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After months of stumbling toward a showdown with key advisers to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Reverend Al Sharpton now seems more determined than ever to inject himself into her likely Senate campaign, despite concerns among the first lady's inner circle that he may be a liability.
Sharpton has embarked on a "hotter than July" offensive on Mrs. Clinton's behalf to help her grab the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Actually, it's more like a contingency plan to rescue the campaign in the event it appears to be on a collision course with black activist politics.
He boasts that he can deliver crucial black votes that will deny Rudy Giuliani victory.
He has sketched out a series of 30-second campaign commercials highlighting an alliance between himself and Mrs. Clinton, all designed to intensify black voter interest in the race.
lHe has even stoked a behind-the-scenes feud with two key figures in the Clinton camp, former deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes and exdeputy mayor Bill Lynch. (Repeated efforts to reach Ickes and Lynch for comment proved futile.)
Suddenly, Al Sharpton is popping up on right-wing TV, in the tabloids, and in conservative magazines, creating an uproar in political circles. His essential message to the Clinton campaign strategists is this: If anyone in Mrs. Clinton's cabal believes blacks do not need New York's most influential civil rights leader to help them decide how to vote, take the low road and risk losing core black voters who won't be motivated to go to the polls.
Sharpton spent much of last week huddling with top black Democrats, get-out-the-vote strategists, black ultra-nationalists, and civil rights leaders in Harlem about his unauthorized offensive.
Despite Sharpton's nagging fears about the outcome of the election, says one aide, Mrs. Clinton will not be allowed to enter by the back door at the eleventh hour and then arrogantly make demands on Sharpton. What happened to former governor Mario Cuomo, he says, should serve as a warning. In 1994, Cuomo, locked in a bruising gubernatorial battle with the relatively unknown George Pataki, allegedly asked Jesse Jackson to persuade Sharpton to endorse him. The governor and the reverend had been estranged over the Tawana Brawley rape scandal.
"He refused to call me himself," recalls Sharpton, who has had two impressive runs for the Senate and forced a runoff in the last mayoral race. "I told Jesse, 'I'm not supporting anybody who won't call me, far less don't come before my community.' Word came back that he would accept a call from me. My answer was, 'If you want my support, you call me. I'm gonna call you to offer my support?' He never called, I never supported him."
Last year, Chuck Schumer's at first moribund senatorial campaign received a jolt of credibility among black voters after the candidate raced Uptown to enlist in Sharpton's battle for racial justice. After beating Al D'Amatoa former Sharpton crony turned nemesisSchumer returned to the reverend's National Action Network headquarters, conceding he couldn't have won without the activist's help.
With key federal and state prosecutorial agencies conducting investigations of recent cases in which white police officers killed or brutalized minorities, Mayor Giuliani is in the political fight of his life. But Mrs. Clinton, Sharpton warns, should not underestimated the desperate, ill-favored Republican whom Ed Koch once described as a "nasty man" with "behaviorial problems."
"I remind Mrs. Clinton that this is not a professional boxing match, this is a street fight," says Sharpton, pointing to recent independent polls, which have showed Mrs. Clinton either slightly trailing or locked in a tight race with Giuliani, her likely GOP challenger. "There's no referee, there's no bell, there's no gloves. Rudy Giuliani fights with a broken glass in one hand, the cover of a trash can in the other, and a knife in his back pocket. So you've got to come in with street fighters to fight this ultimate bully. If you come in with some professional fighters, you're in the wrong match."
By "professional fighters," Sharpton is referring bitterly to political heavyweights Harold Ickes and Bill Lynch, with whom he has been wrangling for the past four months over what The New Republic recently called "Hillary's Sharpton Problem."
Ickes, Mrs. Clinton's top adviser for her possible Senate run, is a New York political veteran who played major roles in Bill Clinton's 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns before serving as deputy White House chief of staff. Previously, he was a key adviser to former mayor David Dinkins.
Aides to Sharpton told the Voice that the activist preacher flew into a rage in April after The New York Observer reported that Giuliani allies were spreading "rumors that Ickes is the secret puppetmaster" behind Sharpton's two-month-long civil disobedience campaign in the aftermath of the police killing of Amadou Diallo. Sharpton, says one aide who spoke on condition of anonymity, suspected that the rumors, if not planted by Ickes, were fueled by the adviser to assure Democrats wary of Sharpton that Ickes could assert control over him.
"Reverend Sharpton rarely talks to Harold Ickes, and certainly the reverend's history demonstrates that he does not need anybody to tell him how to conduct civil disobedience protests," the aide says.