By Jon Campbell
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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 Lewisthe cigar-chomping, blunt-speaking TV star and political activist who is the Green Party candidatesays 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 consistentlyand harshlyabout 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:
(Asked to comment on the criticisms, a Clinton campaign aide told the Voicethe 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.
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 recordadding 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.
"We were beating him at the knees, trying to weaken him," Sharpton reflects. Then last May, in the wake of the Diallo shooting, the torture of Louima, and other controversial cases, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights launched a probe into the NYPD. At a hearing in Manhattan, Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir defended the department. But Sharpton and others described the NYPD as out of control.
In March, an unarmed black youth named Malcolm Ferguson was killed during an undercover drug raid four blocks from where Diallo had been gunned down. That same month, public support waned for Giuliani following the shooting of Dorismond, also unarmed, in front of a Manhattan bar. Then Giuliani released Dorismond's juvenile record and was less than sympathetic in comments about his death. In each case, Giuliani vociferously defended the police, and in some instances he tried to shift the blame to the victims.
Giuliani's viability as a Senate candidate worried Republican leaders following his April 27 disclosure that he had prostate cancer. His undeclared candidacy took another hit the week before last with his announcement of plans for a legal separation from his wife of 16 years, Donna Hanover, at a news conference that apparently was news to his wife. Hanover retorted with her own bombshell, publicly accusing Giuliani of having had an affair with a former staffer. The mayor denied that, but acknowledged a relationship with a third woman, Judith Nathan. "He showed the same sensitivity to his wife that he showed to Patrick Dorismond's family," Sharpton says. "His own insensitivity has come back to haunt him."
Blacks, Sharpton adds, are prepared to support Mrs. Clinton overwhelmingly, but such support in the face of perceived insensitivity by her can be easily wiped out by a tide of resentment similar to that which engulfed Giuliani. Mrs. Clinton, he reiterates, must call for federal intervention in policing in New York City. "Giuliani remaining as mayor for another 18 months can hurt African Americans," he declares. "Not wanting to guarantee federal protection of our community from the NYPD certainly would dim the enthusiasm of all of us to get out and campaign for her."