Sharpton Faces Dueling Images

Times Staff Writer

How to reconcile the two images of Al Sharpton?

In the last two days, South Carolina newspapers reported that Sharpton far outshone other Democratic presidential candidates, receiving enthusiastic support from crowds and debate-watchers.

In a front page story Friday, the Greenville News, which has been following six local families as they make up their minds about the contest, reported that after watching Thursday’s debate all six said Sharpton “proved himself as a serious candidate. Five said he won it outright.”

Saturday’s news brought much the same story. At a candidates’ forum, reported South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, a crowd of about 3,000 responded raucously to Sharpton.


And yet, hours after that event, a writer from the Weekly Standard, known for its conservative point of view, needled Sharpton: “Does it bug you that you’re still not taken seriously, when everyone gives you such high marks?”

An unruffled Sharpton, who had moments earlier received a standing ovation from about 500 African American students at Benedict College, replied, “Taken seriously by who?”

“By us,” pressed the reporter. “By other politicians. By Democrats.”

Such is the curiously split public life of Sharpton, who has no money, no political organization to speak of and no shortage of reminders from the media that he isn’t going to be elected president. But that hasn’t stopped the minister and civil rights provocateur from emerging as a star in debates and on the campaign trail -- particularly in this state, where he previously injected himself into battles over the Confederate flag and the refusal of Greenville County to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday.


“Al Sharpton has visited the state more than anybody else,” said Joe Erwin, South Carolina Democratic Party chairman. “He’s campaigned very effectively. Sharpton has the opportunity to have a very good primary day.”

Rush Limbaugh may have used his radio show to deride Sharpton last week, but among the black voters who make up his base those words go unheeded. He has developed what the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert in 2002 called “an immunity to white criticism.”

In South Carolina, where as many as half of Tuesday’s primary voters could be African American, the jowly 49-year-old Pentecostal minister, whose profile bears a rather striking resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s, expects to fare well enough to earn a considerable number of delegates at the Democratic convention in Boston this summer.

He believes he can win enough delegates to have “leverage on the floor” of the convention.

Both in South Carolina and Missouri, where Sharpton campaigned Wednesday, African American supporters stressed his value as a presidential candidate.

“He has a message to deliver to disenfranchised African American voters,” said Carlton Jones, 52, a real estate broker. “We must have a seat at the table.”

In a small hotel banquet room at the Wyndham Hotel in St. Louis, William and Nellie Watkins waited patiently to hear Sharpton speak. Nellie, a former librarian, and William, a self-employed architect who once supported Republican Nelson D. Rockefeller for president, have donated money to his campaign.

“Blacks have to begin to be counted in this process in as positive a way as possible,” William Watkins said. “Then we can really have some bargaining power.”


The Watkinses are worried about healthcare (Sharpton is for a single-payer universal plan), taxes (Sharpton would repeal President Bush’s tax cuts), public education and the plight of young black males (Sharpton advocates incentives for teachers and massive government expenditure on public works as a way to create jobs).

The couple, parents of a 25-year-old son, do not fret that they will “waste” their vote on Sharpton. “It’s better to have someone like Al Sharpton take our issues to the convention,” said William, “because that’s as close as we’re gonna get.”

Thursday, at a candidates’ forum at Allen Temple AME Church in Greenville, retired car salesman Rick Morton sat impassively listening to candidates or their surrogates. Sharpton had received at least half a dozen standing ovations from the largely black crowd of about 400, but Morton didn’t move.

“We like to be preached to,” Morton said dryly while Sharpton spoke with zest about how his grandmother taught him a farmyard lesson about how to move a donkey: “When you see me on the trail,” said Sharpton, “I’m not being divisive, I’m trying to slap this [Democratic] donkey!”

Morton leaned toward a reporter: “I don’t think this would be a great State of the Union speech. Then again, who knows?”

Because winning the nomination is so unlikely, Sharpton has the luxury of staying out of the fray engulfing the leading Democratic contenders. He tends to attack Bush by name and his competitors as a group.

Still, he often fires crowds up with stories about the double standard he encounters on the trail.

“I remember one guy said, ‘They’re gonna have a debate with all the candidates ... and Al Sharpton,’ ” he told the students at Benedict College. “So if Wesley Clark didn’t go to Iowa, or Joe Lieberman didn’t go to Iowa, they didn’t participate. If Al Sharpton didn’t go to Iowa, he didn’t get no votes.”


Voters who attend his rallies don’t seem concerned about some of the unsavory episodes in Sharpton’s past. One is hard-pressed to find a black, twentysomething South Carolinian who has heard of Tawana Brawley -- the black New York teenager who falsely claimed she had been abducted and raped by a group of white men. Sharpton was one of her most adamant supporters -- and he remains so.

“In the white media, there is a tendency to put a whitewash on the escapades of white candidates like Ted Kennedy,” said Paul Guy, a landscaper and president of the Greenville chapter of the NAACP, referring to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “Regardless of what happened 20 years ago, there has been a level of growth with Al. He was able to grasp the middle-of-the-road concept.”

Sharpton is “so appealing because he addresses the issues of poor people,” Guy said. “The other candidates are really weak on that.”

At Benedict College, where tuition is about $17,000 a year, Sharpton brought the house down when he said of his competitors, “They talk about ‘cannot balance the budget.’ I been broke all my life.... I went over to Gov. [Howard] Dean and said, ‘You raised $40 million? And you can’t make payroll? If I had $40 million, we’d already be at my inauguration.’ ”