If there was any doubt about the many ways “Wildcard” Al Sharpton impacts city and national politics, consider his recent, under-covered foray into the 2005 mayoral campaign. One week before the Voice‘s wide-ranging expose on the Rev appeared (“On a New High, Sharpton Hits a New Low,” December 8-14), he sat down at the Club Havana with El Diario‘s Gerson Borrero and railed against Democratic front-runner Freddy Ferrer, the near-victorious candidate Sharpton backed in 2001.
Ferrer’s crime, Sharpton told Borrero, is that he is still associated with Roberto Ramirez, the former Bronx Democratic Party boss. Ramirez and Sharpton were trigger-happy sidekicks until early 2004, when Ramirez’s consulting company was mysteriously jettisoned by Sharpton’s presidential campaign. The two were arrested at Vieques protests in Puerto Rico in 2001 and did months in jail together. Ferrer “has to show his independence from the heads of the party, be they Latino, black, or white,” says the new reformer Rev.
Ferrer is just the latest in a long line of progressive Sharpton targets. The Rev was a Republican instrument for Al D’Amato in 1986 and 1992, submarining Democrats Mark Green and Bob Abrams, and appeared in Harlem with George Pataki in 1994 on the Sunday before Pataki beat Mario Cuomo. No one—least of all Mike Bloomberg—will forget what he did to defeat Green again in 2001. And John Kerry just rewarded him for his full-scale assault on Howard Dean in the primary debates by making him a top surrogate in the presidential campaign, subsidized by up to $200,000 in Democratic National Committee expenses and fees. Sharpton’s rationale for dumping on Ferrer is so bizarre, he actually told Newsday that he’s not even “sure the Bronx machine exists,” but that Ferrer must distance himself from it.
Who was he helping in this year’s presidential election? In 2000, when Al Gore kept high-negative Al away from his campaign, GOP operatives aired television commercials in seven states picturing the two together and manufacturing linkages. Kerry drew the linkage himself. The only three surrogates flown routinely this fall in their own private planes were Sharpton, Wesley Clark, and Jesse Jackson. They were usually transported by Air Charter Team, and a DNC source estimated Sharpton’s costs at between $50,000 and $100,000. In addition, Charles Halloran, the DNC’s director of surrogate services, was reimbursed for $544,051.60 in credit card expenses, and the Voice has obtained one $1,950.30 Sharpton hotel charge billed to Halloran’s card. While federal filings don’t detail the Halloran or plane costs, Sharpton did additionally bill for $86,714 in extra expenses and fees, the only one to so do.
Halloran dispatched Sharpton to what the Rev says were up to 30 cities, relying on him as a TV surrogate in regional battleground markets and putting him on more national cable shows than other Kerry spokesmen. While Halloran refused in a Voice interview to spell out why, he was apparently guided by focus-group data suggesting how helpful Sharpton might be, unimpeded by the fact that the Rev had bombed in every primary, never getting 10 percent of the vote, shut out even in New York.
Halloran certainly knew Sharpton’s electoral data well—he was the Rev’s campaign manager, installed on the ironic recommendation of Roger Stone, the Republican dirty-tricks operative who helped bankroll Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) in 2004 and fundraised for the presidential campaign. While Halloran has legitimate Democratic credentials as well, he has worked with Stone on other campaigns and still uses Stone’s 40 Central Park South apartment when he’s in NYC. Indeed Sharpton is so well known at 40 CPS that the concierge twice took Voice packages addressed to him at Stone’s apartment, assuring us that the two are “in constant contact.” Halloran, who has also collected $32,000 in fees, got his critical post at the DNC precisely because Kerry hired staffers from each of his primary opponent’s campaigns. The irony of a Stone-tied operative deciding who would appear where for Kerry—and making Sharpton a national spokesman—adds to the frustration of a loss so narrow that a 21,000-vote shift in three states would’ve changed the result. While no one should confuse consequence and intent, it is baffling that Sharpton moved from TV target for the RNC to TV point man for the DNC in three years, a swing that must’ve left Rove and the Bush gang chortling.
Indeed, Sharpton’s Republican base was more upset about the Voice exposé than his black base. Robert Novak and Bill O’Reilly rallied around him, while black radio in New York and elsewhere took the charges quite seriously (see related story). The core of the piece was that Sharpton allies helped savage Jesse Jackson in 2001 for having a relationship with the executive director of his nonprofit organization, even while Sharpton was apparently doing the same with NAN’s director.
The Voice also reported that Sharpton’s attorneys threatened to sue the Voice if we printed “false allegations” about the Rev and didn’t simultaneously examine “false allegations” about his wife Kathy. Two days after the election the two Sharptons announced their separation, but the Rev now says they’ve been separated since April 2003, contrary to public statements he made as recently as July. Sharpton’s reputed lover, Marjorie Harris, coincidentally separated from her husband the same month. The letter from Sharpton’s lawyers made four specific references to an allegation involving Mrs. Sharpton, but the Voice has declined to make the full contents public. Sharpton has repeatedly referred in media appearances to “an affair” involving his wife though the Voice never mentioned it, claiming that the Voice asked about it in prepublication interviews. Actually, it was Sharpton who alluded to “problems” in his marriage, and an aide to Sharpton who called with specifics just hours after the Voice interview with Sharpton.
Confronted with these issues, Sharpton went on the offensive, appearing as the guest host on CNN’s Crossfire, opposite Novak, and comparing himself to Martin Luther King and the Voice to J. Edgar Hoover. Novak expressed “great sympathy” for Sharpton, calling the charges a “smear” and “left-wing Communist tactics.” But the lovefest with Novak was tame compared to his lengthy segment with O’Reilly. O’Reilly and Sharpton jumped aboard the same sex-victim soapbox, with Sharpton’s e-mail to Harris about “releasing bodily fluids” rivaling O’Reilly’s infamous fantasy about washing his producer “with a little loofah thing.”
“When people can’t beat you politically,” said Sharpton, “they go into your personal life,” provoking an amen from Wild Bill: “Tell me about it.” O’Reilly walked the tightrope of bashing the Voice‘s charges without ever really saying what they were: “I don’t read their paper. But they’re basically all over you for getting divorced and then dating and just dopey stuff where I say what does it matter.” In fact, the story details evidence of a Harris relationship four years before the Sharptons announced their separation. “Did it hurt your feelings?” was O’Reilly’s toughest question, prompting Sharpton to liken himself to Nelson Mandela, who divorced Winnie. When O’Reilly had Sharpton on as his first Democratic post-election guest in November, he even indicated that he’d donated computers to NAN.
O’Reilly and Sharpton bonded back in 2001, when they both were reveling in the demise of Jesse Jackson, with O’Reilly doing 28 shows about the Jesse baby and related scandals in two months, fed by sources close to Sharpton like prominent black businessman Harold Doley Jr. O’Reilly repeatedly featured New York Post columnist Rod Dreher, who was simultaneously writing 20 columns blasting Jackson. Dreher reported that “Sharpton’s associates have been dissing Jackson in the background for months,” confirming recently to the Voice that Doley was one of them. “You don’t have to fall for Sharpton’s theatrics to admire what he’s doing from a strictly Machiavellian point of view,” wrote Dreher.
With the mayoral election just months away, get ready for more Machiavelli.
Research assistance: Eric Cantor, Deborah S. Esquenazi, and Daniel Ten Kate
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 14, 2004