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Assessing Sharpton

Salim Muwakkil

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The Rev. Al Sharpton already has won his race. The New York-based activist ostensibly is one of the nine Democratic candidates seeking the party’s nomination to run against President George W. Bush. But Sharpton’s real opponent is not even a candidate.

His chief rival was a public perception that had him relegated to the margins of national respectability. Until this campaign, Sharpton was best known as a rabble-rousing race-baiter made infamous by his role in the bogus Tawana Brawley rape case. Sharpton had made considerable progress rehabilitating that mottled reputation in the New York area. And, in fact, that image was always a stunted view: While Sharpton may have had some problems with rhetorical excess, he was known as a dedicated activist and a gifted organizer who pushed a progressive line.

But his national image remained tainted. His presidential campaign seems designed more to erase that taint than to truly challenge Bush. Indeed, there was never much expectation that the 49-year-old leader of the National Action Network would win the Democratic nomination, even among his most fervent supporters. The best-case scenario was for Sharpton to gain a bloc of black support that could be parlayed for bargaining leverage within the Democratic Party. This model emulates the strategy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s insurgent presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. Jackson, then known as the leader of the Chicago-based Operation PUSH, used those campaigns to boost his national stock while nudging the Democratic Party to the left and opening its door to more African-Americans.

Jackson adopted his tactics from the remarkable campaign of the late Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983. Washington’s political campaign also was a civil rights crusade and Jackson was impressed by the power of that composite. He used it as a template for his two campaigns and they were uniquely successful.

Sharpton employs the same rhetoric and is modeling his run on the crusade of his predecessor and mentor. He is reaping some of the benefits as well. Jackson was invited to host Saturday Night Live when he burst on the national scene in 1984. Sharpton hosted the show in early December 2003.

There are other similarities as well: both Jackson and Sharpton are clergymen in the African-American tradition of preacher/leader; both are activist outsiders who shunned political protocol to mount their campaigns. Like Jackson, Sharpton never won political office before entering the presidential race, but he at least has run: in 1992 and 1994, he ran for Senate, and in 1997 for mayor of New York City.

The similarities don’t stop there. But there also are significant differences between Jackson’s two runs in the ’80s and Sharpton’s 21st Century quest. One of the major differences is that Jackson was the lone black candidate; the current crop of candidates includes Carol Moseley Braun, the black former U.S. Senator, as well as Sharpton. Jackson also was the most left-leaning candidate and as such became the standard bearer for a multitude of progressive causes. But in this race, Dennis Kucinich and, to some extent, Howard Dean have outflanked Sharpton on the left. The Congressional Black Caucus has split endorsements among eight of the nine candidates; he got one. Feminist progressives look to Braun (she was endorsed by NOW) and many labor leaders still have faith in Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). This fracturing of Sharpton’s natural constituency is much greater than during Jackson’s two runs.

Sharpton’s most tangible connection to the Jackson legacy was Frank Watkins, the behind-the scenes impresario who has figured prominently in the success of both Jackson Sr. and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). Watkins initially served as Sharpton’s campaign manager but left the campaign in late September for what he said were “personal reasons” and soon rejoined the staff of Rep. Jackson Jr. In late October, the younger Jackson endorsed Howard Dean.

Sharpton responded with a blistering attack. “Howard Dean’s opposition to affirmative action, his current support for the death penalty and historic support of the NRA’s agenda amounts to an anti-black agenda that will not sell in communities of color in this country,” Sharpton said. What’s more, he denounced Jackson’s endorsement as a virtual sell out. “Any so-called African-American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights and social justice.”

The Chicago congressman responded by defending Dean and chastising Sharpton. “I don’t understand Rev. Sharpton’s attempt to introduce ‘race’ into the campaign by using such rhetoric as ‘anti-black’ with respect to Gov. Dean,” Jackson said. “I challenge all of the other candidates to urge Rev. Sharpton to resist using such inflammatory rhetoric.”

Sharpton’s outburst reminded many Democrats of his reputation as a political wildcard. He had gone far in altering that image with his remarks made earlier in the campaign that Democrats shouldn’t attack each other “so that Bush turns out to be the winner.”

Still, Sharpton has used this opportunity well. As a candidate, he is well-prepared, witty—and even cogent. He does indeed give voice to issues that probably would remain unspoken. Like Jackson of the ’80s, he is riding the presidential campaign for a trip to the national limelight and is hoping to do some political good by doing well for himself.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.

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