Fear of a Black Candidate

Salim Muwakkil

Aaron McGruder, the radical cartoonist, insists that the Rev. Al Sharpton’s “perm” prevents him from being taken seriously as a presidential candidate. But the Democratic National Committee (DNC) seems worried enough that they drafted a black woman, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, to dilute Sharpton’s potential electoral power.

Or at least that’s the reigning theory among many political observers. Sharpton, 48, a controversial New York-based activist, makes many mainstream Democrats uncomfortable. His advocacy for victims of police abuse or racial violence is his primary claim to fame, or, as with his involvement in the bogus Tawana Brawley rape case, infamy.

Sharpton has made occasional but serious forays into electoral politics. He ran twice for the Senate (1992 and 1994) and once for mayor of New York City (1997), polling respectable but racially polarized numbers each time. He has become a formidable political figure in New York, and his blessing is sought by nearly every Democratic candidate running for a city or statewide seat. Presidential candidates also have been known to show up at Sharpton’s Harlem headquarters.

Still, many New York Democrats blame Sharpton’s “divisive” tactics for the 2001 election of Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a city with five times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. “His strength comes mainly not in guaranteeing that people can win, but in guaranteeing they won’t win if he doesn’t support them,” Fred Siegel, a fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council’s Public Policy Institute, recently told The American Prospect.

The centrist DLC is one of Sharpton’s major targets. He blames the group for pulling the Democratic Party to the right and sees his campaign as part of an effort to halt that rightward drift. But Sharpton has received little support from any party officials. In a November poll, two-thirds of DNC members said they had a negative view of Sharpton.

Enter Moseley-Braun. “Party insiders see Moseley-Braun as their Great Black Hope to stop the rise of the Rev. Al Sharpton as a major player in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

An unnamed Democratic strategist told the Washington Post that “the DNC made a concerted effort to get Sharpton out, and he wouldn’t play along. This is how they do it.”

Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. told the Internet newsletter Politics NH.com: “I have heard rumors—not unlike what the DLC did when they tried to use former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder to undercut my father’s potential campaign in 1992—that she is possibly being led into this race by Democratic forces who would not like to see Al Sharpton in the race or do very well, and they see her as being able to undercut his campaign.”

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The general outline of this conspiracy has Donna Brazile, manager of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, pulling the strings. Brazile, now chairwoman of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, acknowledges urging Moseley-Braun to join the presidential fray, but denies it was done to contain Sharpton. “Carol will bring a message to a group of voters who are often ignored, and that’s the black female vote,” Brazile told the Washington Times. “It’s unfortunate that the party hasn’t had a black woman run since Shirley Chisholm in 1972.”

If she does run, Moseley-Braun will be one of at least eight candidates in a wide-open race for the Democratic nomination. But she will be the lone woman. “It’s time to take the ‘Men Only’ sign off the White House door,” Moseley-Braun declared in her February 18 speech at the University of Chicago announcing the formation of her exploratory committee. During her appearance at the DNC’s annual winter meeting on February 21, she said: “I am prepared to breach the last barrier, shatter the last great glass ceiling that limits the contributions a woman can make in the leadership of this country.”

This is nothing new for the 55-year-old Chicagoan: Gender politics have been very good to her. She became the first black woman ever elected to the Senate in 1992, the “year of the woman.” In a three-way primary race, she defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon and wealthy candidate Al Hofeld partly by rallying women voters angered by Dixon’s support of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

During her six-year term, she had some ups and downs, including widespread criticism for cavorting with Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. While she fought the good fight on some issues, her tenure was largely undistinguished and seldom sparked much enthusiasm in the black community. By the time she ran again in 1998, she failed to generate enough black support to overcome the lackluster candidacy of Peter Fitzgerald. After her defeat, President Clinton named her ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.

In her fledgling presidential campaign, Moseley-Braun also has taken a firm stance against invading Iraq. “The unilateral attempt to take military action against Iraq is not in the interest of our long-term security,” she said during her University of Chicago speech. “I want to be a voice of hope for people who believe war is not the answer to our domestic security, and budget deficits are not a way to grow this economy.” (With that position she joins Sharpton, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the firmly anti-war camp.)

Moseley-Braun dismisses critics who contend she is running to contain Sharpton as “silly.” But those critics have a point. Sharpton’s verbal skills and podium poise, honed through years of preaching to disparate audiences, make other Democratic candidates look starchy and stodgy. His articulate grasp of issues and willingness to say risky things will favorably contrast him with the overcautious candidates who parse every poll-tested word. This certainly will increase his appeal among black voters and give him a powerful leg up in primary races, particularly in states like South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi, where the black share of the vote in the Democratic primary is higher than in other states.

There’s little mystery why some Democrats would be anxious to dilute Sharpton’s potential electoral power. Although there’s no chance he would ever be nominated, his appeal could garner enough delegates to force the DNC into some uncomfortable concessions. His reputation as a political wild card with no real partisan allegiances (he once endorsed Republican Al D’Amato in a New York Senate race) gives party leaders fits.

Some pundits claim that a possible “Sharpton scenario”—in which the defeated candidate refuses to endorse the winner—is the motivation behind Terry McCauliffe’s call for all primary candidates to pledge their support to the party’s nominee. Keenly intelligent, Sharpton understands how to leverage the party’s fear for more favors. They dare not exclude him from any major event or risk provoking his ever ready sense of outrage.

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Moseley-Braun’s sudden entry into the fray does suggest she was drafted by higher political powers. She reportedly was considering another Senate run as late as December, according to the Washington Post. After meeting with Democratic leadership, however, Moseley-Braun suddenly determined that another Senate campaign “would have been going backward.”

David Bositis is the senior researcher of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and one of the most knowledgeable observers of national black politics. He says Brazile is not as anti-Sharpton as many seem to think: “Donna Brazile has told Democrats to get a life about Sharpton, to stop treating him as if he was some kind of exotic species and engage him. She’s not just urging Moseley-Braun to run, she’s encouraging a lot of black candidates.”

Bositis also dismisses fears that Sharpton will have a disruptive effect on Democratic politics. “He’s a very gifted speaker, and he’s serious about bringing up a lot of issues, especially issues pertaining to racial bias, that should be brought up,” he says. Many Democrats, Bositis notes, would prefer to avoid such issues.

Perhaps the presence of both Moseley-Braun and Sharpton in the presidential race is a sign of African-American political maturity. Even if Moseley-Braun was drafted to cripple Sharpton’s advance, her campaign is an overall victory for the African-American community. After all, why should there be but one candidate for an electorate with a multitude of interests?

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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