Sharpton, Lieberman Exchange Barbs

By Jennifer Siegel

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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In a sharply worded letter released Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton accused Senator Joseph Lieberman of resorting to “flagrant race baiting” in criticizing opponent Ned Lamont’s campaign appearances with the black leader.

“You never once attacked or questioned my commitment to Israel or any racial group in private or public” during the 2004 presidential primary campaign, Sharpton wrote in the 800-plus-word missive. “For you to now totally flip the script to hopefully incite some race based hysteria in a desperate attempt to save your political career is beneath the dignity of the man I thought I got to know.”

Sharpton was responding to comments made by Lieberman at a private fund-raiser in New York on October 4, during which the senator reportedly said that “to some extent you’ve got to judge people by their friends,” and characterized Sharpton’s appearance at Lamont’s side on primary night as “a remarkable moment.”

For months, Lieberman’s camp has questioned Lamont’s commitment to Israel based on his decision to campaign with Democratic congresswomen Maxine Waters and Marcy Kaptur, who both have a history of votes that upset some pro-Israel activists.

Sharpton himself often has been accused of race baiting by some in the Jewish community. In particular, he raised Jewish hackles for leading marches during the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and for referring to the neighborhood’s Jewish residents as “diamond merchants” at the funeral of the Guyanese boy accidentally killed by a Hasidic motorcade. In 1995, he was captured on videotape referring to the Jewish owner of Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem as “a white interloper.” The store was subsequently torched.

Since those controversies, however, Sharpton’s reputation appears to have been substantially rehabilitated, with many prominent Jewish figures describing him as having evolved.

In his letter to Lieberman, Sharpton points out the significant inroads he has made in the Jewish community in recent years. In 2001 he traveled to Israel as a guest of then-Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres. In recent years, he has built a cordial relationship with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, as the two former adversaries joined forces to promote a program for nonviolent drug offenders. And after their joint losses in the 2004 presidential primaries, Lieberman himself spoke favorably of Sharpton in a documentary produced by the minister’s National Action Network.

In response to Sharpton’s letter, a Lieberman spokesperson lashed out at Lamont, who is currently trailing the senator by 10 percentage points, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released September 28.

“These are extreme and divisive attacks from one of the Ned Lamont’s closest advisors,” said Tammy Sun in an interview with the Forward. “Once again, Ned Lamont is demonstrating his lack of interest in providing voters with new ideas and instead offering only more of the same negativity.”

Sun acknowledged that Lieberman called Sharpton earlier in the campaign, shortly before the preacher publicly endorsed Lamont. In his letter, Sharpton claimed that the senator had asked him not to support Lamont and referred to himself and Sharpton as “old friends.”

Koch — a top Lieberman backer who appeared at the senator’s October 4 event — tiptoed around the feud.

“Both Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton are friends of mine,” the former mayor wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “I am sorry they have gotten caught up in a personal diversion which often happens in a hotly-contested political campaign. For me, there is only one goal and agenda: reelecting Joe Lieberman to the U.S. Senate.”

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