Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2002 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Take Sharpton seriously? For Prez?? | News alert: After much careful consideration and agonizing consideration, the Rev. Al Sharpton is declaring his candidacy for the 2004 presidential race. Sort of.

At least, that's the impression I received on page 4 in Rev. Al's new political memoir, "Al on America."

"And it is on those qualities that I am seeking the Presidency of the United States of America in 2004," he wrote.

Oh? Ever since his August, 2001, news conference in which he announced formation of an exploratory committee, the leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network has played coy about whether he actually is going to run. Is he using the novel medium of a book to make his big announcement?

When I reached him by telephone, he answered that question with an absolute maybe.

"I am not officially declared as a candidate," he said, "but I am saying that I clearly want to run if we can put the campaign together."

Oh. But, I persisted. The book says "seeking." That sounds like "running" to me. "Are you making news here or not?" I asked "Are you saying something substantially different from what you have said before?"

Yes, he insisted. Before, he was only "exploring," he said. Now he is actively "seeking."

"As I travel, I am meeting with people to determine that we have the organization that we will need to get on the ballot in all 50 states," Sharpton said. "And, once we are convinced that the fundraising is at least achievable, then I am making the declaration."

With obfuscation like that, the man is unquestionably well suited for politics.

But he doesn't want to announce too soon. For one thing, a lot of very strict and complex election campaign laws kick in as soon as you officially announce your candidacy.

For another, if you announce too soon, you run the risk of people getting tired of you. Rev. Al does not have to worry about that. Millions of Americans already are tired of him. He has, as political observers like to say, "baggage," particularly some episodes in which he fanned the flames of racial tension.

In the best known, he championed Tawana Brawley in 1987 after she claimed she was raped by a group of white men, including a prosecutor. A grand jury later decided she made up the story and Sharpton lost a defamation suit. In his book he maintains that he did nothing wrong but believe a 15-year-old girl who never recanted her story.

"Every politician has baggage," he told me, shrugging off the problem. "It is just that some make enough money to have a bellhop carry their baggage. I have to carry my own!" Good one. Whatever else you may say about Sharpton, he is fun to cover. Talk to him for two minutes and you've got your Quote-of-the-Day.

But, while it is easy to (a) chuckle or (b) groan at Sharpton, he is making himself difficult for Democrats to ignore.

In a recent Zogby Poll, Sharpton tied for third place at about 5 percent behind Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman among a dozen potential Democratic candidates.

And, for what it's worth, the poll was held after HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel aired a bizarre 1983 tape, which caught Rev. Al in a failed drug sting. He is more embarrassed by the audacious cowboy hat that the tape shows him wearing, he says, than he is embarrassed by the sting itself -- the tape shows him refusing to take the bait.

Actually, episodes like that, in which the big powers appear to be out to get him, can only enhance Sharpton's appeal in places where voters feel the system is out to get them, too.

He is only encouraged, he notes, when all of the most-talked-about potential Democratic presidential candidates in Congress voted with Bush in his crucial Iraq war powers resolution. The more the other candidates move to the right, Sharpton says, the more room they leave for him with the party's base.

Indeed, as much as some are turned off by Sharpton's style, others are energized by his populist appeal. Many see him as a stern voice who speaks out for them when no one else will.

Despite his baggage, Sharpton gathered enough votes in his losing campaigns for the Senate in 1992 and 1994 and for mayor in 1997 that he has become an important "man to see" for anyone who seeks Democratic votes in New York City.

As a presidential candidate, he could fill the role occupied by previous left-progressives like Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, by Jerry Brown in 1992 and by Ralph Nader in 2000. For his base, Sharpton's value is like the old joke about the near-sighted javelin thrower: He probably won't win, but he keeps the crowd alert.

In that sense, Democratic Party leaders would be happy to have the votes that Sharpton could bring, unless he makes the rest of the crowd run for the exits.

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