From Sideshow to Big Tent

A Campaign Plan for Making Al Sharpton Matter

Al Sharpton's poll numbers are, to put it mildly, modest. In 2000, when the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies did a survey on Sharpton's popularity, only 37 percent of African Americans had a favorable impression, and just 10 percent of nonblacks viewed him kindly. Ralph Nader (40 percent favorable rating) was more popular among blacks than Al Sharpton—and we all know how many black people voted Green. "If I were to describe the black view of him, it is sort of positive to mixed," says David Bositis, a senior analyst at the center.

If Sharpton hopes to make any sort of inroads, he has to change the way people see him. Mike Paul, of MGP & Associates PR, says Sharpton can start by shedding his role as a divider. Paul specializes in "reputation management," a fancy way of saying he helps public figures retrieve their image—and their ass—from the fire. "The first lesson is one of ego management," says Paul, who also handles spin for the man Sharpton is attempting to emulate, Jesse Jackson. "He has to be a uniter of people. He must turn the magnet on the positive side. . . . I would say that starts with being humble and honest about making mistakes in your life."

A good place for Sharpton's humility to start? The farcical Tawana Brawley incident. The reverend made a national name backing Brawley's tale of rape and abuse at the hands of a gang of white men, including a local prosecutor. Brawley's unfortunate deception was long ago revealed, but Sharpton claims to believe her even today.

illustration: Joseph Malina

At every media stop, journalists have rightly challenged Sharpton about Brawley. In response he has been defensive, invoking the specter of racism and insisting that other candidates have just as many skeletons. He recently noted that if he'd derided foreign-born citizens the way possible Democratic candidate Gary Hart did, the denunciations would have flooded in. True, but ultimately irrelevant. As a presidential candidate, Sharpton must understand that being right is not as important as being up front.

Sharpton ultimately needs to counsel himself, says Paul. "What would Jesus do right now in terms of repairing poor relationships he's had over the years? Would he say, 'I don't need them,' and forget them?" asks Paul. "Or would he say that I have to go back to those who have hurt me the most, who I have hurt the most, and then humbly and truly say that I apologize?"

As it stands, Sharpton's sparring with reporters reinforces his image as obstinate and defensive. If this were just the opinion of skittish mainstream politicians, maybe Sharpton could take a pass. But Sharpton's history is equally problematic for the leftists he'll need if he is truly to be, as he says, a "child of the rainbow."

A spokesperson for a progressive organization put it succinctly: "We think the reverend does some good things, but he has a lot of baggage. He absolutely must apologize." Stanley Aronowitz, the Green Party's 2002 gubernatorial candidate for New York, says Sharpton's unwillingness to deal with his mistakes can only hurt his attempts to build coalitions. "What's the problem [with apologizing]? It turned out to be false. I think it would really hold him in very good stead," says Aronowitz.

Come clean, Reverend, and you will have deprived your enemies of their greatest weapon, yourself.


Sharpton's handlers know their campaign isn't the sort that will attract a slew of corporate campaign contributions. Indeed, part of the point is to protest the purchasing of candidates. "We're not ever going to close the money gap," says Lynch. "But we will out-organize them. We had the same dilemma with Jesse in '84 and '88. I don't think Reverend Sharpton is counting on a bunch of high-paid consultants. I think he's counting on people who will work hard and expect very little financial return."

Such people tend to be young, and their favored medium is the Internet. Cheap, fast, and malleable, the Internet is a must for grassroots organizers who can't count on buying a full spread in The New York Times. A decent listserv can pull together a network of supporters from Harlem to Haarlem, and a good Web site gives a candidate a ready pulpit. Sharpton's current page is bare-bones and outdated. Unlike the sites of other hopefuls, Sharpton's has no platform posted. His news section hasn't been updated since May 3, 2002.

Sharpton should take notes from Howard Dean, whose grassroots supporters have been organizing talks through the Web. Three weeks ago, as the war on Iraq began, the press probed the Democratic response and found a single dissenter. Dean, the current media darling, refused to drink the red Kool-Aid, instead using his site to post a dismissal of the war and those who would demand a loyalty oath.

Dean's statement got considerable play nationwide, with the Times noting that "one Democrat broke from the pack." To hang around and make his point, Sharpton will have to capture as much free media as possible. A humble Sharpton is pointless, campaign-wise, if no one can see him.


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