Sharpton's Cynical Campaign Choice

Reverend Al Dumps Jesse's Best for Bush's Buddy

Frank Watkins is an unusual white man. Way back in 1969, he began working with young Jesse Jackson, helping to create Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition, then spearheading Jackson's historic 1984 and 1988 presidential runs. More recently, he ran Jesse Jackson Jr.'s congressional campaigns and joined his Washington staff. Watkins agreed last march to assume control of al Sharpton's presidential campaign only after Sharpton said he'd support the human rights constitutional amendments that Watkins and Jackson Jr. had proposed in their book, A More Perfect Union.

In a wide-ranging interview, however, Watkins said that he had no idea that Sharpton, whom he has known since the '70s and who calls him "Uncle Frank," was quietly turning the reins of his campaign over to Watkins's parallel opposite, Roger Stone, the infamous Republican dirty-tricks operative. Watkins recalls getting a press inquiry about Stone's possible involvement and fiercely denying it. When he asked Sharpton about Stone, the Rev said "he knew him and talked to him" but dismissed any notion that he was involved in the campaign. "I said we should have nothing to do with this ultra-right-wing sleazeball," said Watkins. "I would've left the campaign that day if I knew he had anything to do with it."

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Man-of-the-people and nominal Brooklyn resident Sharpton has been living for months at the Helmsley Carlton House at Madison and 61st, where studios run $6,000 a month, with full doorman, concierge, beauty salon, and fitness services. Sources say he's living in Don King's apartment. Sharpton concedes that King has a unit there, but says it's not the one he lives in. King is a major Bush backer, GOP donor, and longtime friend of Sharpton and Roger Stone. A doorman said the Rev stays there "three nights a week," whenever he's not traveling.
(Photo: Richard B. Levine)

Watkins knew some of Stone's sordid history: exposed in the Watergate scandal for infiltrating the McGovern campaign; registered as the agent for Ferdinand Marcos and a Bahamian prime minister alleged to be involved in the drug trade; partnered with Lee Atwater, who conceived the Willie Horton race-baiting commercials for the Bush 1988 presidential campaign. Stone has been a player in virtually every major GOP scandal, from aiding the contras to the mob shutdown of the Miami/Dade County canvassing board during the 2000 recount. And he'd never been involved in a Democratic campaign, vowing publicly: "You can't work both sides of the street."

Sharpton did not tell Watkins about the Gallagher's lunch he'd had with Stone in early March (see "Sleeping With the GOP," February 4-10), when their political relationship began. He did tell Watkins from the beginning that he was planning to bring Charles Halloran into the campaign when Halloran finished managing a Bermuda parliamentary campaign that summer, indicating that Halloran would do "advance and infrastructure work" under Watkins. Sharpton accurately described Halloran as a Clinton operative from the 1992 campaign, but said nothing about Halloran's more recent connections to Stone, including Stone's installation of him in both the Bermuda campaign and the 2002 gubernatorial effort of Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano. Neither did Sharpton reveal that Stone had urged him to hire Halloran as campaign manager, and had introduced him to Halloran.

By September, Halloran, having completed his attempt to put the white-led United Bermuda Party back in power, was in New York, working with Sharpton. Watkins, who says he'd been "slaving" for Sharpton from 7 a.m. to midnight out of his Washington home, virtually without pay, was shocked that as soon as Halloran came on, the campaign was opening a Sixth Avenue office. "I didn't know how we were going to pay for it," says Watkins.

Sharpton's profligate spending had already "disgusted" Watkins, who found his excesses—including "high-life" stays at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas ($3,264), the Mandarin Oriental in Miami ($3,645), and Four Seasons in Los Angeles ($7,343)—"completely out-of-bounds." While Sharpton was reserving the most expensive suites for two aides and himself, Watkins had only collected two weeks of pay and run up $13,944 in travel and other expenses that had gone unreimbursed (the campaign still owes him $55,111 in combined salary and expenses). Halloran was also suddenly bringing in a two-man consulting company for field operations, and Elizebeth Burke as a scheduler, introducing Watkins to all three.

The mystery about how all this would be paid for was soon solved, through the National Action Network (NAN), Sharpton's long-standing nonprofit. Halloran told Watkins: "There's no money in the campaign, but money is pouring into NAN. We have to figure out a way of doing what we have to do with the money we have." NAN would principally pay Burke, and the consultants, in an apparent end run around federal election law and nonprofit regulations. Unbeknownst to Watkins, Stone was pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into NAN.

Watkins had tried to be a stickler about which costs should be billed to NAN and which to the campaign, a legal issue that has now taken the form of a complaint officially filed last week by a conservative Washington group, the National Legal and Policy Center. But now, as Halloran arrived and Stone's grip on the Sharpton organization became viselike, money was rushing through the back door. Watkins, meanwhile, was broke. He said to Sharpton and Halloran that he had to get a $5,000 check immediately. Days passed.

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