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Seizing the opportunity to eclipse political rival Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, once scorned by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, stood shoulder to shoulder with him at Ground Zero last week, wiping out in 15 minutes of 'shameful grandstanding' Sharpton's eight-year battle to portray the mayor as hostile to African Americans.
Black and Latino leaders incensed by Jackson's power play are "discussing ways of punishing him," says Dedrick Muhammad, field director of Sharpton's Harlem-based National Action Network. Jackson's audacious show of solidarity with Giuliani, arch-nemesis of the city's black-led civil rights movement, inflamed his already combustible relationship with Sharpton. Several of Sharpton's aides have denounced Jackson's unannounced visit. "This was a cowardly ambush for the purpose of shameful grandstanding," Muhammad charges. Jackson denies his trip to New York City was political. "Eighty of my friends, waiters who worked for Windows on the World, perished," he says. "My grief transcends everything else. My feelings for my lost friends were the issue. It had nothing to do with the mayor."
Jackson says that an American Red Cross board member invited him to inspect Ground Zero. "They offered to escort me to the site, but when I got there the mayor was conducting the tours, just as he had done for others," he insists.
It happened on Al Sharpton's watch, a sneak political attack executed in the waning hours of last Tuesday's Democratic primaryon the very day that Sharpton was preoccupied with the goal of electing Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer the city's first Latino mayor.
Ever since hijackers crashed two jumbo jets into the twin towers, Giuliani has stood guard at the entrance to the world's most notorious graveyard, waving through friends and political allies while allegedly denying entry to foes. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, the city's highest elected black official, watched from the sidelines as Giuliani escorted a parade of high-profile national and foreign dignitaries into Ground Zero. One by one, they congratulated Giuliani for his "strength" and "compassion" in the aftermath of the attacks.
On primary night, as black and Latino leaders and prominent businesspeople flocked to the Puck Building in Greenwich Village to celebrate Ferrer's victoryhe won 36 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff with Public Advocate Mark Greenpolitical gadflies overheard a torrent of complaints and questions about Jackson. "I talked to Jesse yesterday, and he never told me he was going down there with Giuliani," Sharpton videographer Eddie Harris quoted a top black elected state official as saying. "We are not going to be disrespected," the politician fumed. "Why would he come into town and do this?"
But there were more questions than answers. "Why didn't Jesse touch base?" Harris then heard a wealthy black businessman ask. "Who did he talk to? Who agreed to this?"
"How could he come to town on the day we're trying to get Ferrer elected mayor and stand with Giuliani?" queried one well-known Latino community activist.
According to several campaign workers that night, Sharpton and the other black and Latino leaders were equally troubled by Jackson's blatant snub of Bill Thompson, the former Board of Education president who won the Democratic primary to become the city's first African American comptroller. "Jesse Jackson, the creator of the Wall Street Project, didn't endorse Bill Thompson for such a powerful position," a contributor to Jackson's project lamented. "He did not pass out a flyer, did not go to a subway stop. But he rushes to Ground Zero with Rudy Giuliani. On the day that a Rainbow ticket is winning in New York, he is totally uninvolved. He is standing with the anti-Rainbow mayor. What is wrong with this guy?" (Jackson wishes his critics would note that he promoted Ferrer's candidacy in several radio interviews.)
In the search for answers, a Ferrer campaign contributor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asserted that maybe Jackson had lost so much ground in black New York political circles that he did not even bother to volunteer to campaign for the Rainbow candidates. "Maybe he did this in desperation, to get some attention from us," the Ferrer supporter surmised.
Muhammad, the Sharpton aide, says he heard a black political analyst pepper a Jackson defender with these questions: "In the eight years Rudy Giuliani has been in office, did he invite Jesse to Gracie Mansion? Did he invite Jesse to City Hall? Has Giuliani ever attended Jesse's annual convention of the Wall Street Project? Is it not true that when David Dinkins was mayor Jesse was given police security and treated like a V.I.P. when he came to town? Don't you think that Giuliani is using Jesse? How does he explain not endorsing the Rainbow slate? How could he come to town and not campaign for them?"
According to Muhammad, the analyst contended that if Giuliani was trying to unite his city he certainly missed a unique opportunity to do so. "He said, 'Giuliani did not want to reach out to people like Sharpton, Carl McCall, or C. Virginia Fields,' " Muhammad recalls. "He said, 'This is a fraud that Giuliani has orchestrated for his own political ends,' that Giuliani 'choreographed the visits to Ground Zero so that only certain people would get maximum PR,' making it appear that his black political opponents like Reverend Sharpton didn't care."