The Rev. Al Sharpton and Hillary Rodham Clinton are an unlikely couple indeed. But as Clinton's exploratory campaign for next year's New York Senate race gets under way, the former boy preacher who carries heavy racial baggage -- a pariah to some but a political prophet to others -- could prove to be a pivotal force in the election.
Already the press and public are watching to see how Clinton masters the arcane details of New York politics. But how she deals with the controversial Sharpton could become an early defining moment in the campaign, far more important than whether she can find Elmira on a map, identify the mayor of Poughkeepsie or figure out a politically correct vacation spot.
There is little doubt Sharpton will have some role in the campaign. Howard Wolfson, the exploratory committee spokesman, told Salon News, "If [Clinton] runs she will not be in the business of excluding people. We welcome the support of all New Yorkers." Asked if Sharpton had been given an actual role in the campaign, Wolfson said simply, "We will cross that bridge when we come to it."
In reality, Clinton's kowtowing began last month, when she invited the reverend to a White House reception for the World Series champion New York Yankees. "I don't think Al has ever been to a Yankee game in his life, but he was invited," confides Wall Street businessman Frank Mercado Valdes, a longtime friend and advisor to the reverend.
But behind the scenes, controversy swirled around Sharpton's presence at the event, foreshadowing a delicate balancing act Clinton must perform to rally and unify key New York Democratic constituencies -- African-Americans and Jews.
William Rapfogel, a lifelong Yankees fan and director of the New York Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, was also invited to the White House event. Rapfogel has been to the White House at least 10 times during the Clinton administration, he says, but this visit was going to be special because he wanted to get Yankees autographs for his son. Then he got a "heads up" call from a Washington friend that changed everything.
The friend told him to be careful about his White House visit, because efforts were being made to create the impression that Sharpton and the Jewish community were united. So Rapfogel elected not to attend. "I did not want to be used," he said, though he stressed that he was not a spokesman for the Jewish community and said that he might yet vote for Clinton. But he admitted that he wondered why Sharpton was given a front-row seat at the event, while Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem congressman who had first broached the idea of a Hillary for Senate campaign, got stuck in the third row. "Is Sharpton more important than Rangel?" Rapfogel asked.
While making overtures to Sharpton, Clinton has also reached out for Jewish support in this early stage of the campaign. This week, she affirmed her support for a united Jerusalem, a move aimed at quelling earlier protests from segments of the Jewish community who bristled at her support for a Palestinian state.
But the presence of Sharpton in the first lady's campaign operation could alienate some Jewish voters and bring potential political peril for the first lady. In his two decades in the public eye, Sharpton has made his reputation as a notoriously ambitious loose cannon who specializes in orchestrating high-profile and often racially polarizing media spectacles. But Sharpton has a loyal following. He drew 26 percent of the vote when he ran for Senate against Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1994, and followed that up in 1997 by winning a surprising 32 percent of the vote in the contest for mayor, almost forcing a runoff between himself and Democratic sacrificial lamb Ruth Messinger.
Sharpton has been onstage, or on the fringes of the stage, virtually all his life. Mentored by soul singer James Brown and boxing promoter Don King, he combines elements of Nation Of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Martin Luther King Jr. He is part political leader, part street hustler and part entertainer. He learned politics watching Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell battle with the white establishment, and he founded the National Youth Movement in 1980. But he gained national notoriety in 1987, with the Tawana Brawley case.
Brawley, an African-American teenager, claimed she had been abducted and raped by six white men. The story shocked New York and the nation, but a grand jury later determined that the entire story was contrived. Last year Sharpton lost a defamation suit in connection with the case and was dinged for a $65,000 judgment.
He has also been blamed for fanning racial tensions that led to a riot in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991 after a black child was killed by a car driven by an Orthodox Jew. Soon after, a young rabbinical student was murdered, allegedly in retaliation, and the neighborhood erupted into riots pitting Jews against blacks.
Sharpton was also instrumental in focusing the media spotlight on two racially motivated incidents involving blacks in the 1980s that almost tore New York City apart. In 1986, Sharpton intervened in the case of three black men who were attacked by a mob of whites after their car broke down in Howard Beach, Queens. One of the men, Michael Griffith, was severely beaten. Three years later, in 1989, Sharpton was in the forefront of demonstrations in Bensonhurst after the racially motivated murder of Yusuf Hawkins. Hawkins had gone into the neighborhood to purchase a used car when he was beaten by a white mob. During a demonstration in Bensonhurst, Sharpton himself was stabbed, and he later said that a near-death experience led to a personal transformation.
Some Democrats believe that despite his reputation, Sharpton is a proven vote getter among blacks, and his support could help Clinton galvanize a massive voter turnout in Democrat-rich New York City. Although Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 there, turnout is often low, and a surge to the polls by the city's blacks and Latinos could be critical in securing a Clinton victory. "Sharpton is probably someone who can help get out the vote," says former Mayor Ed Koch, who feuded with Sharpton while he was mayor and at one point had him jailed. He now believes the Clinton campaign should find a role for Sharpton, but adds, "He won't be in the inner circle because Hillary doesn't even know him."
Koch has said he thinks Sharpton is a changed man from the days when he used to regularly picket City Hall. He has called him "another Jesse Jackson" and has predicted that if Sharpton would apologize for his actions in the Tawana Brawley case -- he represented Brawley -- and for statements that have offended Jews, then he would be readily accepted by all groups. Thus far Sharpton has made no effort to apologize.
But other Sharpton critics are less forgiving and say Clinton should distance herself from Sharpton by any means necessary.
"Charlie Rangel and [former New York Mayor] Dave Dinkins can get out the black vote, why do you need a Sharpton?" says Dick Morris, the former advisor to President Clinton-turned-pundit and critic, who left the team after his dalliance with a prostitute was revealed during the 1996 campaign. "Sharpton ought to be kept 50 miles from the campaign and from the candidate."
Sharpton himself seems to be enjoying his new role as political power broker, and intimated he would not be content with a symbolic role in the campaign. "You're not gonna give me a bus, some money and say, 'Go register some black voters,'" Sharpton told Salon News. "I want to be involved in the policy questions too -- education, police brutality, welfare reform." Sharpton is fond of recalling that five years ago, when he ran against Moynihan for the very same Senate seat, he developed a full policy agenda that distinguished him from the incumbent. "I don't want a Moynihan in a skirt representing New York," he says.
This year Sharpton managed to widely improve his public image, through his leadership of massive public protests against the police killing of Amadou Diallo, the West African street vendor who was shot and killed by four officers who thought he resembled a rape suspect. The case was tailor-made for Sharpton and he played it to the hilt. But this time, there was no divisive language, no violence. Just a steady stream of orderly demonstrations in front of police headquarters in lower Manhattan until 1,200 people were arrested, including former Mayor Dinkins, actors Ossie Davis and Susan Sarandon, liberals and conservatives, whites and Christians, Jews and Muslims. The protests seriously damaged Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and helped propel the "Hillary for Senate" juggernaut.
"And guess what?" said Sharpton. Clinton "can't afford to ignore me and I think she knows it. The Diallo trial will be coming up in the middle of the campaign."
Still, Sharpton said he had not heard from the first lady's advisors since he was last at the White House. And he said he might not get involved if the campaign does not formally invite him to participate before Clinton announces her assumed candidacy. "It is unhealthy to try to catch a moving train," he said. "I'd rather catch the train in the station when it stops and the doors open. Once the train starts rolling, don't tell me to catch up."
He knows that many people consider him a loose cannon. But he has tried to use his reputation for unpredictability as an incentive for Hillary to embrace him. "I think they would be better off having me inside the tent than outside. Can you imagine what it would be like for Ms. Clinton to go looking for black votes and they say to her, 'Where is Rev. Sharpton?'"
Not surprisingly, Sharpton's allies agree. "Far from being a liability, he would be a plus to the campaign," says former Mayor Dinkins.
Sharpton dismissed attacks from his critics who insist his presence on the campaign train will do Hillary more harm than good.
"That's what they always say," responded Sharpton. "The people who are not going to vote for you are not going to vote for you no matter what. And Al Sharpton does not have anything to do with it." He noted that he had helped elect U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, both of whom are Jewish. "There was no voter backlash there," Sharpton said.