A glimpse at the guest list for the Rev. Al Sharpton’s confab here this week would surely astonish any New Yorker arriving in a time machine from the 1980s. Every major Democrat who has launched a White House bid has cleared their schedule to get in front of the Reverend.
Few things once seemed more improbable, save perhaps for the White House being occupied by Donald Trump, who once competed with Sharpton for screaming tabloid headlines and airtime on what was then a nascent medium known as “trash TV.”
But today, Sharpton’s approval is sought by political candidates far and near. The crusades he launched decades ago against police abuse and racist enforcement of drug laws — back when his issues were widely denigrated as fringe and his look ran to velour tracksuits, giant gold medallions and a pompadour the size of Queens — are now central to the speeches of almost every Democratic 2020 hopeful.
The lifelong preacher and political bomb thrower, the man New York mayors once did not want in their city, much less near their offices, says it is not he who has changed, but the nation’s politics.
“I don’t think I am a different type of leader, I think these are different times,” he said in a phone interview days before the candidates arrived in New York. “It is more the evolution of Sharpton than the changing of Sharpton.”
However described, the shift has worked for him and his group, the National Action Network. In addition to its status as a must-stop for presidential hopefuls, the annual conference has become a who’s who of black political and thought leaders.
“No one wants to be on the negative end of his organization,” said Christina Greer, who teaches black ethnic politics at Fordham University in New York.
“A lot of marginalized communities fundamentally see him as their voice,” Greer said. “When poor people can’t get an elected official to respond or call them back, they know Sharpton will. Not only will he call back, he will bring cameras.”
Sharpton has deftly straddled the space between insider and outsider since elevating himself to the status of major player in Washington during the Obama years, when his street cred gained him regular West Wing access.
Candidates now publicly genuflect before him, as Beto O’Rourke did when the former Texas congressman took the stage soon after the conference got underway Wednesday.
“National Action Network showed me through your work here in New York City that although all Americans use marijuana at the same rate, regardless of their race, only some Americans — likely to be of color — will be stopped and frisked to be found for possession, go behind bars and endure the consequences other Americans do not,” O’Rourke said.
The candidate personally promised Sharpton that an O’Rourke White House would sign a measure to pursue slavery reparations for African Americans. He also committed to bring back robust civil rights oversight of local police departments in the form of consent decrees, an enforcement mechanism largely abandoned by the Trump administration.
Sharpton was pleased. But he made clear the Sharpton primary is just getting underway.
“What are you talking about, you like him?” he said into the mic – only half joking – to a fellow activist. “You didn’t hear the rest of the candidates yet.”
Caution was not a trait associated with Sharpton in the past, but in his role as political kingmaker he strategically bides his time. He leaves open the possibility that even the most unlikely candidate could get his blessing.
Every Democrat is trying.
After Sen. Kamala Harris of California launched her presidential bid, one of her first trips was to see Sharpton. She burnished her bona fides with black activists by dining with the reverend before a horde of cameras at Harlem’s power restaurant, Sylvia’s.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand never forgets to call Sharpton on his birthday.
“You saw him in the visitors log so often because he never gave up,” said Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime friend and White House aide. She was at Sharpton’s conference Wednesday promoting her new book about her tenure in the White House.
“His counsel was invaluable,” Jarrett said. One key role he played, she added, was “pushing back on people he thought were not constructive and unfairly criticizing President Obama.”
Sharpton ran for the 2004 nomination himself. When Obama burst onto the scene, Sharpton was eager for access to push his agenda and feeling the limits of what could be accomplished with a bullhorn alone. His embrace of the administration inoculated Obama from the harsh criticism of other black activists who argued the president was too cautious, too unwilling to push their agenda forward.
“His activist roots lent him an air of credibility,” said Andra Gillespie, an African American politics scholar at Emory University in Atlanta.
“There were some concerns that Obama would be symbolically important but would not advocate for substantive change to help the African American community. The fact that Rev. Sharpton, who clearly came from an activist background and put race at the forefront and was unafraid to speak out on behalf of African Americans explicitly, put him in a position to lend an air of credibility to the Obama administration.
“He was able to carve out a distinct path because he was on the whole supportive of Obama in a way other black intellectuals were not,” Gillespie said.
That stand drew fire from some erstwhile allies. Cornel West, the writer and activist who sharply criticized Obama, called Sharpton the administration’s “house negro.”
“I wanted access and I was given that access,” Sharpton said. “And at the same time, when the White House called me about Trayvon [Martin], I was leading the march that night. At the same time, I led the fight in Ferguson. I led the fight for Eric Garner,” who died at the hands of a police officer in Staten Island, N.Y.
“So if they are saying, ‘He stopped doing those things,’ not only did I keep doing them, a lot of these issues that became national concerns under Obama, I was the one leading.
“If people did their research, they could say I am more a continuation of those that mentored me than I am a new Al Sharpton,” he said. He points to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. irking activists when he worked with President Lyndon Johnson on the Civil Rights Act and the Rev. Jesse Jackson irritating some in the movement by teaming with President Clinton.
“I kind of reoriented myself knowing what they did,” he said.
Sharpton rebuts accusations that his group is compromised by the corporate money it rakes in — Walmart and PepsiCo are among its many big donors — by arguing that King and Jackson enthusiastically partnered with such companies through Operation Breadbasket, an economic arm of the civil rights movement that Sharpton served as youth director.
The enthusiasm with which candidates seek Sharpton’s seal of approval is a favorite topic in right-wing media, which remind their audiences of his past stoking of racial tensions in cases such as that of Tawana Brawley, a teenager in Upstate New York who falsely claimed in 1987 that she was raped by four white men.
Opponents also point to incendiary comments Sharpton made amid riots in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood in the early 1990s, when some saw his words as fomenting anti-Semitic violence against Hasidic Jews.
Sharpton has some regrets, but not many.
“Some things I might have done differently, but most of it is fabrication or embellishment,” he said of news accounts that captured him in moments that have not aged well.
Those long-ago remarks where he talked about Crown Heights diamond merchants? He argues that he was making a point not about Jews, but apartheid, targeting only area jewelers selling diamonds distributed by a wealthy South African family.
Sharpton said he crusaded for Brawley because he had every reason to believe she had been victimized. He brought the same passion, he said, to defending a group of five black and Latino teens jailed for between six and 13 years on false charges of assaulting and raping a white jogger in Central Park.
“People demonized me for that,” he said.
The Central Park jogger case was one of several in which Sharpton and Trump dueled in New York’s headlines. Trump bought full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty after the teens were arrested. He refused to back down even after their exoneration years later.
Sharpton doesn’t see any of his past as baggage, even if others do. Just pieces that he has been able to stow away along with his tracksuits.
“People get style and substance confused,” he said. “Yeah, I wore tracksuits in the ’80s. That was the style. If you look at Run-DMC and all of them, that’s how we dressed,” he said, referring to the rap artists.
“I would look stupid walking around in bell-bottom pants and platform shoes now. It’s out of style.”