Ask Reverend Al Sharpton questions about public policy, and he gives terse, politically circumspect, moderate-left answers.
Ask the controversial civil-rights activist and would-be Democratic presidential candidate whether he is being held to an unfair standard because of his race and history, however, and you get an earful.
It’s an animated, often funny, performance, even if it might strike the observer as undermining Sharpton’s own rationale for his candidacy: to empower the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party and promote its issues. Instead, by his own preoccupations, Sharpton makes his bid seem more like a platform to vindicate himself, as if his grievances and those of minority Americans were one and the same.
“I don’t think there’s a double standard. I think there’s a quadruple standard,” Sharpton, 48, told the Forward in a wide-ranging interview at his office last week. Referring to recent remarks by former Colorado senator Gary Hart that some construed as charging certain ethnic groups in America with dual loyalties, Sharpton said: “If I had said what Gary Hart said, it would have been a national controversy. It would have been national coverage. I haven’t said anything near what Gary Hart said, and I get hit with things nobody can even say they heard me say.”
Sharpton also lashed out at Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat, and Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican, who criticized him last week. Frank described Sharpton’s record as “shocking” and McCain, likening him to Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, called him “an agent of intolerance.”
“Somebody should challenge the senator to give an example,” Sharpton said. “What is he talking about? Intolerance of what?” Sharpton said. “If we’re talking about baggage, wasn’t he part of the Keating 8?
“I’ve been as shocked with Barney Frank as with anyone,” he continued indignantly. “I want to know what’s shocking to him that I’ve done.”
Sharpton spoke to the Forward at his temporary New York digs, a borrowed office at the headquarters of local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, where he has been working since an electrical fire destroyed the House of Justice, the offices of his National Action Network in Harlem. It is an unlikely launching pad for a presidential run. His mostly female staff, who could be heard speaking reverentially about “the Rev,” gave the place the air of a church office rather than a political operation.
The minister is perhaps most famous to New Yorkers as a critic of police brutality, for his role in the Tawana Brawley episode, for leading marches during the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and for his on-air remarks stoking the boycott of Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a Harlem store torched in 1995. But he has run for office twice before in Democratic primaries, unsuccessfully: for Senate in 1992 and for mayor in 1997. The 100,000 votes he garnered then serve as the basis of his political legitimacy today. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer pay fealty.
Sharpton is proud of these associations.
“You meet these guys who say, ‘the Democrats ought to denounce Sharpton,’” he said. “Why don’t they tell the Republicans to do it? Michael Bloomberg speaks at my headquarters. McCain didn’t attack him. Pataki meets with me. Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the Senate, meets with me and talks to me on the phone. Colin Powell returns my call. Isn’t it interesting that they want the Democrats to do what they don’t do?”
To the question of what is shocking about Sharpton’s record, however, others are happy to supply examples.
The head of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Rabbi Michael Miller, said he was at the funeral of Gavin Cato, the child killed in the car accident that sparked the Crown Heights conflagration. “I listened with my own ears to the message he was conveying,” he said, of the sermon in which Sharpton referred to Crown Heights’s chasidic residents as “diamond merchants.” “I am to this day troubled by his role in Crown Heights, at Freddy’s, and I have not seen any genuine remorse.”
Others, however, insist that Sharpton has overcome this legacy.
“I think he has matured,” said the publisher of the New York Daily News, Mortimer Zuckerman. “He’s much more constructive in his dealings.… I think he’s really trying, and has taken himself to another level of responsibility.”
Sharpton rushes to defend himself. He called the charge that he incited violence in Crown Heights or made an antisemitic remark when he called Freddy’s Jewish owner “a white interloper” in 1995 “ridiculous.” He said, “I didn’t even know he was Jewish.”
A pleasant-looking, potbellied man with an adenoidal voice and a playful sense of humor, Sharpton wore a blue shirt and pants, the kind of fancy, natural-fiber menswear that creases liberally. In person, he seems more like a preacher than a politician. The minister, who has entertained and fired up thousands with his oratory in large halls or street protests, does not appear adept at “retail politics,” the one-on-one glad-handing and flesh-pressing that Americans expect of their politicians. He has an aloof demeanor, and this reporter practically had to shove her hand in his face to get him to shake it. His grip is non-descript.
His politics are the standard left urban agenda. Sharpton does not want to privatize Social Security. He voted for Al Gore in 2000, but disagreed with him on the death penalty, NAFTA and GATT. He opposes a war with Iraq, and does not support the reinstatement of the draft.
But he’s more exercised by what he sees as the nation’s double standard, which, he said, extends not just to his statements, but to political questions.
“They’ll say ‘Well, Sharpton, how can you get votes other than blacks or Latinos?’” he said. “But every candidate in the race has to get a diverse vote. Howard Dean, the [former] governor of Vermont, a state that has 1% blacks, they never ask him how is he going to get black votes…. [Ohio Rep. Dennis] Kucinich did a complete change in his position on pro-life/pro-choice. No one’s talking about that. Imagine if I had done that. Or [Connecticut Senator Joseph] Lieberman has changed his position on affirmative action.”
“If I jaywalk, I’m an anarchist. If they jaywalk, they were in a hurry and couldn’t go to the corner,” the minister said, getting off one of his trademark cheeky lines.
Sharpton said that “some” of this double standard is because of his race. But “a lot of it is an independence that the party bosses are threatened by. A lot of it is that I represent a progressive politics that they don’t want to have on the agenda because a lot of them have moved to the right.”
Sharpton thinks that he can gain support among Jews.
“When I ran for mayor, I couldn’t have gotten 1 out of 3 Democratic votes in the primary without that.”
He said he would address voters’ concerns, “like I addressed them when I ran for mayor. There are many people in white and Jewish communities who are supportive of me.”
“All I want is an even playing field,” he said. “It has been clear that my record throughout my civil rights career has been one of fighting an inclusive battle for civil and human rights. I fought just as hard for Gideon Busch [a deranged Jewish man killed by New York City police] as I did for any other police brutality victim…. I think what happened to him was wrong, just as I think what happened to [police shooting victim] Amadou Diallo was wrong. I want your readers to judge me on the merits, not on a lot of reckless misquotes that when challenged cannot stand the light of day.”
In concluding, Sharpton stressed that he is a loyal Democrat.
“At the end of the day, I hope we can defeat Mr. Bush,” he said. “I don’t think he’s good for the country… or for any community.”