Is Sharpton Protecting Hillary?

Grandpa Al and Reverend Al in Senate Race Endorsement Flap

In the coming weeks, Sharpton says, he will publicly harangue Mrs. Clinton over her alleged reluctance to call for the Justice Department to seize control of the New York Police Department and demand that federal civil rights charges be brought against the four white cops acquitted of killing Amadou Diallo. "I intend to step up the pressure because the only way we're gonna get turnout now is around a proactive agenda that will serve the needs of African Americans," the activist vows. "Hillary Clinton must aggressively campaign to earn the black and Latino vote. With Rudy Giuliani as an opponent she was about to be awarded the largest black and Latino turnout in the history of the state."

Sharpton wouldn't say what he would do if Mrs. Clinton ignores issues he considers important to black voters. A rift between the Clinton and Sharpton camps could change the course of Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign. With his populist appeal and constant, outspoken presence in the political life of black New Yorkers, Sharpton can expose vulnerabilities in the candidate that no one else can.

Shortly before the trial of the four white officers charged in the February 1999 killing of Diallo, Mrs. Clinton referred to the shooting as "murder." But after Giuliani characterized her comments as "a significant rush to judgment," she said she misspoke. Then, in what seemed to be an attempt to recover, she criticized the mayor's release of NYPD shooting victim Patrick Dorismond's sealed juvenile record—adding the admonition that it would be just as wrong to taint the reputations of the police officers involved by dredging up stains in their past before the facts were in. Dorismond was gunned down on March 16, just weeks after the acquittal of the officers who killed Diallo.

In a dramatic turnaround during a nationally televised town-hall-style meeting on MSNBC last Thursday night, Giuliani conceded that he made "a mistake" in his response to the Dorismond shooting by failing to recognize the loss suffered by the victim's family. The mayor claimed he was attempting to "get out all the facts that would show the situation might arguably be more justified," but added, "In doing that, I made a mistake."

Now Sharpton intends to press Mrs. Clinton to admit that she, too, made a mistake by not visiting the Dorismond family to personally express her condolences. "Hillary Clinton didn't call the Dorismonds either," Sharpton fumes. He confides that Haitian community leaders like Dr. Jean Claude Compas, who treated police-torture victim Abner Louima, were perplexed by Mrs. Clinton's absence, and had demanded explanations from him.

"Dr. Compas asked me, 'Why hasn't she reached out? Even [city comptroller] Alan Hevesi [a mayoral hopeful who Sharpton alleges once backed Giuliani's endorsement of the NYPD's heavy-handed tactics in black and Latino neighborhoods] came out to see the mother and father.' I said, 'I do not understand.' " With Giuliani now out of the race, Mrs. Clinton will have to stand on her own record of responding to the concerns of Haitian Americans, Sharpton says.

That's Sharpton, the emerging statesman, talking, argues Credico. But Sharpton aides swear he is the same old firebrand. They point to his criticism of Mrs. Clinton for her attack on Lenora Fulani, the left-leaning black activist who ran for president in 1992 as an independent.

On April 29, at a candidates' forum in Buffalo sponsored by the Independence Party (the state wing of the Reform Party), Mrs. Clinton condemned the group for allowing itself to "become defined by the anti-Semitism, extremism, prejudice, and intolerance of a few shrill voices of both the right and the left." She later emphasized that she was referring to Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and Fulani, who has become an important force in the Independence Party.

"I've known Lenora Fulani for many years and she is a fighter for civil liberty, community empowerment, and the dissolution of economic injustice in our country," Sharpton told the Amsterdam News. "I do not share Mrs. Clinton's reported views that Fulani is an anti-Semite or a bigot in any form." (For her part, Fulani said that Mrs. Clinton and her advisers "feel completely secure that they have the support of New York's black leadership and that they can single me out for abuse.")

In time, says Sharpton, Mrs. Clinton will be reined in by a slew of complaints, including the ones lodged by Credico. "She has not been as aggressive as some of us want her to be," he acknowledges, "but in contrast to Giuliani it didn't matter."

For now, Sharpton says he is sticking to the fallout from Giuliani's derailed political ambitions. As pundits begin to examine the reasons why the mayor bowed out of the Senate contest, Sharpton unabashedly claims some credit for influencing his stunning decision. After the Diallo shooting, Sharpton and members of his National Action Network staged rallies protesting racial profiling and police brutality. Some of the demonstrations culminated in acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking entrances to buildings and police headquarters, that recalled the civil rights movement in the South. Scores of people, including Sharpton, were arrested at the rallies, in which some protesters carried signs depicting the mayor as the devil or Adolf Hitler.

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