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By Jon Campbell
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The Reverend Al Sharpton has proven that it's a waste of ink to detail his decades of bad behavior: the payoffs, shakedowns, conflicts of interests, campaign violations, and legal problems that have come along with his career as a racial provocateur, including his crack about Jewish "diamond dealers" that helped fuel the Crown Heights riot 20 years ago this week. As Much because of as in spite of his sins, he's emerged as a national figure and a dominant player in New York City Democratic politics – where he's kneecapped the party's last four mayoral nominees.
Think of Sharpton's approval as one of his protection rackets (many candidates would prefer his silence to his endorsement, given how unpopular he remains with white voters). Most of the candidates who pay tribute to him aren't nearly as concerned with the support of a man who has never drawn even 150,000 votes in four losing runs for office, as with defending themselves from the negative attention he can summon.
I wrote last week about how more than a decade of declining turnout has diminished New York's political culture and made it less representative of the city as a whole. Sharpton has both contributed to and benefited from that trend, as his small but steady vote base has made him a bigger fish in a smaller pool. And you can't understand the upcoming mayoral race without considering The Sharpton Factor.
While he's shown little ability to help friends, his power to punish enemies is unquestioned. In his 2002 book, Al on America, Sharpton titles the chapter on the 2001 mayoral race "Kingmaker?"—but "King Killer" would be more accurate. His decision that year not to back Democrat Mark Green after he beat out Sharpton's then-ally Fernando Ferrer in a runoff for the party's nod was crucial to Michael Bloomberg's surprise win.
Sharpton has kept a low profile during the Bloomberg years (a non-aggression pact he now seems to have also reached with Obama) in exchange for public appearances with the mayor and cash funneled through former schools chancellor Joel Klein. But the reported new MSNBC host has continued to play a key role in Democratic politics as a force to be feared, having wounded a rainbow coalition of the party's candidates in New York.
Sharpton has wielded this power despite collecting only 130,000 votes in each of his three primary runs for New York offices in the 1990s (Senate in 1992 and 1994, and mayor in 1997). As analyst Jim Chapin noted, "there has been no candidate for office in the history of New York City with so defined a group of supporters as Al Sharpton . . . [His] New York City vote has stayed the same regardless of over-all turnout"—as did his numbers in different boroughs and assembly districts. The Sharpton Constant was halved in his 2004 presidential bid, when he collected just 57,000 votes statewide.
In 1997, Sharpton, without improving his vote total, nearly forced a runoff with eventual nominee Ruth Messinger—and took the primary results to court (his complaint was eventually dismissed), hamstringing her already uninspired bid to unseat Rudolph Giuliani. After damaging Green in 2001, Sharpton effectively split with Ferrer in 2005, giving his former ally a belated and tepid endorsement while making clear he would have no issue with four more years of the mayor who had become his patron. (That move also put the last nail in the coffin of the black-Latino alliance the two men forged four years earlier. The groups had once represented two of the three crucial constituencies in New York politics, with Jewish voters being the third.) In 2009, Sharpton offered an equally unenthusiastic endorsement of then-comptroller William Thompson, the first African American to have held the office, who ended up falling just 50,000 votes short in his bid to unseat Bloomberg.
Sharpton's power isn't limited to the city, as national Democratic hopefuls made pilgrimages to his House of Justice to pay homage in 2000 (who can forget Bill Bradley chanting "No Justice, No Peace"?) and 2008. Obama, his eye on reelection, came to New York earlier this year to attend the annual conference of Sharpton's National Action Network—the first sitting president to do so. Sharpton has made five trips to the Obama White House, and he's worked closely with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, paralleling his arrangement in New York with Bloomberg and Klein.
Much of his leverage comes from his willingness to leave his party behind. Sharpton has a long history of undermining Democrats and backing Republicans, and his 2004 presidential run was coordinated by self-proclaimed "GOP hitman" Roger Stone, and aimed squarely at then–Democratic favorite Howard Dean (which also served as an indirect way for Sharpton to take shots at his mentor and rival, Jesse Jackson Jr., an early supporter of the former Vermont governor.)
In part because he's so much fun to talk with and write about, much of the press continually forgives or forgets Sharpton's many trespasses. It's easier to write about his latest "reinvention" than to circle back to his dealings with the FBI, or his role in the Freddy's Fashion Mart fire, or the Flatbush Korean grocers boycott—and that's just the "F"s. Even stories about those, or this story for that matter, help keep his name in the news and on New Yorkers' minds.
So, what role will Sharpton play in 2013, as candidates court their potential killer? That will likely depend on what he's bid for his services.
"People complain I run for something I can't win," Sharpton told me in 2002. "How do they know what I'm trying to win?"