those type[s] of people,” he said. “The voters of New York will decide if that’s the kind of person they want to represent them.” One Jewish activist says he would consider it a slap in the face if Clinton courted Sharpton’s support. “There are people–myself among them–who will make sure it comes back to haunt her if she does that.”
Sharpton dismisses talk of a voter backlash, insisting that that specter was dispelled during recent elections: “How come it didn’t happen to Schumer? How come it didn’t happen to Spitzer?” Besides, he says matter-of-factly, “controversial or not, I’m considered to be a top black-vote-getter.”
It’s likely this perception that has prompted New York’s Democratic establishment to play along in refurbishing the reverend’s image. “The Reverend Sharpton is part of our political landscape,” says Victor Kovner, state chairman of the ’96 Clinton-Gore campaign. “He has matured. He has a history of some truly irresponsible actions, but he has grown dramatically. It would be hard to say he’s not a positive force now.” Former New York City Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins also marvel at the reverend’s newfound maturity. “Sharpton’s a more responsible guy than he was years ago when I arrested him,” Koch told The Weekly Standard in March.
Rehabilitated or not, Sharpton still requires delicate handling, some Democrats admit (though not on the record). “You do not want him calling a press conference and saying, `So-and-so is ignoring the African American community,’” says one party operative. “The trick is to deal with him enough that he doesn’t cause trouble but not so much that you alienate moderate swing voters.”
Other Dems say Clinton should take the risk and ignore the reverend. “She has and her husband has a record on issues of concern to African Americans,” says one party veteran. “She doesn’t necessarily need his blessing to prove herself in those communities.”
But early signs are that the First Couple has every intention of currying Sharpton’s favor. In addition to his Yankees invite, the reverend was asked to share the stage with President Clinton at the Justice Department’s June conference on racial profiling. Sharpton sees his inclusion in such events as evidence that the Clintons are “positioning themselves” for Hillary’s Senate run: “Even I found it hard to say why they’d invite me to the Yankees event–other than maybe they’re moving to New York.”