From Sideshow to Big Tent

A Campaign Plan for Making Al Sharpton Matter

When Al Sharpton hinted at seeking the 2004 Presidential nomination, leading Democrats prayed it was just more talk from the preacher who built a franchise out of woof tickets. In November, two out of three national committee members told the L.A. Times they had a negative opinion of Sharpton, and one out of three said that if he won the nomination, they wouldn't support him.

But to the shock and awe of Democrats, with the primary season gearing up, a serious Sharpton candidacy is gearing up, too. Not a winning candidacy, mind you. Victory is all but unthinkable for Sharpton, who has more baggage than a vacationing Cindy Crawford. "They aren't even going to let him use the bathroom in the White House," says Clarence Lusane, a political science professor at American University. Still, Sharpton has a realistic shot at making a difference, by changing the tenor both of this election and of elections to come.

His handlers have already zeroed in on the primary in South Carolina, where 40 percent of all Democratic voters are black. The February contest is one of the first, offering Sharpton the chance to look good early. One of two African Americans in the race, he could easily finish second there, or—and this is what gives Dems the dry heaves—actually win.

illustration: Joseph Malina

Last Wednesday, Democrats everywhere got a look at the man from Harlem when the Children's Defense Fund sponsored a candidates' forum. With an unwieldy field of nine contenders, the event didn't allow for the unveiling of an entire platform. But it did let the always captivating Sharpton display his pitchfork wit and beguiling plainspokenness. After expressing his support for the work of his nonprofit host, Sharpton asserted that "sometimes the best defense is a good offense. We need to go on the offensive. That's why I'm running for president." When he finished his statement, Sharpton smiled at moderator Judy Woodruff and said, "I just got warmed up, Judy."

Warming up indeed. For a serious Al Sharpton, one determined to fulfill the promise of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, the real heat would come with a prominent place at the 2004 convention. As with Jackson's runs, in '84 and '88, a decent showing would prove again that an outsider candidate can nail progressive planks in the national platform—and inspire others to think bigger. "Jesse won New York City and finished second in New York state," says Bill Lynch, deputy mayor under David Dinkins, and now a Sharpton advisor. "That's how we knew Dinkins could win the mayoral race."

Other insurgent candidates, such as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, left less obvious marks, but did manage to trumpet issues shunted by the two major parties. Sharpton is picking up where Nader left off—trying to pull wayward lefties out of the morass of a muddled middle. "The Democrats had a debate internally, in part, about where the party would go," says Lusane, of the rightward shift that took place after the Dukakis debacle. "But it was also about the ties of the Democratic Party to the corporate agenda. If they were going to raise money to be competitive, they needed a new program."

The Democrats have got the new program part down, with welfare reform, a balanced budget, and crime initiatives. But in the process, they've also compiled the sort of record that turns prizefighters into bellhops. The thrashing Democrats took during the 2002 elections was but a cap on a decade of losses at the congressional and, in 2000, presidential level. Bill Parcells is fond of saying that you are what your record says you are. By that unvarnished standard, the "new" Democratic Party—which controls no branch of the federal government—is a loser.

Yet the party has been hesitant to question its rightward shift—especially when people like Al Sharpton are doing the questioning. For his part, Sharpton hasn't made himself the most reputable of interrogators. From endorsing Republican boss Al D'Amato to championing Tawana Brawley, he has shot holes in his own credibility. Sharpton may have advocated for some shaky causes, but his ability to pull the coattails of the powerful in New York remains undeniable.

To take that force national, Sharpton will have to become so much more than what he is now. Unlike Jackson, he's hardly a national statesman—white families don't ask Al Sharpton to retrieve their kin taken hostage during wartime. To improve his stature, Sharpton will have to grapple with his past. But beyond that, he must draw left-leaning voters by stamping his name on workaday issues beyond his neighborhood, like gender discrimination, fair trade, and protecting old-growth forests. In essence, he must capitalize on concerns beyond his base, the same ones Democrats avoid for fear of looking weak.

Even so, fundraising perils will leave Sharpton playing seven-man football while the other guys field 11 and a bench. Though an upset may be impossible, given the right strategy, a respectable finish—or at least a reinvigoration of the left—is well within reach. For Sharpton, every down will be third and 20. Here's how he can convert.


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