A GOP trickster rents Al Sharpton

The pompadoured preacher's alliance with a right-wing operative may delight conservatives but should disgust his constituents.

Published February 3, 2004 3:18PM (EST)

In the twilight zone of political chicanery, operatives often cooperate across ideological lines. Whenever their interests coincide, seasoned mischief-makers can set aside superficial disagreements to harass a common enemy. To anyone familiar with the buccaneering careers of Al Sharpton and Roger Stone, their convergence in the 2004 presidential campaign is not quite as "unlikely" as the New York Times suggested in a headline last week. Indeed, the alliance between the conservative consultant and the pompadoured preacher makes perfect sense.

Whatever excuse each man offers to justify their embarrassing embrace, Stone certainly serves the Republican party by sustaining and promoting Sharpton. Ever since the reverend announced his candidacy, right-leaning commentators have gleefully predicted that he will pose "a major threat" to the Democrats in 2004. For Sharpton himself, the attraction of endless publicity (and luxurious lodging) remains irresistible, along with the opportunity to supplant his former mentor Jesse Jackson as black America's political spokesman. The Democratic Party, whose institutions and candidates he has consistently undermined for many years, is merely a convenient vehicle for his advancement.

The only surprising aspect of the Sharpton-Stone relationship is how brazenly the pair now display their bipartisan dalliance. While Stone quietly began providing advice to the reverend almost a year ago, his name surfaced last October when he showed up at a Sharpton birthday party/fundraiser in New York. That was not long after Sharpton campaign manager Frank Watkins, a former Jackson aide, abruptly resigned. In place of Watkins, Stone installed Charles Halloran -- a white, Kentucky-born political operative whose ties with the Republican consultant were cemented in 2002, when they worked together on billionaire Thomas Golisano's quixotic Independent campaign for New York governor. Although he is a career Democrat, Halloran has become professionally dependent on his connections with Stone. Last winter, his Republican patron obtained a lucrative job for Halloran in Bermuda, running the conservative United Bermuda Party parliamentary campaign.

Appointing the campaign manager only suggests how pervasively Stone influences Sharpton. His current role is even more crucial. An extraordinary investigative report by Wayne Barrett in the Village Voice describes in detail how Stone controls the campaign's staffing, financing, and often its message. In addition to placing half a dozen of his associates in the Sharpton camp, Stone has managed the successful solicitation of enough contributions to make Sharpton 2004 eligible for federal matching funds.

In order to qualify, federal law requires that a presidential candidate must first raise $100,000, including $5,000 from each of 20 states, in amounts no greater than $250 from any individual contributor. Until early January, when Sharpton announced that he would apply for matching funds, his campaign appeared unable to meet the Federal Election Commission requirements. Although he could raise (and borrow) thousands of dollars, the bulk of his donations were simply too large and too concentrated in a few states. As soon as the FEC approves his new request, however, Sharpton 2004 will immediately receive $150,000, with more to come.

When he deposits that government check, Sharpton should thank Stone. In his latest financial filings, the Village Voice discovered literally dozens of recent $250 contributions from the Republican consultant's relatives, friends and political associates, scattered across state borders from Virginia to California.

Although Stone himself gave $2,000 to Bush-Cheney 2004 last June -- and has made no recorded donation to Sharpton -- the Voice article also alleges that he has subsidized Sharpton's travels with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to the minister's nonprofit National Action Network. Political activist Randy Credico, an associate of both Sharpton and Stone, told Barrett that the Republican consultant allowed NAN to charge campaign expenses to Stone's personal credit card. Such commingling of funds and unrecorded donations may both be violations of federal election law.

Among the states where Stone helped Sharpton to raise qualified matching funds is Florida, where Stone and his wife, who gave $250 to Sharpton, maintain their residence. Ironically, Florida is also where Stone last intervened dramatically in a presidential election. At the behest of Bush-Cheney campaign attorney James A. Baker III, Stone reportedly directed the infamous GOP goon squad that disrupted the November 2000 ballot recount in Miami-Dade County. (The black voters whose rights were blatantly violated by Florida officials in 2000 may well wonder why Sharpton would accept Stone's sponsorship.)

Around the same time, Stone secretly put together a front group called the Committee to Take Back Our Judiciary, which raised $150,000 for a campaign against members of the Florida Supreme Court who had ruled in favor of Al Gore. An investigation by the Florida Election Commission of alleged campaign finance violations was unable to determine the source of that committee's funding.

Such episodes offer a sense of Stone's flamboyantly underhanded style, which he picked up at the elbow of such late, great Republican manipulators as Lee Atwater and Roy Cohn. He discovered his talent for the darker political arts in 1972, at the precocious age of 19, as the youngest of the Watergate dirty tricksters. Back then Stone's covert responsibilities included running an agent known as "Sedan Chair II," who began to infiltrate the campaigns of George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey during the California primary. Besides gleaning useful dirt, the Nixon spies sought to create as much ill will as possible among the Democrats by sending out "bundles of bogus leaflets and letters attacking one candidate on behalf of the other," noted the late J. Anthony Lukas in his classic "Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years." More than three decades have passed, but Stone's basic methodology has scarcely changed.

The Sharpton gambit isn't subtle, but Stone must know that if anyone can pull off this scheme, it would be his audacious African-American partner. Sharpton's political biography is hardly uplifting, from his awful public smearing of innocent men in the Tawana Brawley affair to his nauseating entanglements with various racial demagogues. Yet he retains a constituency among black voters and enjoys friendly press coverage. What makes him most useful to Stone, however, is his lifelong propensity to attack Democrats and assist Republicans, including Alfonse D'Amato in 1986 (who bought his endorsement with a federal grant); George Pataki in 1994 (who appeared at a Harlem church with him just before Election Day); Michael Bloomberg in 2001 (who celebrated his first Martin Luther King Day as mayor by paying tribute to Sharpton).

Unable to attract enough support for a genuine grass-roots campaign, the "progressive preacher" is renting himself to a right-wing conspirator. If Sharpton's past behavior provides any precedent for the months ahead, he will continue to "slap the donkey" -- just as he has vowed to do until the Democratic convention, and beyond. Why this fraud delights the likes of Roger Stone is obvious. Why he is still tolerated by those he claims to represent is incomprehensible.

This story has been corrected since its original publication.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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