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.


1. DON'T BLAME THE REF.

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.

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.


2. GO NO-HUDDLE.

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.


3. ATTACK FROM MULTIPLE FORMATIONS.

Racial profiling and police brutality do not a platform make. To mount more than a vanity campaign, Sharpton needs to move beyond his standard harangues against overzealous cops. Obviously, Sharpton must harp on traditional Democratic issues: reproductive rights, affirmative action, and the environment. But he also must be vocal on issues abandoned by both Democrats and Republicans after 9-11.

Centrist Democrats have been so quiet on the death penalty, for instance, that the most active politician on the issue became Republican George Ryan, now the former governor of Illinois. Education promises to be big next year, given that Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative has been exposed as smoke and mirrors. While campaigning, Bush ran ads declaring that reading is "the new civil right." Once in office, Bush treated "the new civil right" the same way Republicans had treated the old ones—by passing toothless legislation.

Sharpton must hammer Bush for foisting a con job on American children. But more than simply hammering Bush, he needs a very specific proposal of his own, for education and any other issue he takes on. At Wednesday's forum, several candidates presented plans that will ultimately define their campaigns. Dean pushed health care for all children, North Carolina senator John Edwards argued for tax credits for family leave, and former House minority leader Richard Gephardt proposed tax incentives for businesses to give workers health care. Sharpton, for all his eloquence and folksiness, went long on rhetoric but short on specifics. "I'm glad Saddam Hussein was toppled," he said. "But I'd like to see things toppled in this country, like poverty and illiteracy."

If Sharpton is to be more than a sideshow, he has to surround himself with people who are smarter than he is—campaign operatives who can absorb the intricacies of taxes, homeland security, and welfare reform, and then school him. Not having the burden of trying to win frees up Sharpton to push important ideas that may not be poll winners. "There are real issues out there, but he has to show himself to be knowledgeable," says Aronowitz. "He's got to have a firm grasp of international relations. It's not enough to say, 'I'm against the war.' What is his approach to foreign policy? Where does he stand on taxes? Is he for a single-payer health plan?"


4. BLITZ, BLITZ, BLITZ.

Sharpton must—absolutely must—get invited to the big debates in January. The only way to do that is to get his numbers up and to show a command of the issues.

When NARAL Pro-Choice America held a fundraising dinner honoring the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it was the first time the six declared Democratic candidates appeared on the same stage (Carol Moseley Braun would join the race later). Sharpton told the crowd of being confronted by a picketer who asked how a minister could be pro-choice: "I said, 'Young lady, it's time for the Christian right to meet the right Christians.' I trust my momma's decision more than I trust anyone who lives in the White House." Sharpton drew loud applause, and along with the surging Dean, proved to be the night's star.

Moreover, he flexed his muscle. "His rivals will have an impossible time dealing with him," Mark Green told the Times. "At the end of the day, they will have to get 50 percent plus one and attract white, black, Latino, and swing voters. All he has to do is attract a strong niche of voters and he's free to attack others when they are loath to respond in kind for fear of offending his niche."

If Sharpton is muted, and forced to press his message with 10-second bites, he can expect to make little dent in the primaries. But should he manage to slide into the debates, he will be rewarded with a national audience.


5. THROW THE HAIL MARY.

David Bositis, the analyst, says he gets press inquiries all the time about the chances of particular candidates. He says he never overlooks the great variable. "One of the factors that I always point out is luck," says Bositis. For Sharpton, he says, luck means a wide-open race with no obvious front-runner.

As it stands, Sharpton is threatening in the South Carolina primary, where 60 percent of those who turned out for the last Democratic primary were black. Bositis argues that if the field remains as unsettled when the polls open in February as it is now, Sharpton could stay in the hunt elsewhere. "He has to get a significant share of the black vote," says Bositis. "But if one candidate breaks out of the pack, it ain't gonna happen, because that candidate will build momentum and start getting 60 percent of the vote. . . .There have to be two to three Democrats who for the first month or two are still in the race."


6. TAKE A KNEE.

Perhaps the biggest hyperbole of Ralph Nader's campaign was the assertion that somehow Al Gore was just as bad as George Bush. History has not been kind to that argument. Bush's zeal for tax cuts, his recent position on the Michigan affirmative action case, and his lust for war have exposed the fault line among conservatives and even middle-of-the-road Democrats.

Already bets are being taken that when Sharpton does not get the nomination, he'll be less than forthcoming with support for the Democratic nominee. The New Republic opined sinisterly: "Anyone who rules out the possibility that in August 2004 an aggrandized Sharpton will, after a private conversation with Karl Rove, issue a pained statement declaring that the Democratic nominee has betrayed the party's base and doesn't deserve the reverend's endorsement should have a conversation with Robert Abrams, Mario Cuomo, or Mark Green."

Sharpton has to remember the moral point of his candidacy—this is not a scorched-earth campaign. He's running to foment a movement within the Democratic Party and make it accountable to its most loyal constituencies. This must be a war for the Democratic Party, not a war on the Democratic Party. Disavowing the eventual nominee will not only discredit such an effort, but help guarantee another four years under Bush.

That doesn't mean a defeated Sharpton should retreat into the wilderness. Having endorsed the winner, he should take every measure to make sure the party stays true to its base. A "cult of personality" run will not only fail to have lasting results, it will prove Sharpton's enemies correct—something he easily could have done by staying right here in New York. It could also be a crippling blow to the Democratic Party's progressive wing—the last thing the left needs is a charlatan taking up its mantle.

But should he run adroitly and intelligently, he'll land with impact and meaning. Of course, all of this will require that he accept one simple rule—a Sharpton candidacy can't be all about Al Sharpton.

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