By Anna Merlan
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Roger Stone, the longtime Republican dirty-tricks operative who led the mob that shut down the Miami-Dade County recount and helped make George W. Bush president in 2000, is financing, staffing, and orchestrating the presidential campaign of Reverend Al Sharpton.
Though Stone and Sharpton have tried to reduce their alliance to a curiosity, suggesting that all they do is talk occasionally, a Voice investigation has documented an extraordinary array of connections. Stone played a pivotal role in putting together Sharpton's pending application for federal matching funds, getting dollars in critical states from family members and political allies at odds with everything Sharpton represents. He's also helped stack the campaign with a half-dozen incongruous top aides who've worked for him in prior campaigns. He's even boasted about engineering six-figure loans to Sharpton's National Action Network (NAN) and allowing Sharpton to use his credit card to cover thousands in NAN costsneither of which he could legally do for the campaign. In a wide-ranging Voice interview Sunday, Stone confirmed his matching-fund and staffing roles, but refused to comment on the NAN subsidies.
Sharpton denounced the Voice's inquiries as "phony liberal paternalism," insisting that he'd "talk to anyone I want" and likening his use of Stone to Bill Clinton's reliance on pollster Dick Morris, saying he was "sick of these racist double standards." He did not dispute that Stone had helped generate matching contributions and staff the campaign. Asked about the Stone loans, he conceded that he "asked him to help NAN," but attributed the financial aid to his and Stone's joint "fight against the Rockefeller drug laws," adding: "If he did let me use his credit card to cover NAN expenses, fine." The finances of NAN and the Sharpton campaign have so merged in recent months that they have shared everything from contractors to consultants to travel expenses, though Sharpton insists that these questionable maneuvers have been done in compliance with Federal Election Commission regulations.
Stone's Miami-based Fairbanks Limited also set up an e-mail service called Sharpton-at-the-beach, which has issued dozens of releases highlighting campaign achievements before news of them was posted on the campaign website. His impact on strategy even included giving Sharpton the ax handle he wielded at the July NAACP convention, which Sharpton used as a symbol of former Georgia Democratic governor Lester Maddox, who became famous in the '60s by chasing blacks from his restaurant with one. Sharpton stirred the crowd, yelling from the podium: "Anytime we can give a party 92 percent of our vote and have to still beg some people to come talk to us, there is still an ax-handle mentality among some in the Democratic Party." Sharpton said he doesn't remember whether Stone gave him the ax handle. Stone declined to comment, but has boasted to friends that he came up with the theatrics.
Recruited in 2000 by his friend James Baker, the former secretary of state, to spearhead the GOP street forces in Miami, Stone is apparently confident that he can use the Democrat-bashing preacher to damage the party's eventual nominee, just as Sharpton himself bragged he did in the New York mayoral campaign of 2001. In his 2002 book, Al on America, Sharpton wrote that he felt the city's Democratic Party "had to be taught a lesson" in 2001insisting that Mark Green, who defeated the Sharpton-backed Fernando Ferrer in a bitter runoff, had disrespected him and minorities. Adding that the party "still has to be taught one nationally," he warned: "A lot of 2004 will be about what happened in New York in 2001. It's about dignity." In 2001, Sharpton engaged in a behind-the-scenes dialogue with campaign aides to Republican Mike Bloomberg while publicly disparaging Green.
Sharpton recently rebuffed an appeal by DNC chair Terry McAuliffe to join a post-primary March 25 event to support the nominee, sending a letter saying he would attend but would also "continue to campaign vigorously until the last day of the convention." He has also repeatedly vowed that he would speak on prime-time TV during the July convention, saying party leaders would decide "whether that's inside the hall or out in the parking lot," threatening demonstrations unless granted exposure guaranteed to turn off many voters. Stone terminated a 45-minute Voice interview shortly after he was asked about any involvement he might have had with the letter to McAuliffe, saying he was "not characterizing my conversations with Sharpton," though he freely did in a recent Times interview.
While Bush forces like the Club for Growth were buying ads in Iowa assailing then front-runner Howard Dean, Sharpton took center stage at a debate confronting Dean about the absence of blacks in his Vermont cabinet. Stone told the Times that he "helped set the tone and direction" of the Dean attacks, while Charles Halloran, the Sharpton campaign manager installed by Stone, supplied the research. While other Democratic opponents were also attacking Dean, none did it on the advice of a consultant who's worked in every GOP presidential campaign since his involvement in the Watergate scandals of 1972, including all of the Bush family campaigns. Asked if he'd ever been involved in a Democratic campaign before, Stone cited his 1981 support of Ed Koch, though he was quoted at the time as saying he only did it because Koch was also given the Republican ballot line.