The House of Justice on Madison Avenue between 124th and 125th streets in New York City may not look like the epicenter of a movement that could wreak havoc within the Democratic Party. The unremarkable, somewhat dilapidated edifice sits on a block bookended by a restaurant and the A & M Deli, where you can find grown men buying 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor at 9:30 on a Saturday morning. Just outside the building, a street vendor displays stacks of Afrocentric self-help books and the sort of Marxist African histories routinely sold on Manhattan street corners and taught in City University of New York (CUNY) schools. Three volumes add visual punch to the piles and testify to the city's ongoing politics of racial resentment: Michael Bradley's The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man's Racism, Sexism, and Aggression; Do You Dare Read -- Why the Whiteman Is the Devil! by Muhammad Shabazz and Ali Shaheed; and Michael Moore's Stupid White Men.
Yet within the House of Justice, as the headquarters of the civil-rights organization the National Action Network is called, the Rev. Al Sharpton, 48, is getting ready to do something remarkably mainstream for a full-time protest leader: run for president. A poster in the ground-level window -- "Rev. Al Sharpton For President in 2004" -- declares it. Head up a flight of well-worn stairs to the second floor of the House -- just follow the hand-lettered sign duct-taped to the wall -- and you can find Sharpton himself, dressed in a three-piece suit, holding forth on Saturday mornings at his weekly rally, an hour-long sermon-cum-lecture that is broadcast live on black-owned radio station WLIB-AM and in edited form several weeks later on public-access television.
The subject this weekend in late December: how the current retrenchment on civil-rights issues is leading to the end of America's second Reconstruction, which, says Sharpton, ran from 1965 to 1988, when it reached its pinnacle with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's second run for the presidency. But although Sharpton mentions deposed Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and newly installed Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) -- who Sharpton says has agreed to a sit-down talk on race relations -- the reverend is oddly silent on the subject of President George W. Bush. Instead, he saves most of his considerable ire for the Democratic Party and his bête blanche, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
"They don't call themselves the Dixiecrats now, they call themselves the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council," he thunders to his largely gray-haired audience of about 100. "Our fathers had to fight Jim Crow. We got to fight his son, James Crow, Esq. Speaks a little better, dresses a little nicer, got a little more education. But it's the same agenda. We're not looking for better slave masters -- we're looking for freedom!" The audience members nod their heads in agreement and murmur assent. The accusation that the DLC is the second coming of the Dixiecrats was widely made by Jackson beginning in 1985, but in the immediate wake of the Lott scandal, calling someone a Dixiecrat has acquired new weight, resonance -- and power.
Power is what Sharpton is after, and he's not afraid to admit it. He wants a seat at the national Democratic Party table. He wants to sit among the decision makers, allocating funds, plotting policy, bringing along a contingent of his own. It's one of the reasons he abandoned the jogging suits and gold medallions he wore for so many years. It's why he breakfasts regularly at the posh Regency Hotel in Manhattan, where he can hobnob with the rich and powerful and have chance encounters with other presidential contenders, such as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). And it's why he hopscotches the globe and keeps shots of himself with such internationally known figures as Cuban President Fidel Castro and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on prominent display in his office.
Ever attentive to symbolism, Sharpton decided to file papers with the Federal Election Commission announcing his presidential exploratory committee on Jan. 21, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He won't formally declare his candidacy until sometime later this year. But for more than a year now he has crisscrossed America, giving stump speeches at churches and universities (two of his expected bases of support) and getting the lay of the land in visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina (the first three states to hold presidential primaries and caucuses). Sharpton's platform, still incomplete, is a traditionally left-liberal one of the sort that's rarely seen on the national stage these days but commonly espoused within the confines of New York City. He's adopted a modified version of unsuccessful 2002 New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate H. Carl McCall's reinvestment platform, calling for $250 billion in federal and pension funds to be poured into roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure projects. He's strongly opposed to the death penalty, racial profiling, war in Iraq and any kind of unilateral U.S. intervention abroad. He's pro-choice, pro-welfare and pro-affirmative action, and he also supports gay rights.
October saw the publication of Sharpton's second book, Al on America (co-written with Karen Hunter), in which he declared, "I am running for president to finally put the issues concerning most Americans onto the front burner." But, he wrote, "More than a matter of policy, this run for the president is a matter of identity." It's a tough formula to follow: Sharpton is trying to combine populism with an identity politics that has often proven divisive.
"You gotta remember something," Sharpton leans back and tells me, when I interview him after the radio address about why he's planning to run for president. "The DLC was formed after the '88 campaign. They were formed as a direct result of the growing influence of Jackson and the [National] Rainbow Coalition. ... They were formed to bring -- in their words -- the party of Jackson, the Democratic Party, to the center. ... They were formed to destroy the influence of the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson. ... I see us as the children of the rainbow coming back to bring the party back to where it was. Now, remember now, when it was fought, when it happened, Jackson had gotten 7 million votes, more than any [Democratic] runner-up in history. Jackson got more votes in '88, coming in two, than [former Vice President Walter] Mondale got in 1984, winning the [primary] process, winning the nomination -- and [future Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman] Ron Brown was the chair of the party. ... They were formed against Brown and Jackson, so that's why my perception is what it is."
There's a bigger problem with Sharpton's history lesson than just his effort to set himself up as the next Jesse Jackson, however. And that problem is Sharpton's distortion of the facts. The DLC was formed in 1985, after Jackson's first run, when he won 3.5 million votes. But rather than being a response to Jackson, the DLC was formed as an answer to the liberal Mondale's catastrophic 1984 general election blowout, in which he lost 49 states. For its part, the National Rainbow Coalition took root between late 1984 and 1986, an outgrowth of Jackson's first campaign. It was only after spending the four years between elections courting labor and building this genuine multiracial, progressive coalition that Jackson was able to run strong in the 1988 primary, garner up to 25 percent of the white vote in some states and become a major power broker within the Democratic Party. For his part, Brown, Jackson's manager at the 1988 convention and later a commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, didn't become chairman of the DNC until 1989.
Sharpton's characterization of the battle between the DLC and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party as a war of southerners against black voters and Jackson is a convenient misreading of history. It also gives Sharpton an outsized role in the ongoing battle of left versus right that defines the modern Democratic Party. In New York, however, Sharpton's wars haven't been against the DLC; they've been against some of the most left-wing liberals running anywhere. And his attacks have helped make Democrats -- in a city where their voters outnumber Republicans 5-to-1 -- the losers in race after race.
"Divided -- and conquered," declared a Daily News editorial the day after the 1997 New York City mayoral primary. Al Sharpton had just won 32 percent of the Democratic vote citywide, coming in second in a three-way race against Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, who had received slightly less than the 40 percent of votes required to avoid a runoff. Voter turnout for the primary was a historic low -- a scant 18 percent of registered Democrats cast ballots -- thanks to strong support for incumbent Mayor Rudy Giuliani and public apathy about both Messinger, a self-described progressive, and Sharpton. For the next week, a runoff seemed possible, and Messinger did what she thought she had to do -- announce that she'd endorse Sharpton as the Democratic candidate for mayor in the unlikely event that he won the runoff -- to ensure Sharpton's support against Giuliani. Her decision alienated many white voters.
Sharpton held his fire for about a week while the absentee ballots were counted. But as soon as it became clear that there would be no runoff, he charged the New York City Board of Elections with voter fraud and sued for redress, saying it would be "a betrayal of history" not to contest the outcome. In the meantime, he refused to endorse Messinger at first and brought in Jackson to criticize city Democrats who wouldn't endorse him because of his ties to Nation of Islam President Louis Farrakhan and anti-Semitic CUNY professor Leonard Jeffries. When Democratic leaders began to grumble, Sharpton told the New York Post, "No one can call in any chits on me." Sharpton kept his name in the news and kept agitating until Messinger's chances of winning the general election slid from slim to none. She ended up looking weak, cowed and hamstrung -- and no match for the tough-guy Giuliani.
The performance was vintage Sharpton. Each time Sharpton has lost, he has been one very sore loser. In his first race, the four-way 1992 U.S. Senate primary contest, he refused to endorse the winning Democratic candidate, liberal State Attorney General Robert Abrams, in the general election against the incumbent pro-death penalty, pro-life Republican Al D'Amato. Granted, Abrams and Sharpton had a history of poor relations: Abrams had been the special prosecutor in the Tawana Brawley case and later went on to charge Sharpton on 67 counts of tax evasion, grand larceny and fraud. (Sharpton was later convicted, in yet another case, on one count of tax evasion and paid a $5,000 fine.) But Sharpton also went out of his way to cause trouble for Abrams, suggesting that black voters might find it in their interest to stay home on the day of the general election. Abrams narrowly lost the race to D'Amato. Liberal New Yorkers suspected payback, and recalled that Sharpton had previously endorsed D'Amato in 1986 over Democratic contender and consumer activist Mark Green. (Today Sharpton calls the D'Amato endorsement "a mistake.")
In the two-candidate 1994 U.S. Senate primary, Sharpton charged his opponent, Democratic incumbent Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with making racially insensitive comments, lampooned Moynihan's patrician accent and refused to endorse Moynihan after the incumbent won with 74 percent of the vote. Instead, Sharpton tried to cut into Moynihan's support by campaigning as an independent on the Freedom Party ticket, abandoning the bid only after running up against New York's cumbersome ballot-access process, which ultimately invalidated all Freedom Party candidates that year.
Sharpton's most destructive political performance may have come in 2001, when his actions helped throw the New York City mayoral contest to Republican neophyte Michael Bloomberg, a successful businessman who spent $70 million of his own money on the race. Sharpton backed Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer in the primary contest against -- once again -- Mark Green, by then the city's public advocate. Ferrer won the first primary but without enough of the vote to avoid a runoff. He then failed to respond adequately to the September 11 attack on Manhattan and lost the runoff to Green. Sharpton refused to endorse Green because, the reverend charged, the public advocate had run a racially offensive campaign by suggesting that Sharpton would be a puppeteer in a Ferrer administration. Democratic Party leaders, including Clinton, says Sharpton, were dispatched to heal the rift, but their efforts proved futile. Green decided he'd risk alienating Sharpton's voters in order to preserve his standing with his own base; besides, Ferrer had already endorsed him. But the bitterness lingered, and on the day of the general election, thousands of Ferrer's Latino primary voters stayed home while white voters bolted for the Republican, anyway. Green lost the election; days later, Sharpton was warmly greeted by a grateful Bloomberg.
"I played along when I felt that we were not going to be disrespected," says Sharpton of the Ferrer-Green controversy and his previous endorsements. "There's a difference between cooperation and insanity."
"His strength comes mainly not in guaranteeing that people can win but in guaranteeing they won't win if he doesn't support them," says Fred Siegel, a fellow at the DLC's Public Policy Institute. "I happen to not be a liberal, but I supported Mark Green because I think he's better than the current guy. What I watched Sharpton do is make it impossible for him to win."
"I laugh when people mention to me stuff like Brawley," says Sharpton, referring to the controversial 1987 case in which he advocated for the 15-year old girl who claimed to have been held hostage in the woods and raped by six white men, including police officers. (A grand jury later determined that her story was a "hoax" concocted to avoid the wrath of a stepfather who had been convicted of murder.) "I ran for U.S. Senate right after Brawley -- in '92 Brawley had just happened -- and they think Brawley will be more 15 years later in Iowa than it was in Wappingers Falls [N.Y.] three years after it happened? I don't think so."
Rather than becoming ancient history, though, the drama that the Brawley case started in 1987 has dragged on for years, at least in New York. In 1998, Sharpton was convicted of having slandered Stephen Pagones by accusing the former Duchess County assistant district attorney of having raped Brawley. Sharpton was eventually fined $65,000, a sum he paid, he says, with the assistance of his longtime supporters, including attorney Johnnie Cochran, Harlem power broker and Inner City Broadcasting magnate Percy Sutton, and Black Enterprise and Essence magazine publishers Earl Graves and Edward Lewis. To this day, Sharpton maintains that he believes Brawley and that his actions were those of a good-hearted man simply coming to the defense of a troubled girl and innocently repeating her claims. But at the time he was far less conciliatory. "We are saying Steven Pagones did it," said Sharpton in 1988. "Now if Steven Pagones didn't do it, why isn't he suing us?"
Sharpton's boast about how little he was hurt by the Brawley affair obscures a central fact of his political history that will affect how he performs in Iowa, New Hampshire and plenty of states around the country: Sharpton has had tremendous difficulty drawing white voters, even in liberal New York. In the 1992 U.S. Senate primary, with the Brawley affair fresh in voters' minds, Sharpton won only 2 percent of the white vote, according to a New York Times post-election analysis. By contrast, Jackson earned 16 percent of the white vote in New York during the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, and 6 percent in 1984, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll.
Sharpton and his allies contend that his draw among white voters has been better within the New York City limits, such as during his 1997 primary run for the mayoral nomination. "If you look at the '97 race, he didn't do all that bad in the white community," says Bill Lynch, a Democratic National Committee vice chairman. Lynch, who helped elect New York City's first black mayor, David Dinkins, in 1989, has signed on as an adviser for Sharpton's presidential bid, giving the reverend mainstream bona fides and a powerful connection to organized labor.
But neither Sharpton nor his advisers were able to provide substantiation for such voting-trend claims -- in part because no exit polls were conducted for the 1997 mayoral primary or for the 1994 U.S. Senate primary, according to researchers at the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and Voter Contact Services in New York. Sharpton actually got fewer votes in New York City during his 1997 mayoral campaign than he did during his 1992 U.S. Senate primary race -- 131,848 versus 136,118, according to a 2001 report by Jim Chapin of United Press International. Sharpton's numbers in both races showed a similar distribution across the city, suggesting a rock-solid core of support that did not grow in the mid-1990s but whose significance increased as the size of the Democratic electorate shrank. Indeed, 48,000 fewer whites in New York City voted in the 1997 mayoral primary than did in the 1994 U.S. Senate race, making any improvement in Sharpton's appeal to white voters highly improbable. "It was the vote he had gotten almost anytime he had run for anything," says Messinger today. "He was never likely to get much less than that nor much more."
A recent poll among Democratic city voters found that Sharpton remains extremely polarizing racially, with a 65 percent unfavorable rating among whites and a mirror-image 65 percent favorable rating among African Americans. Citywide, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 21 percent of people viewed him favorably in 2001, up from 9 percent the last year he ran for office, in 1997 -- the ultra-low turnout election in which he nonetheless managed to win one-third of voters, or 6 percent of registered Democrats. In 2002 polls of likely future Democratic presidential primary voters, Sharpton registered between 1 percent and 7 percent support, depending on the state in question.
Advocacy on behalf of high-profile victims of police violence, such as Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, has helped Sharpton solidify his support among New York City's blacks during the second Giuliani administration. This growing popularity allows Sharpton to pooh-pooh the importance of appealing to a broader array of voters in his presidential bid. "People romanticize Jackson's vote," Sharpton said. "Jackson only got 7 percent of the white vote in 1984, and 14 percent in '88."
In Sharpton's eyes, the fact that he's controversial is not a result of his own behavior but rather a symptom of the continuing racial divide in America. If he alienates whites, it only confirms his premise that America is a racist country where whites are a hostile, ill-willed population that can't be trusted.
Though Sharpton is often castigated for his divisiveness, even his most vociferous critics concede his abilities as a speaker, calling him a masterful orator and an exceptional debater who will force people to take him seriously by virtue of his rhetorical skills. "I think he'll surprise people when he gets on the debate trail," says one Washington-based progressive Democratic Party activist. "He's very smart and very funny. He's not as brilliant as Jackson and not as well-versed on the issues, but he does have Jackson's ability to do poetry rather than prose. Compared to established candidates who are parsing every word, he'll look very refreshing. ... He sees the opportunity to be the candidate on the left, and to be an interesting candidate in a field that has many cautious people doing very little."
Top aides to several of the other presidential candidates don't seem to be taking Sharpton seriously yet. "I mean, he has to get on the ballot," said one. Others seemed to know nothing about the reverend's history of winning 67 percent or more of the black vote during his runs for office in New York.
But beyond Sharpton's liberal politics and preacher's way with words are two personal qualities likely to have a powerful impact on the race ahead: He is notoriously sloppy with his facts and he consistently construes political differences people have with him as personal attacks. More than anything else, it is these qualities that have kept Sharpton from achieving Jackson's stature, and that may make his current bid for the presidency so potentially disastrous for the Democrats.
"He makes liberals enormously uneasy," notes the progressive Democratic activist. "If Al were by some miracle to become the second Jesse Jackson and build alliances against lines of race, and manage to do his homework as well, it would be very valuable. But you have to put up with a lot of indignities, which he wouldn't put up with, and it's a lot of hard work to do that."
In Al on America, Sharpton makes it very clear that if there is one thing he is unwilling to tolerate, it is anything that smacks of insult or a lack of personal respect. He cites James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul," for teaching him this lesson. When Sharpton was just 17, in 1971, he went on the road with Brown. It's there that the reverend met his wife, Kathy Jordan Sharpton, a statuesque back-up singer for Brown who still maintains a singing career and close connections with such disco divas as Stephanie Mills. It was the heyday of Brown's black-power funk phase, when his song "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" ruled the airwaves. Sharpton relates how Brown once walked off the set of The Tonight Show -- forgoing 40 million viewers -- because host Johnny Carson called Brown "Jimmy" instead of "Mr. Brown." And Brown refused to perform at Ronald Reagan's inauguration -- not because he hated his politics but because he felt "they disrespected him," writes Sharpton. "That's one of the best lessons I learned from James Brown -- never compromise your dignity for any amount of success, any amount of fame, any amount of money. Your dignity and self-respect is more important than any of those things."
Sharpton's politics are still rooted in a cultural black-nationalist philosophy. The Sharpton rally I attended in December began with a group rendition of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the spiritual written by black poet and novelist James Weldon Johnson in 1900 for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and which later became known as the "Black National Anthem." At the first strains of the song, all the audience members rose to their feet and raised their right hands in a black-power salute, which they maintained until the song died away. In the corner of the room, a black-power fist carved out of wood sat next to a television. Sharpton still objects to white-owned businesses, such as the Swedish clothing giant H&M, coming into Harlem, and in 1995 called one small-business man a "white interloper" during a series of furious radio broadcasts. Sharpton's followers held regular protests at the store, and a man Sharpton now says he knew was unstable later set fire to the shop, killing eight.
Sharpton's combination of black-power politics and personal sensitivity to insult means he rarely distinguishes between a personal attack, a legitimate political criticism of his politics and a racist insult to all black people. Already he has shown that he's planning to play the race card as a way of rebuffing normal questioning during the 2004 campaign.
"To even question why I'm running is insulting," he writes in Al on America. "Pundits ask me why not run for Congress or a local office, an office they say I might have a better chance of winning. That question, too, is insulting. If I'm good enough for Congress, why aren't I good enough for the highest office? It shows me the question is more about assigning me to a place rather than whether or not I represent a segment of this nation and am worthy of leading. What they're really saying is, 'Why don't you stay in your place?' Why didn't Jackie Robinson stay in the Negro League? Why doesn't Tiger Woods only play in Harlem?"
Sharpton warns that those who want to bring up his history of scandals and legal troubles should be ready to get hit in return. "That makes me want to run even more, so they can compare what they consider my baggage to the trunks some of the leaders of the Democratic Party are carrying," he writes.
All of which is likely to make for a very divisive time in the months ahead. A strong showing by Sharpton in even a few primaries -- thanks to low voter turnout, for example -- could lead to nightmarish complications for the eventual Democratic nominee. DLC Democrats will no doubt demand that the nominee repudiate Sharpton, but the reverend will play any such move as an attack on the party's absolutely essential core of black voters. Allying with Sharpton could alienate white moderates and swing voters, but failing to seek his support will likely lead to a major blowup with Sharpton that could ultimately drive down black support and lead to lingering intraparty divisions. Republicans, meanwhile, will fan the flames and love it. "Privately, in his mind, he's perfectly capable of distinguishing between a racial attack and a political attack," notes one liberal political analyst in New York. "His public MO is not only not to make that distinction but to intentionally blur that distinction. That's where his power comes from."
"He's going to hurt everyone," worries one well-known New York Democratic politician. "He can have a principled reason for trying to hurt conservative candidates, but remember the history -- where he goes after liberal candidates also because he can out-liberal them and out-black them."
All of this is may come to a head as early as the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3, 2004. With half a dozen Democratic candidates seeking support in a state where 40 percent of the primary voters are black, no one will want to damage his own candidacy by taking on Sharpton. But giving Sharpton a free pass will ultimately hurt the Democratic Party in the 2004 general election -- and for years to come.
Already the dance is starting. "From a DNC perspective, we support any candidate that the Democratic voters support," says DNC spokesman Guillermo Meneses. That means Al Sharpton, too. And Sharpton knows it. It's why he's running, after all. As he writes in his book, "Even if I lose, I have the option to negotiate points with the Democratic Party."