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Ending several months of intense media speculation about his jealously guarded choice for mayor, Reverend Al Sharpton, the city's most prominent civil rights leader, told the Voice he will endorse Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.
"Ferrer has been right on the torturous issues of police brutality and racial profiling," Sharpton said in an exclusive interview with the Voice, just hours after he was released last Friday from a federal prison in Brooklyn after serving a 90-day sentence for trespassing during a protest of U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
"Ferrer went to jail with us during the 'Day of Outrage' protests over the murder of Amadou Diallo; he said that the Diallo cops should have been fired; and he stood up for the family of Anthony Baez, who was choked to death by a racist cop. There is no doubt in my mind we are on the verge of creating history: Fernando Ferrer will be the first Latino mayor of New York City."
Sharpton, who on Monday announced the formation of a committee to explore the possibility of a run for the U.S. presidency in 2004, nearly forced a runoff in his own bid for mayor four years ago. He will make a formal endorsement of Ferrer shortly before Labor Day.
Sharpton has delayed Ferrer's coronation for several reasons. Among them:
That the activist, whose blessing has been sought by a wide range of candidates, was working out a compromise so that Ferrer, according to one Sharpton aide, will not "aggressively campaign against" candidates that Sharpton has endorsed. Sharpton, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it, "casually lobbed a race-based grenade into the Ferrer camp" last May when he declared that Ferrer would have to agree in advance to support some black political candidates in exchange for his endorsement. In Brooklyn, Sharpton is trying to protect candidates like Charles Barron, an outspoken community activist who is running for the City Council from Brownsville, and Jeanette Gadson, the deputy borough president of Brooklyn, who is vying to become Brooklyn's first black borough president. In Queens, Sharpton is seeking to shore up the candidacy of Erica Ford, a young insurgent with fire in her belly, who is running for the City Council in the 27th District. As of late Monday, negotiations were bogged down over self-interested demands. For example, both sides could not agree on whether Congressman Edolphus Towns, who is supporting Ferrer, can put out campaign literature indicating his endorsement of Ferrer and a City Council candidate other than the one Sharpton is backing.
That Sharpton does not want the endorsement to distract from his August 25 "Keep the Dream Alive" civil rights rally at the United Nations, commemorating the 38th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 march on Washington. "No candidate will be allowed to speak at the march," Sharpton has decreed. "We must keep the focus on Vieques for now. It is our firm belief that Dr. King, who led a huge demonstration in front of the United Nations protesting military involvement in Vietnam, would have approved of us leading a massive protest outside the same building against the U.S. military's unconscionable role in Vieques. It is a straight moral line from protesting about Vietnam to protesting about Vieques."
With the rally out of the way, Sharpton will turn his attention to Ferrer. "Soon after the march, I intend to make my endorsement of Fernando Ferrer," emphasized the reverend, who will devote 18 days to campaigning for the candidate in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods, and plans to do radio ads, some in Spanish, and voice-mail pitches.
Sharpton revealed that he was leaning toward endorsing the pro-African American Green but had backed off when Green accepted the endorsement of former police commissioner William Bratton. According to Sharpton, Green hinted that Bratton would play a prominent role in his administration. "Green sort of indicated that Bill Bratton might be police commissioner once again," said Sharpton. "Bill Bratton, whom I've come to know, is the same Bill Bratton who was police commissioner when Anthony Baez was killed; he is the same Bill Bratton who refused to meet with me when [Nation of Islam] Mosque Number 7 in Harlem asked me to mediate after cops raided their temple; he is the same Bill Bratton who fired a police officer who shot a dog in Central Park, but who said he would not have fired the four police officers who killed Diallo. The thought that we might return to a Bratton-type police department was my biggest problem with Mark Green. Other than that he would be more appealing."
Sharpton joins a coalition of Harlem-based politicians who have endorsed Ferrer, including Congressman Charles Rangel, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Assemblyman Keith Wright, and Councilman Bill Perkins. Their endorsements came on the same day that Sharpton was released from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. With no black politician running for mayor, Ferrer and his three white opponents in the September 11 Democratic primary have been scrambling to align themselves with key figures in the black community, a constituency that could help decide a winner in a crowded field.
Sharpton contends that it will take a coalition of black and Latino voters, plus progressive whites, to put Fernando Ferrer in City Hall. "This movement to make Ferrer the first Latino mayor is not built on race," he offers. "We didn't just discover that Ferrer was Puerto Rican. When I saw people who had no common political agenda before coalescing around Diallo and Vieques, I saw the making of a new kind of movement that their leaders would have to catch up to. If we put a real alliance in place, it would last beyond this election, into the 2002 gubernatorial race, the 2004 presidential race, and on and on."
In the days before Sharpton was jailed, he had been delaying a decision on whether to endorse Ferrer. Once he was imprisoned, he vowed not to make any political endorsements from behind bars because he did not want to take attention away from mounting protests against the Navy's bombing exercises on Vieques. But Sharpton entertained several visits from Rangel, one of the city's most influential black politicians, whom he'd kept in the dark about who he would line up behind. Last week, Rangel said he and others had been "thinking about not getting involved, sitting this one out and not participating," but noted, "Our families, our friends have fought, have been arrested, have been persecuted, and they died to participate." He said he decided to back Ferrer "because he's a fighter and he doesn't run away from a problem." He also derided those who have balked at supporting Ferrer because of a perception that he has no broad coalition of support and can't win. "Well, who the heck are we in this great city of New York if we're not a coalition: white and black, Jews and gentiles, Hispanics and others coming together for a better city?" Rangel asked.
Sharpton says now that he helped Rangel marshal black support for Ferrer. "He asked me how I felt about Ferrer, how I felt about Green," Sharpton recalls. "I told Rangel I had not decided, but that I felt that it was important that we not deal just from a black and Latino point of view but from a progressive point of view. Eventually, I was part of the strategy that once Rangel had made up his mindthat he was going to reach out to influential black elected officials to get behind FerrerI would not do a joint endorsement with them."
The mayoral race has caused a garrulous split among the city's black leadership. Public Advocate Mark Green has won the backing of David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor; Reverend Calvin Butts, an influential Harlem minister; and community activist Fernando Mateo. City Comptroller Alan Hevesi has been campaigning at churches and other locations with police torture victim Abner Louima.
Despite endorsements from Louima and Reverend Floyd Flake, one of the city's most powerful pastors, Hevesi trails badly among black and Latino voters. In February, he drew criticism from the black community for failing to actively protest the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo last year. He was booed off the stage at a memorial service for Diallo, and was asked about his lack of action at a Martin Luther King Day event at the Harlem headquarters of Sharpton's National Action Network. Pointing out that he has disagreed with Sharptonwhom he has called divisive and destructiveHevesi said that in the aftermath of the protests he spent time looking into charges of police misconduct and harassment of blacks. "I didn't get it. I got it later," he said at the time.
But Flake, a moderate Democrat, who served in Congress for 10 years, and who is now pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in southeast Queens, cited Hevesi's "intelligence, tenacity, and ability." He joked: "I have always called him my associate Jewish member because he's there (at my church) so often." Flake's endorsement of Hevesi was meant as a signal to some African American voters that Hevesi is an acceptable option. The reasoning is that because Flake's congregation is highly energized, the pastor's endorsement is likely to translate into higher vote totals and positive referrals to friends and neighbors who do not belong to Flake's 10,000-member church.
A group called Friends of Hevesi has been stuffing mailboxes in southeast Queens with a brochure bearing pictures of 10 black elected officials. "Why are we all united behind Democrat Alan Hevesi for mayor?" begs the question that is printed in bold letters below mugshots of city councilmembers Helen Marshall, Archie Spigner, Thomas White Jr., and Juanita Watkins; assemblymembers Vivian Cook, Jeffrion Aubry, Barbara Clark, William Scarborough, and Pauline Rhodd Cummings; and State Senator Ada Smith.
Sharpton released a letter he received from a Queens resident who had been solicited by Hevesi's camp. "Like most of us, I was disgusted with the Louima endorsement of Hevesi," wrote the voter, who is black. "I simply do not understand. And when I received [the brochure] the other day, I was just plain angry. . . . We will wait and take our direction from you." The letter, Sharpton claims, is typical of how some African Americans feel about other blacks who support Hevesi. He says Louima visited him in prison twice and talked in a cryptic way about Hevesi.
"He never brought it up to me directly," insists Sharpton, adding that Louima had informed one of his attorneys, Sanford Rubenstein, that he was backing Hevesi. "Rubenstein told me he told Abner he disagreed with his decision. I would have told him, 'You're supporting someone who didn't even get what happened to you. You should always stand for those that stood for you.' I would have told him him that a lot of people marched and stood up for you when Hevesi wasn't getting it, when Hevesi was acting like Rudy Giuliani."
According to an aide who was with Sharpton following his release from prison, many black voters won't be taking their cue from Louima. As word spread that Louima waited several days before reaching out to the widow of Carl W. ThomasLouima's former attorney who first alerted the public to the police torture of the Haitian immigrantformer supporters began to back away from him. "That hurt Louima," says the aide. "A lot of his own supporters felt like he had betrayed them." The aide argued that "Louima did not give Hevesi a bump in the polls," noting that a Marist poll, released last week, showing Green stretching his lead over Ferrer, Hevesi, and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. Among likely Democratic voters, the poll found Green would win 34 percent, Hevesi and Ferrer would each get 17 percent, and Vallone would get 10 percent.
The battle for the black vote raged on Sunday with Ferrer securing the endorsement of Reverend James A. Forbes Jr., the senior minister of the 2400-member, multiracial Riverside Church in Morningside Heights. "This is my choice based on my ideals," said the 74-year-old Forbes, who was described by New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta as "one of the most prominent clerical voices for leftist causes." On Monday, while announcing the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, Sharpton lamented that "progressive leadership is in a deep crisis at the moment in the Democratic Party and outside." He told the Voice he is concerned about the fractious state of the black vote. "A lot of people cut their own deals, a lot of them have their own contracts," he charged. "Some people just don't like each other."