Sharpton in the Rainbow's Shadow

Reverend Al slips and slides as political landscape shifts

If there's one incident that will come to personify Al Sharpton's bid for president, it may be last month's public spat with his mentor's son—Jesse Jackson Jr. When Democratic front-runner Howard Dean garnered the support of Jesse Jackson Jr., Sharpton let loose his wrath. First he called Dean's agenda "anti-black," and later he implied that Jackson Jr. was an Uncle Tom.

The vitriol highlighted Sharpton's frustration at his inability to seize the legacy Jesse Jackson Sr. established with his twin presidential runs in the '80s. Sharpton's campaign didn't respond to three phone calls and two e-mail requests for comment.

Since the reverend began talking up a long-shot bid for the presidency, he has been fond of making links between his campaign and Jackson Sr.'s. In February, Sharpton told the Voice he'd "watched Jesse take this party to where it should go. This is a battle in 2004 of the children of the Rainbow versus the DLC"—the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Sharpton's hope was that he would unite a broad coalition of the disaffected, ranging from the young blacks, Latinos, and whites of the hip-hop generation to gays and lesbians of all ages. In the best-case scenario, Sharpton would perform strongly in a few primaries and thus force the Democratic Party to deal with its cantankerous left wing.

The result has not been all bad. Sharpton has had some success—he scored a major interview in the November 5 issue of Rolling Stone and is slated to appear on Saturday Night Live this week. Before his spat with Dean and Jackson Jr., Sharpton had fashioned himself as a new voice of party unity, using the debates to admonish his fellow candidates for internecine warfare.

The best speaker of the bunch, he articulates the Democratic Party's message with spirit and verve. Someone out there is watching; Sharpton may be polling at less than 1 percent in the New Hampshire primary, but in South Carolina, two recent surveys showed him running second or tied for third. A Sharpton victory in South Carolina is not yet out of the question. He even spent Thanksgiving there, serving up turkeys for the homeless.

But pundits say a variety of factors have come together to prevent Sharpton from landing with the impact Jackson enjoyed in the 1980s. For starters, merely by being the first black person to launch a viable presidential campaign, Jackson was awarded the sort of cachet that Sharpton can never get.

What's more, money has transformed presidential politics. A source familiar with both campaigns noted that when Jackson Sr. ran, young people who were otherwise shut out of politics would work long hours and sleep on the floor for him. Today "politics has become a cottage industry," said the source, "where everyone is a consultant." The fact that Sharpton, at last count, had raised only $283,529 hasn't helped, in an age where presidential campaigns seek out young African American talent—and pay for it handsomely.

With money has come political sophistication among black voters. Shirley Chisholm's campaign in 1972 put forward the notion that a black person could run. But Jackson, with his civil rights credentials and sweeping oratory, made African Americans believe in the idea of a black president. Skepticism from the white Democratic establishment gave Jackson much of his initial fuel.

"White folks were indignant that he was running," says Eric Easter, who worked on both of Jackson's campaigns and is now a senior adviser for Howard Dean. "And then black folks got indignant that they were indignant. . . . There was this very strong visceral reaction to his presence in the race, over whether this was the right time and right place for an African American to be, and that galvanized his base."

Now Sharpton has to run as one of two African Americans in the primary—Carol Moseley Braun being the other. Moreover, key black strategists like Donna Brazile and Alexis Herman, who started as young outsiders working on the Jackson campaign, have become firmly entrenched in party leadership. All the Democratic campaigns have blacks in high-profile positions, and black presidential candidates are almost a given.

Easter says a broad-spectrum appeal to progressives, from labor to environmentalists, is also harder than when Jackson ran. "Twenty years ago, people were returning checks from Arab Americans who donated to their campaign. Jackson set up an Arab American desk for his campaign," he says. "This time around you have the Green Party; they have a growing sophistication. You have Kucinich as a progressive candidate. Women have a candidate in Carol Moseley Braun. Even Dean is considered a sort of progressive candidate."

Tugging at the Rainbow's mantle, Dean has gotten the support of labor leaders and drawn major black supporters like Elijah Cummings, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"Those coalitions who Sharpton thought he would tap into are those who are workers or who listen to the Grateful Dead, and they are interested in a Dean candidate," says Mike Paul, former PR man for Jesse Jackson. "Dean was very smart to use the Internet. Ironically, the person who needed the Internet the most was Sharpton. He has less money, less staff, and less sophistication among the people working for him."

And while Sharpton talked of using the hip-hop generation as a source of untapped votes, it's actually Dean who's gotten the mileage out of the Jay-Z set. That's because the majority of hip-hop's audience is not black. "Anybody that's truly in the business of hip-hop understands that there is a decent percentage of blacks and Latinos who are buying rap albums," says Paul. "But the majority of records are being bought by people who live in suburbs."

Then there are problems that appear specific to Al Sharpton himself. Sharpton and Jackson Sr. can both be sharp-tongued, but Sharpton has a penchant for saying things that haunt him among his base. In a 2000 opinion poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 83 percent of African Americans viewed Jackson favorably, while 9 percent viewed him unfavorably. Sharpton's numbers were considerably worse: Thirty-seven percent viewed him favorably, 29 percent unfavorably.

"When Jackson ran, there were people who accused him of being a polarizer—it's not like everyone was saying he was a uniter," says David Bositis, senior analyst for the center. "Sharpton brought a reputation that many people viewed questionably. By and large, his reputation has, if anything, improved in the primaries. However, it's not improved in such a way that people will vote for him."

Yet even some of his critics maintain there is still a body of unrepresented voters for whom Sharpton's big-tent progressive message could resonate. Frank Watkins was the premier architect of Jackson's campaigns, and has also done stints with Jackson Jr. He was Sharpton's campaign manager until the end of September, when he left for "personal reasons." But though Watkins is mildly critical of Sharpton's organizational setup, and even though he's now back working for Jackson Jr., Watkins believes in the potential of a Sharpton campaign.

"He's still has an excellent opportunity to show well in South Carolina," says Watkins, noting that close to half the state's Democratic primary voters are expected to be black. "He spent a lot of time there, and while I was there, people were responsive. I think there's an opportunity there. Time will tell whether he's able to take advantage of that or not."


"From Sideshow to Big Tent: A Campaign Plan for Making Al Sharpton Matter" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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