After months of stumbling toward a showdown with key advisers to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Reverend Al Sharpton now seems more determined than ever to inject himself into her likely Senate campaign, despite concerns among the first lady’s inner circle that he may be a liability.
Sharpton has embarked on a “hotter than July” offensive on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf to help her grab the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Actually, it’s more like a contingency plan to rescue the campaign in the event it appears to be on a collision course with black activist politics.
He boasts that he can deliver crucial black votes that will deny Rudy Giuliani victory.
He has sketched out a series of 30-second campaign commercials highlighting an alliance between himself and Mrs. Clinton, all designed to intensify black voter interest in the race.
lHe has even stoked a behind-the-scenes feud with two key figures in the Clinton camp, former deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes and ex–deputy mayor Bill Lynch. (Repeated efforts to reach Ickes and Lynch for comment proved futile.)
Suddenly, Al Sharpton is popping up on right-wing TV, in the tabloids, and in conservative magazines, creating an uproar in political circles. His essential message to the Clinton campaign strategists is this: If anyone in Mrs. Clinton’s cabal believes blacks do not need New York’s most influential civil rights leader to help them decide how to vote, take the low road and risk losing core black voters who won’t be motivated to go to the polls.
Sharpton spent much of last week huddling with top black Democrats, get-out-the-vote strategists, black ultra-nationalists, and civil rights leaders in Harlem about his unauthorized offensive.
Despite Sharpton’s nagging fears about the outcome of the election, says one aide, Mrs. Clinton will not be allowed to enter by the back door at the eleventh hour and then arrogantly make demands on Sharpton. What happened to former governor Mario Cuomo, he says, should serve as a warning. In 1994, Cuomo, locked in a bruising gubernatorial battle with the relatively unknown George Pataki, allegedly asked Jesse Jackson to persuade Sharpton to endorse him. The governor and the reverend had been estranged over the Tawana Brawley rape scandal.
“He refused to call me himself,” recalls Sharpton, who has had two impressive runs for the Senate and forced a runoff in the last mayoral race. “I told Jesse, ‘I’m not supporting anybody who won’t call me, far less don’t come before my community.’ Word came back that he would accept a call from me. My answer was, ‘If you want my support, you call me. I’m gonna call you to offer my support?’ He never called, I never supported him.”
Last year, Chuck Schumer’s at first moribund senatorial campaign received a jolt of credibility among black voters after the candidate raced Uptown to enlist in Sharpton’s battle for racial justice. After beating Al D’Amato—a former Sharpton crony turned nemesis—Schumer returned to the reverend’s National Action Network headquarters, conceding he couldn’t have won without the activist’s help.
With key federal and state prosecutorial agencies conducting investigations of recent cases in which white police officers killed or brutalized minorities, Mayor Giuliani is in the political fight of his life. But Mrs. Clinton, Sharpton warns, should not underestimated the desperate, ill-favored Republican whom Ed Koch once described as a “nasty man” with “behaviorial problems.”
“I remind Mrs. Clinton that this is not a professional boxing match, this is a street fight,” says Sharpton, pointing to recent independent polls, which have showed Mrs. Clinton either slightly trailing or locked in a tight race with Giuliani, her likely GOP challenger. “There’s no referee, there’s no bell, there’s no gloves. Rudy Giuliani fights with a broken glass in one hand, the cover of a trash can in the other, and a knife in his back pocket. So you’ve got to come in with street fighters to fight this ultimate bully. If you come in with some professional fighters, you’re in the wrong match.”
By “professional fighters,” Sharpton is referring bitterly to political heavyweights Harold Ickes and Bill Lynch, with whom he has been wrangling for the past four months over what The New Republic recently called “Hillary’s Sharpton Problem.”
Ickes, Mrs. Clinton’s top adviser for her possible Senate run, is a New York political veteran who played major roles in Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns before serving as deputy White House chief of staff. Previously, he was a key adviser to former mayor David Dinkins.
Aides to Sharpton told the Voice that the activist preacher flew into a rage in April after The New York Observer reported that Giuliani allies were spreading “rumors that Ickes is the secret puppetmaster” behind Sharpton’s two-month-long civil disobedience campaign in the aftermath of the police killing of Amadou Diallo. Sharpton, says one aide who spoke on condition of anonymity, suspected that the rumors, if not planted by Ickes, were fueled by the adviser to assure Democrats wary of Sharpton that Ickes could assert control over him.
“Reverend Sharpton rarely talks to Harold Ickes, and certainly the reverend’s history demonstrates that he does not need anybody to tell him how to conduct civil disobedience protests,” the aide says.
If Ickes had contacted Sharpton during his fit of “black rage,” according to the aide, Sharpton would have told him off and hung up on him.
That’s how the miffed activist allegedly treated Bill Lynch when the veteran Democratic operative tried to get Sharpton to stop bad-mouthing Mrs. Clinton on national TV and in the press.
Quarreling broke out last month after Sharpton intensified his public sniping at Mrs. Clinton. When he expressed his indignation at her in an interview with The New Republic (saying that “at some point [Mrs. Clinton] is gonna have to deal with people like me”), the White House allegedly dispatched Sharpton’s old mentor, Reverend W. Franklin Richardson of the powerful National Baptist Convention, on a mission to muzzle the sound-bite king.
Although Sharpton confirms that Richardson contacted him about his comments in the article, he directed a Voice reporter to an aide to discuss the details of their conversation.
“Buddy, I got a call from Washington, and people said to me, ‘Just tell Al to be cool,”‘ the aide quotes Richardson as telling Sharpton.
The aide says Richardson advised Sharpton “not to make a public issue” out of the fact that Mrs. Clinton, as the magazine put it, has not yet kissed Sharpton’s ring. Mrs. Clinton’s people need time “to work this thing out, just like the president has to work things out when Jesse Jackson gets involved” in the Democratic Party’s business, Richardson added.
The aide claims that Sharpton was tempted to explain to his old friend that Bill Clinton’s criticism of Jackson during the 1992 presidential race for associating with the then controversial raptivist Sister Souljah partly explains why he’s being so tough on Mrs. Clinton. But Sharpton never did.
“Bill Clinton went to Jesse Jackson’s convention and attacked Sister Souljah and Jesse for inviting Sister Souljah,” the aide recalls. “That embarrassing moment left a lump in the throat of many people in the activist L community.”
Sharpton, the aide claims, fears that Mrs. Clinton will pull a similar stunt and criticize his alliance with controversial black leaders such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and Farrakhan’s former spokesman, Khallid Abdul Muhammad.
“The question that many people are asking is, ‘Is Hillary going to play off the black community on Al Sharpton like her husband did Jesse?’ The only way for her to make the black community understand she’s not going to play that polarizing act is by coming clean with Reverend Sharpton.”
According to the aide, shortly after Richardson importuned Sharpton, Lynch followed up with a phone call, reiterating Mrs. Clinton’s advisers’ stance on his irritating analysis of her “nonrelationship” with New York’s African American community. The aide says he was in Sharpton’s office when the call came in.
“Reverend Sharpton told me Lynch said that he was talking to people in the campaign about Reverend Sharpton’s importance and that Reverend Sharpton should wait till Hillary finishes deciding whether or not she’s running,” he remembers.
The conversation allegedly got heated when Sharpton asked Lynch why Mrs. Clinton seemed to be listening to other, less influential political players and wasn’t reaching out to him. “Reverend Sharpton was upset,” the aide recalls. “He was shouting, telling Lynch if Hillary is talking to Tom, Dick, and Harry, she’s gotta talk to us.”
Sharpton refused to curtail his criticism of the first lady, vowing, “I’m gonna be very public about it.”
Sharpton continued to harangue Mrs. Clinton for not including predominantly black communities like Harlem in her so-called “listening tour” of New York. After a local TV station carried Sharpton’s comment at the NAACP’s recent convention in Manhattan that Mrs. Clinton was taking black voter support for granted, Lynch allegedly contacted Sharpton a second time.
“Rev. says Lynch said, ‘Man, it’s all over TV,”‘ recalls a Sharpton operative, who has acted as an intermediary between both figures and was present when Lynch called.
The operative says the intensity of the conversation suggested that Lynch is under tremendous pressure to put a stop to the pillorying. “You guys will never give me orders!” he recalls Sharpton yelling. “You’re probably telling her y’all got me under control, and you don’t have me under control. No one calls my shots but the people that work with me. Let us be clear, you all didn’t run me for Senate or mayor or get the votes I got. I respect you guys, but I’m going to publicly call on Hillary Clinton to be accountable, just like I’ve done with every other Democrat that I supported or haven’t supported.”
When Lynch argued that the Clintons’ invitation to Sharpton to attend the White House ceremony for the Yankees was a sign that Mrs. Clinton was reaching out to him, the aide says Sharpton retorted, “My idea of reaching out is to discuss issues. I don’t need to see the Yankees and I’ve been going to the White House for the past 20 years with James Brown. I’m concerned with whether Hillary will be coming to my house.”
The conversation ended when Sharpton declared, “We have nothing else to talk about.”
One sweltering July morning, after he’s cooled off, the “street fighter” rocks back in a lazy boy in his second-floor office overlooking Madison Avenue in Harlem, looming bigger and blacker in a brash $800 three-button suit custom-designed and modeled for GQ magazine.
He grabs his PalmPilot, a tiny handheld computer, and calls up a file slugged “Healing Hillary,” a series of hypothetical 30-second campaign ads aimed at exploiting heightened black voter interest in a Clinton-Giuliani Senate contest. Sharpton never meant for its details to be made public, but in light of his divisive spat with Mrs. Clinton and her advisers, he’s “airing” the spots so that her strategists can benefit from his political acumen.
This will show, after all, that he has the temperament and the personality to agitate on behalf of the would-be candidate. All of the ads feature Mrs. Clinton. Here are some of the talking points, as directed by Al Sharpton:
Commercial No. 1 presents Mrs. Clinton as a racial healer who finally has included Harlem in her listening tour and winds up at Sharpton’s House of Justice answering provocative questions on issues such as police brutality and racial profiling before receiving Sharpton’s endorsement.
Commercial No. 2 expands on the racial healer theme, dredging up the 1988 presidential primary in which then mayor Ed Koch declared that Jews would be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson. But an announcer chimes in, saying, “We should never return to that ugly and polarizing era.” The camera pans to a news conference in which Koch, Mrs. Clinton, and Sharpton are on the steps of City Hall talking unity and taking the high road.
SHARPTON: “Hillary Clinton can heal the city by bringing together those who were involved in the racial polarization of 10 years ago.”
MRS. CLINTON: “I can bring Ed Koch and Al Sharpton in the same room. I can bring Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Al Sharpton in the same room. I’m not going to be like Rudy Giuliani, who says I’m not talking to certain people.”
Koch then portrays Giuliani as a racial polarizer and plugs his book Giuliani, Nasty Man.
Commercial No. 3 exploits the mayor’s troubled relationship with the city’s blacks and Latinos. Then a voice declares that tensions have been running especially high since the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo. The ad features Mrs. Clinton outside the Bronx apartment building where Diallo was gunned down by four white undercover cops. She is surrounded by Sharpton and a bevy of black and Latino mothers who have lost their sons, allegedly to police brutality. The camera zooms in as Mrs. Clinton, tears streaming down her face, embraces Margarita Rosario, whose son, Anthony, 18, and his cousin Hilton Vega, 21, were shot to death in 1995 by police investigating a robbery.
SHARPTON: “I present to you our Healing Hillary.”
MRS. CLINTON: “Rather than sympathize with a grieving mother, whether or not he agrees with her version of the events, Rudy Giuliani gets on his radio call-in show and suggests to Mrs. Rosario that maybe she raised her son to be a criminal, maybe its her fault that her son is dead. Where is the compassion, Rudy? There is a perception, Mr. Mayor, that some police officers are out of control.”
Commercial No. 4 attacks Giuliani’s policy of isolating those he disagrees with. Mrs. Clinton and Sharpton are gathered on the steps of City Hall flanked by Democratic members of the City Council, including its rising star Bill Perkins; Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields; and Carl McCall, the state comptroller and New York’s highest elected black official.
MRS. CLINTON: “It took Rudy Giuliani four long years before he could sit down in a meeting with Comptroller McCall. He didn’t meet with Borough President Fields until hundreds of people—blacks, whites, Jews—started going to jail to protest his policies. How do you send a man like this to Washington, who won’t see people, won’t talk to people. Say no to the Prince of Polarization and give a resounding yes to the healer.”
Since foreign policy often compels a U.S. senator to deal with foreign leaders he or she may not like, the ad also depicts Giuliani as xenophobic and rude. It shows a clip of the mayor gloating in an interview with reporters after confirming that he has thrown Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat out of Lincoln Center. The ad captures Giuliani implying that during the 1995 visit of Fidel Castro the Cuban president was not welcome in New York City.
SHARPTON: “Do we need a senator who brings people of differing nations together? Or do we need a senator who kicks a head of state out of Lincoln Center by the seat of his pants?”
In addition to the spots, Sharpton says he will fan out to the city’s predominantly black housing developments, conducting teach-ins to drive home the devastating impact a Giuliani Senate victory would have on their lives.
“People must understand that a U.S. senator has the power to hurt us,” he told the Voice. “I would tell them that a U.S. senator nominates federal prosecutors and judges; do we want Rudy Giuliani to have a say in who will replace [retiring U.S. Attorney] Zachary Carter, who successfully prosecuted police officers involved in the beating and sodomy of Abner Louima? If Rudy is elected it would take us another 30 years to get out from under the havoc he wreaked.”
Any fears Mrs. Clinton may have of the controversial Al Sharpton joining her dream team probably were magnified by a scathing editorial Monday in the pro-Giuliani New York Post. The city’s medical examiner had ruled that a drug suspect—who Sharpton quoted witnesses as saying was “savagely beaten” by cops—actually died of “acute cocaine intoxication,” and was not a victim of police brutality.
“Which leads to an interesting question,” the editorial writers contend. “Will Hillary Rodham Clinton welcome the Rev. Al among her cadre of campaign supporters? Or will she shut him out? A lot of New York voters would like to know the answer. There’s good reason to suspect that the first lady would like to have Al Sharpton aboard, despite his unceasingly reckless charges.”
If that’s the case, Mrs. Clinton should put an end to the speculation and infighting about Sharpton’s role: A lot of black New York voters have a score to settle with Giuliani, and would like to see Mrs. Clinton and Sharpton together on the front line of their struggle.
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir
Research assistance: Kristen Nelson