Sharpton ponders next move
By Larry Bivins, Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON "” As the Rev. Al Sharpton ponders his next political move, some pundits already are offering post mortems on his 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Rev. Al Sharpton makes a point at a Democratic presidential debate in New York earlier this month.
The Assciated Press
These experts contend that Sharpton's effort to be a major player at the Democratic Party's national convention in Boston this summer is virtually dead "” the victim of an anemic delegate count, the lifeblood of any candidate's quest to shape the party's national platform.
So far, Sharpton has won just 26 delegates out of the 2,162 that are needed to capture the nomination. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts clinched the Democratic nomination Saturday and has 2,193 delegates according to the Associated Press.
Sharpton, 49, a New York City civil rights activist and the only black candidate left in the race, counters that it is too early to assess the impact of his campaign and its relevance in the ongoing struggle among blacks for political power.
In a wide-ranging interview with Gannett News Service, Sharpton reflected on his quixotic White House bid and rebuffed attempts to compare it to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's groundbreaking run in 1988. Sharpton also responded to questions about his fund-raising and campaign spending and his association with conservative Republican consultant Roger Stone.
Sharpton said the purpose of his campaign at the outset was to ensure that Democrats address issues like police misconduct and racial profiling, school vouchers, health care and increasing the number of blacks in Democratic Party leadership positions.
"If we come out of this being able to impact the platform, impact black standing in the party and have an impact in terms of helping Kerry win, then we achieved the goals that we set out," he said. "At the end of the day, that's all that matters."
Since suspending his campaign activity after Super Tuesday on March 2, Sharpton said he has been meeting with Kerry's camp to discuss terms under which he might drop out of the race and swing his support to the Massachusetts senator.
"We are just now at the point of negotiating with Kerry on the convention," Sharpton said. "The real issue at the end of the day is whether or not what we've gotten is enough to get what we want out of Kerry. I think it is."
Ronald Walters, a black political scientist at the University of Maryland and a former Jackson adviser, and other analysts disagree. They noted that Jackson went to the 1988 Democratic convention after winning nine states and more than 1,000 delegates. And even former New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, got 120 delegates in 1972.
"Not having won many delegates, (Sharpton) can't really claim any national political power," Walters said.
Sharpton said the political climate has changed a lot in the 16 years since Jackson's last run, and it was unfair to compare him to his former mentor. However, he conceded that he initiated the comparisons.
"I was wrong to do that," he said. "A mature mind would have to say that comparing Sharpton to Jesse Jackson at his peak is like comparing Jackson to Dr. (Martin Luther) King at his peak. So fine, I did not get Jesse's numbers. But Jesse did not get a Nobel Peace Prize and a national holiday either."
Jackson was one of hundreds of black political leaders who attended a State of the Black World Conference in Atlanta in November 2001, where a major topic on the agenda was Sharpton's impending campaign. At the time, there was discussion about Sharpton expanding Jackson's base with the Rainbow Coalition and building a third party.
But some key organizers of the Atlanta event have been disappointed in Sharpton's performance. They complain that he mounted a disorganized presidential effort, spurned traditional campaign practices like showing up for scheduled events and squandered an opportunity to build momentum.
"Were he able to go to the convention in Boston with 200 to 300 delegates and 2 million to 3 million votes, there's no question it would have enhanced his status as the premier black political leader in America," said Ron Daniels, Jackson's deputy campaign manager in 1988.
David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank, said it was folly for anyone to predict that Sharpton would ignite a groundswell of support for his candidacy even among black voters. He and other Sharpton observers noted that the civil rights activist's image still suffers from his background, such as his controversial association with Tawana Brawley, whose 1987 claim to have been gang-raped by white men turned out to be untrue.
"He was never going to do that well," Bositis said, "because he is not a figure that everybody in the black community looks up to."
Analysts said Sharpton's campaign also suffered from Democrats' desire to defeat President Bush, which helped propel Kerry to the top of the field.
"This is a new era in black politics. During the primaries, Sharpton held sway with black voters but did not bring as many as Reverend Jackson to his side or out to vote for him in key states," said Donna Brazile, a veteran black political consultant who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "African Americans tended to vote as other Americans on electability or someone who can challenge and defeat President Bush in the fall."
Walters said the electability issue "overrode not just Sharpton but everybody else. This was not the right time to test Sharpton, because black voters were not in the mood for it."
Walters said Sharpton's credibility has been damaged by recent reports that Stone, who has worked for Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush, has played a role in the activist's campaign. Walters said the relationship could impair Sharpton's negotiations with Kerry.
Sharpton said Stone is one of many political experts he consults. He accused his critics of employing a double standard, contending that they supported Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election bid even though the president had hired Dick Morris, who had previously worked with conservative Republicans Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, to run his campaign.
"If Roger Stone and I both have said that I talk to him from time to time like I talk to any other adviser, what is it am I supposed to explain?" Sharpton asked. "What am I doing to hurt Democrats?"
Sharpton's campaign also has been hit with stories about his campaign spending and fund raising. The Federal Election Commission fined his campaign $5,500 in February for filing late disclosure reports. The agency has questioned more than $80,000 in loans Sharpton has made to his campaign but approved his request for $100,000 in matching funds on Thursday.
Meanwhile, critics have jumped on newspaper accounts of Sharpton staying at expensive hotels on campaign trips.
"The irony of that is you've had these critics of mine who've said Sharpton has used the campaign to live high on the hog," said Sharpton, who concedes he should have started his fund raising earlier. "Now, the question is whether the campaign used too much of my money, not whether I used too much of its money."
Records show that Sharpton raised $627,416 through Jan. 30, compared to Kerry's $33 million. The Sharpton campaign had just $1,039 available and was $485,697 in debt.
The records show Sharpton's campaign owes $38,000 to Kevin Gray, a South Carolina consultant, who worked for Jackson in 1988. Gray said he left Sharpton's campaign out of frustration over its lack of sophistication.
"Sharpton has no ideological content and no movement support," Gray said.
But for Mildred Galloway, a 69-year-old Detroit retiree, Sharpton has principle. And that was enough, she said, to win her vote in the Michigan caucus.
"He's honest, and he values life," Galloway said. "He has the poor people's concerns at heart."
The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, pastor at New Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, said Sharpton has been a refreshing voice among a field of vapid candidates.
"He does have something to say of value," said Sheffield, who runs National Action Network of Michigan. "Reverend Sharpton is a voice in the wilderness, the only one indicating we're in a period of loss not a period of gain."