Skip to comments.Sharpton's admirers faced with a quandary (Vote for Crazy Al? Or someone to beat Bush?)
Posted on 02/02/2004 4:57:50 AM PST by mhking
COLUMBIA, S.C. - The Rev. Al Sharpton all but admits he has no shot of winning the Democratic nomination for president, but that doesn't deter the thousands who have leapt to their feet and danced on chairs in recent days to cheer his fiery words as he preaches to campaign rallies across South Carolina.
Just last week, after a vintage Sharpton speech full of sharp humor and wisecracks designed to paint his fellow Democrats as weak on issues of race and poverty, dozens of students at a historically black college near the capital heeded his call for campaign volunteers by crowding the stage and pledging to work in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary election.
For many in that crowd, the appeal is not necessarily tied to a belief that Sharpton is the most qualified man to be president of the United States -- merely that he is the most able to speak for them.
The bull's-eye of Sharpton's argument is the Florida recount of 2000, and the idea that Democrats allowed Republicans to win by failing to protect voting rights of minorities and failing to inspire the base enough to win other Southern states.
''Before we can get rid of Bush,'' Sharpton said, ``we need to have a real conversation about how we got him in the first place.''
Those who cheer for Sharpton, and even many who do not, seem to agree on that sentiment.
That's why Tuesday's primary, in a state where up to half of the electorate is expected to be black, carries so much symbolic importance -- even though it is just one of seven key primaries on the same day with great sway over the nomination battle.
The result for many black Democrats is an intellectual quandary: Do they vote for a voice to force the conversation that Sharpton talks about or for somebody who can actually win the nomination and take on President Bush?
And if they want a voice, should it be Sharpton, whose reputation as a civil rights leader is tainted by his controversial history and lingering accusations of race-baiting?
While Sharpton is not taken seriously as a national candidate, the polls bear out that he is a formidable force in some places. One recent survey put him at 12 percent in South Carolina -- enough to be a factor in the race.
''Perhaps it's coming from the wrong megaphone, but there's so much truth to what he's saying,'' said Rick Wade, host of a political talk show on Columbia's biggest gospel station and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for secretary of state in 2002. ``He connects with voters. The others, I just don't see it.''
The questions arise as several of the major candidates have adopted race as a touchstone of their speeches.
Perhaps the most similar message to Sharpton's comes from North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who holds a narrow lead in South Carolina over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
Edwards, born into a working-class southern family, recalls in speeches a grade school teacher who refused to come to work when classes were integrated and the separate bathrooms and water fountains he saw as a child.
The Edwards pitch is built around a theme that there are ''two Americas,'' one for those who have everything and one for everyone else.
His message was embraced Sunday at Bible Way Church in Columbia by the Rev. Darrell Jackson, one of the state's most prominent black ministers, who congratulated the senator for delivering the same message to whites in Iowa and New Hampshire and blacks in the South.
''He's the only candidate with a consistent message on poverty,'' Jackson said.
But Edwards' speech raises a key question about Tuesday's vote: Will blacks buy into the idea that the real issue is class as much as race?
His speech wins applause, but in interviews many black Democrats question how much a white man could possibly know about segregation.
''Uh-huh,'' said Carmen Harris, a history professor who lives in Greenville and attended speeches recently by Edwards and Sharpton, in a sarcastic nod to Edwards' recollections. ``Which water fountain did he drink out of?''
Even so, Harris said she voted absentee early for retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark because she liked his military credentials -- and said she did not think Sharpton can win or be a factor.
Her friend, Leah Garrett, an office administrator at a Greenville mortuary, said she would back the civil rights leader anyway. Referring to the separate water fountains, she said: ``Sharpton drank from ours.''
Sharpton himself targets Edwards by firing at the senator's refrain that he is the son of a mill worker who has lived the American dream.
''My daddy couldn't work in the mills because my daddy grew up in times of segregation,'' Sharpton said. ``So if you know the distance it took you from the mill house to the White House, think about me from the outhouse behind the mill house to the White House.''
Sharpton puts his crusade in a historical context, comparing his mission to those of sharecropper-turned-activist Fannie Lou Hamer -- who in 1964 protested barriers to voter registration -- and of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who in 1988 won 15 primaries and delivered his spine-tingling ''Keep Hope Alive'' speech to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
But Sharpton is a complicated messenger.
Critics accuse him of running to boost his profile and to challenge Jackson's status as the nation's most prominent civil rights leader.
If Sharpton wins enough votes to capture some delegates, he could take his oratory to a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and force his party to confront the very issues he says it ignores: poverty, trade policies that hurt workers, unequal schools and healthcare systems and a racist criminal justice system.
''To vote for who you think will win is to waste your vote,'' Sharpton argued to a mostly black audience last week in Greenville. ``They might not win. And if they win and don't stand up for you, what are you winning anyway?''
The argument resonates, even with skeptics.
Standing in the back of the room that day in Greenville, watching Sharpton electrify a church social hall, was Ken Gibson, a West Point grad and trial lawyer who moved back here from Miami to practice law and raise his family.
Before Sharpton spoke, Gibson rattled off the reasons why he likes Edwards, Kerry and Clark, noting that ''there's too much at stake'' to vote for Sharpton.
Moments after Sharpton spoke, however, Gisbon was smiling broadly as he bounded over to clarify one point: ``I just might vote for Sharpton, after all.''
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a black congressman and the most sought-after endorsement in South Carolina until he decided to back Kerry, said he understands the compunction to vote for Sharpton.
It was the same feeling that led Clyburn to vote as a delegate in the 1972 Miami convention for Rep. Shirley Chisholm.
FOCUS ON FLORIDA
Sharpton ''brings the Florida issue into this debate that the others have been skirting around,'' Clyburn said. ``Florida needs to be a focal point. We need to remind our voters of what happened in 2000, and we don't need to have anybody put that into the background.''
The excitement in a room with Sharpton may or may not translate into actual votes on Tuesday. But some black leaders and analysts say that Sharpton is tapping into a renewed frustration that all people are not represented in the Democratic Party -- even though blacks are the most loyal voting bloc and nearly put Al Gore in the White House with a record turnout in Florida four years ago.
That's the bulk of Sharpton's case -- that in South Carolina, for example, a Democrat lost the governor's race in 2002 by fewer than 50,000 votes, but more than 100,000 eligible blacks did not vote.
''No one went to register them. No one went to inspire them,'' he says. ``What I'm doing could be good for the party. Rather than chase some right-wingers calling them the swing vote that will never swing our way, if you talk to your base, inspire your base, you can swing elections by getting the people that would already be with you if you just included them in the process.
''Before you can turn people out, you need to turn them on,'' Sharpton adds. ``I hope to turn 'em on, I hope to turn 'em out. If I'm not the nominee, they can turn 'em out if we just turn 'em on.''
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