Jesse Jackson: The Desperate Hours

Inside the Civil Rights Power Struggle

In a frantic attempt to salvage his image as America's premier civil rights leader, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson has injected himself into a bitter black/Latino power struggle that could scuttle Carl McCall's dream of becoming New York's first black governor and Fernando Ferrer's chances of becoming New York City's first Latino mayor. If it is true that Jackson played an ill-advised role in a plot to undermine a fledgling black/Latino coalition, black activists warn, his latest political comeback will suffer another devastating setback.

Jackson has been treated as a pariah in the community since he acknowledged having fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a woman on the staff of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Several missteps on the road to redemption have fueled speculation that Jackson should take a sabbatical. Former admirers are now calling him "the pimp of Vieques" for, as one ex-campaign adviser put it, "forcing his poor wife into political prostitution" on the Puerto Rican island. Last Wednesday, after serving a 10-day sentence for trespassing, Jacqueline Jackson walked out of the Metropolitan Detention Center in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo. Another coarse critic claims that Jackson engineered "this shameful stunt. Anyone who believes that this situation was not staged to take the spotlight off Sharpton must be crazy."

While archrival Sharpton languishes in a federal lockdown in Brooklyn for protesting the U.S. Navy's bombing of Vieques, Jackson has been quietly buttressing an alliance with Dennis Rivera, leader of the powerful Local 1199 health care workers union, who is the co-chairman of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Rivera is Jackson's point man in the city. And privately, several of Jackson's critics have asked black activists to avoid Rivera at all cost. They point to a piece by columnist Jack Newfield, who they charge tried to demean Sharpton and anoint Rivera as an acceptable leader of blacks and Latinos.

"Dennis Rivera is about government, not entertainment; results, not publicity," Newfield wrote in the New York Post last month shortly before he was fired. "He is the authentic inheritor of the tradition of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, of nonviolent civil protest to expand rights. Rivera has been active in the movement to stop the Navy's bombing of Vieques for 20 years. His arrest with [environmental activist Robert F.] Kennedy was front-page news in Puerto Rico, the island of his birth, where Rivera has a rock star's celebrity."

Jackson, Sharpton's people point out, has not challenged Newfield's arrogance, adding that Sharpton's record as a civil rights leader entitles him—not Rivera—to wear King's mantle. "The column was carefully designed to forestall the momentum of Sharpton and his Puerto Rican allies as the real protagonists of the national debate on Vieques," says a Sharpton aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Sharpton, not Rivera and his crew, are the victors. Sharpton got George Bush to capitulate and call for an end to the bombing in Vieques. And we should not forget that Mr. Newfield became rabidly incensed by Reverend Sharpton's refusal to support Freddie Ferrer unless Ferrer agreed to support black candidates. Newfield did not call on Rivera to support Ferrer." (Newfield did not return a Voice call for comment.)

Rivera, who is in Puerto Rico preparing to surrender to serve a possible lengthy sentence for trespassing during protests on Vieques, could not be contacted. But one labor leader who knows him well says Rivera has never broken his silence on media reports about the alleged feud between Jackson and Sharpton. "Although he has been closer to Jackson than Sharpton, he has never talked about their problems," he says.

Ken Sunshine, the outspoken political consultant who is an ally of both Jackson and Sharpton, downplayed the squabbling, saying forces were trying to divide the two leaders. "There are detractors who have been trying for a long time to foment hostility between Jackson and Sharpton," Sunshine told the Voice. "Some of us, who have been around for a long time and love them both, are not going to fall for the wishes of people who are against progressive politics."

Critics of Dennis Rivera insist that the labor leader cannot be trusted. Rivera, they caution, might ignore the black and Latino front-runners in New York's gubernatorial and mayoral races.

They cite Rivera's ties to former governor Mario Cuomo and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and rail against Rivera's connections in the Democratic Party hierarchy. Such ties do not bode well for black and Latino candidates aspiring for higher office. For example, they note, Benito Romano, the attorney who is representing Rivera and Kennedy on criminal-trespass charges in Vieques, works at the same law firm as Cuomo, but is closely allied with Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Cuomo's son, Andrew, is married to Kennedy's cousin, Kerry. Andrew Cuomo, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, is locked in a battle with state comptroller Carl McCall—New York's highest black elected official—for the Democratic nomination for governor. The insiders claim that Rivera, who should be backing minority candidates, has worked out a deal with the Cuomos and Robert Kennedy to support Andrew's candidacy.

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