Is Sharpton Protecting Hillary?

Grandpa Al and Reverend Al in Senate Race Endorsement Flap

Given a choice between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Al "Grandpa" Lewis, whom would Al Sharpton endorse for the U.S. Senate? Randy Credico, campaign manager for Lewis—the cigar-chomping, blunt-speaking TV star and political activist who is the Green Party candidate—says Sharpton has been dodging the question. For several months, Credico has been feuding behind the scenes with the city's top civil rights activist about his muted criticism of the Democratic nominee.

Sharpton fired back, accusing Credico of bumrushing him for an endorsement of the 90-year-old Lewis, who ran for governor on the Green ticket in 1998 and received nearly 50,000 votes. "What he wants me to do is give a blanket endorsement of Grandpa at this early stage," says Sharpton of Credico, an in-your-face comedian who was a gadfly associate of the late radical attorney William Kunstler. Lewis derived his nickname from his role on the hit TV show The Munsters and was featured in the top-rated series Car 54, Where Are You? He and Credico have rejected calls from former mayor David Dinkins to stop playing the spoiler and quit bashing Mrs. Clinton.

"Credico is attacking Mrs. Clinton because his candidate is competing against her," insists Sharpton, leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network. "I am the only one with no direct political gain, and the only major black figure in New York who has taken Mrs. Clinton to task."

Credico contends that Sharpton has not gone far enough in explaining to the voter-rich black electorate why they should be upset with Mrs. Clinton. He has been pressing Sharpton to criticize Mrs. Clinton more consistently—and harshly—about some of her controversial positions. According to Credico, black voters should know about political skeletons in the first lady's closet. For example, are blacks aware:

  • That during the 1992 presidential race Mrs. Clinton supported the decision by her husband, then governor of Arkansas, to allow the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man, for killing a police officer? Despite pleas for leniency from Jesse Jackson and other black leaders, Clinton stopped campaigning and returned to Arkansas to oversee the execution. Why didn't Mrs. Clinton speak out in defense of a retarded man who was so baffled by the process that he decided to save his last meal, a pie, until after the execution? Says Credico: "The death penalty, which Hillary Clinton supports, is the ultimate act of racism. If Hillary had her way, Mumia Abu-Jamal [the black journalist on death row in Pennsylvania for allegedly killing a white cop] would be dead."
  • That Mrs. Clinton supported her husband's welfare-reform initiatives, which, Credico insists, "gave Giuliani the power to put poor people of color on the streets, working for 35 cents an hour under Workfare"? Clinton twice vetoed welfare reform before signing a Republican-passed bill during his 1996 reelection campaign.
  • That Mrs. Clinton passed up the opportunity to speak out against the Confederate battle flag flying atop South Carolina's statehouse dome? Public pressure and an NAACP boycott of South Carolina's tourist attractions combined to strike a blow against racism. "She lived under a flag in the Arkansas capitol with some kind of reference to the Confederacy and never said anything," Credico charges.
  • That Mrs. Clinton has not attacked the "Rockefeller drug laws," the backbone of New York's brutal mandatory drug-offense sentences, which were pushed through by Governor Nelson Rockefeller during his last term? "Why," asks Credico, "has she not said anything about the 2 million people in prison who are overwhelmingly people of color?"
  • That Mrs. Clinton has not spoken out about lifting economic sanctions against Cuba?

Hillary: Evasive and insincere?

(Asked to comment on the criticisms, a Clinton campaign aide told the Voice the candidate "will not take the black vote for granted. She will not take any vote for granted.")

Credico says he told Sharpton's aides that the minister "looked unsavory and unsophisticated when he sucked up" to Mrs. Clinton during her historic King Day visit to his House of Justice in Harlem. "She should be begging him for a forum," he rails. "He looked too eager." Credico claims that last September, Sharpton "promised" to invite Lewis to participate in his series of popular forums at which politicians and candidates are grilled by Sharpton's constituents. "It's been seven months now, and he has yet to give Grandpa a forum."

Some of Sharpton's closest advisers have been telling him all along that Mrs. Clinton is evasive and insincere. And now, it appears, Credico's barbs about Sharpton's relationship with Mrs. Clinton have struck a nerve in the usually outspoken black advocacy activist. Or is it coincidence? Last Friday, within hours of Giuliani's withdrawal from the Senate race, Sharpton was poised to emerge as a threat to Mrs. Clinton's political legitimacy in the African American community.

On the eve of his weekly Saturday morning rally, Sharpton told the Voice that he would caution Mrs. Clinton against taking black voters for granted. Sharpton theorizes that without "a volatile, polarizing opponent" like Giuliani to inspire maximum black turnout at the polls, Mrs. Clinton's coronation by African Americans would be imperiled. To ward off apathy, he says, she must break her silence about key concerns that Giuliani's controversial stewardship has propelled to the top of the black activist agenda.

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