Reverend Al Sharpton, press hound and scourge of police brutality, race warrior and civil rights leader, is thinking of running for president. Seriously.
So how seriously should Democrats be taking him?
Well, the controversial preacher is aiming high: At best, the goal is to win, he said in an interview last week. At worst it is to set a whole new climate in politics. He aims to move the Democratic Party away from its pro-business leanings.
Hes also been daydreaming: My fantasy for the past year has been to debate George Bush, he said.
The 47-year old Rev. Sharpton, who has never held elective office, says he wants to reverse the Democratic Partys decade-long shift toward the center and replace New Democrats with old. He is also trying to establish himself as a major figure in the national Democratic Party. At the moment, there is a tendency to dismiss Rev. Sharpton and his sometimes antic, sometimes influential, public presence. But some prominent Democrats are quietly beginning to see him as a player maybe a kingmaker, maybe a spoiler in 2004.
It is a mistake to pooh-pooh Al Sharpton, said a Democratic political consultant in New York, Hank Sheinkopf. Our stake as Democrats is very significant. If he is handled poorly, if people belittle him, it could go very badly for the party.
It is, of course, early to draw conclusions about 2004.
Vice President Gore, among Democrats the leader in opinion polls, has not yet declared a candidacy. The other candidates remain largely out of the public eye. A Zogby poll this summer showed 41% of likely voters would vote for Mr. Gore, while other contenders, like Senator Lieberman, Rep. Gephardt, and Senator Daschle languished with Rev. Sharpton in the single digits, within the polls 5% margin for error.
So Al Sharpton is, for the moment, doing the things presidential candidates do.
Hes formed an exploratory committee. It includes the former Bronx Democratic Party leader, Roberto Ramirez; a deputy mayor from the Dinkins administration, Bill Lynch; a Princeton professor, Cornel West, and a public relations man who advises actor Leonardo DiCaprio and labor leader Dennis Rivera, Ken Sunshine.
He is also staking out positions on issues of national and international policy. Most of them are on the traditional, liberal end of the Democratic Party opposition to the death penalty, no tax cuts for the wealthy, and a multilateralist approach to foreign policy for example but others are surprises, like his support for prayer in schools.
The reality is that there is no real left-of-center candidate , he said over dinner at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. Mr. Sharpton, who lost 30 pounds on a hunger strike over the Navys bombing on a Puerto Rican island, Vieques, is keen to keep the weight off, and he had only a cup of coffee. Im the clear candidate thats anti-death penalty, anti-gun, and pro-health care as a right.
With an African-American base and a traditional populist message, Rev. Sharpton is not stepping on untried ground.
The model is the Jesse Jackson races of 1984 and 1988, Mr. Ramirez told The New York Sun. Rev. Jackson surprised many by winning two primaries in 1984 and then, in 1988, jumping out to an early lead after taking 55% of the votes in the Michigan caucus.
Rev. Jackson Rev. Sharptons mentor and rival used his presidential runs to push the Democrats to the left and to establish himself as a power broker. But for Rev. Sharpton, theres also a model closer to home: We want to build a progressive coalition what we built around Freddy, he said, referring to Fernando Ferrers near-miss campaign for last years Democratic mayoral nomination.
Hes been working hard to build that black-Hispanic coalition, the elusive holy grail of the New York left. His visible stance on Vieques, Mr. Ramirez argues, bought him lasting popularity among Hispanics.
But the comparison to the 2001 mayors race is the kind of thing that makes other Democrats nervous: the Ferrer campaign ended in racially tinged recriminations, and left Michael Bloomberg to triumph over a divided Democratic Party in November.
While few outside Rev. Sharptons inner circle suggest that he could take the nomination, he has the potential to take votes, delegates, and even states away from other candidates. Some see a Sharpton candidacy as a blow to Mr. Gore, who ran in 2000 with the populist people versus the powerful theme.
Sharpton has the potential to divide that vote for Gore and diminish Gores influence, said a political analyst at the Hudson Institute, Marshall Wittmann.
But it is hard to predict his impact. Hell take votes, particularly in the south, from John Edwards, Mr. Lynch, now an informal adviser to Rev. Sharpton, predicted.
Certainly, Rev. Sharpton can be a divisive figure. He referred to diamond merchants after the Crown Heights riots in 1991 and called a merchant a white interloper weeks before a deadly attack on the merchants store in 1995.
He is not an anti-Semite, but he has dabbled in anti-Semitism, said Abraham Foxman, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism. He has not rejected it, and he has not apologized for it.
Mr. Sharpton denies ever stirring up violence, and apologized for the white interloper remark. Whats more, the preacher, whose permed hair is now gray at the roots, says hes mellowed. Hes been preaching since he was a child, but the last decade has seen him tone down his rhetoric, and pick issues like racial profiling that have entered the national mainstream.
I was far more controversial in 1992 than in 2002 even to me, he said.
Rev. Sharpton first ran for national office in 1992, picking 21% of the Democratic primary vote against the incumbent, Senator Moynihan. In 1997, he took 32% of the vote in the Democratic mayoral primary, coming within 700 votes of forcing Ruth Messinger into a run-off.
In each of those races, he had more than 130,000 votes. And while he is often seen as a candidate most appealing to poor African-Americans, he has done as well in Queens base of the citys black middle class as elsewhere, picking up a third of the vote in the Democratic primary there in 1997.
Sharpton is not just a figure for poor people he has become a clarion for middle-class people who have significant distaste for what government may or may not do, particularly on the police issue, Mr. Sheinkopf said.
Rev. Sharpton converted his electoral success in New York into a role as kingmaker in the Democratic Party, a man whom candidates ignore at their peril.
But can Rev. Sharpton do nationally what he has done locally? Cable television and the black press have made him among the most visible African-Americans in the country. But it is unclear whether he can appeal to voters in states like South Carolina, in whose caucus Rev. Jackson placed first in 1984, and Indiana, where Rev. Jackson won delegates from one largely black congressional district in 1984 and 1988.
The answer, Rev. Sharpton says, is encouraging. Hes been traveling around the country testing the waters. He visits places like Indianapolis, Ind., where a congregants at a packed church shouted, Run, Al, run, according to one likely Sharpton supporter who was there, an African-American state legislator named William Crawford.
Mr. Crawford was a Jesse Jackson delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1984 and 1988, and he said hes feeling the same old excitement.
People here know who Reverend Sharpton is, and generally there is a favorable perception of what he does, he said.
I expressed publicly that whatever he decides to do, I would be with him, he said. I think my constituents will go with Sharpton too.
Other Democrats around the country are more skeptical.
Ohios a pretty middle of the road state and from what Ive seen of Al Sharpton is that hes not such a middle of the road guy, said the communications director of the Ohio State Democratic Party, Lauren Worley.
One key state will be South Carolina, Jesse Jacksons home and a projected battleground in 2004. John Scott Jr., an African-American state legislator who is active in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council which snubbed Rev. Sharpton at its recent convention in New York said he thought Rev. Sharpton would be a serious candidate.
Im not sure how Al would fare, he said. Everybody knows who Al Sharpton is, and hes popular; but I think hes going to have to go beyond popularity.
This is going to be a strange election cycle, he said.