Politics Mondays: Sharpton and Dean - The Nationalists vs. The Rationalists by Dr. Lenora Fulani
Whenever presidential hopefuls come to Harlem, I can't help recalling that
Saturday in March of 1992 when struggling candidate Bill Clinton came to
Harlem Hospital for a photo op. He got more than he bargained for. Photos
of our encounter, where I stood on a chair criticizing him for the Democratic
Party's disrespect of Black voters ran on the front page of nearly every
Sunday paper in the country. Harlem can be tricky waters for presidential
I was glad to see some presidential hopefuls in Harlem recently. The
Black community is diversifying its loyalties and becoming more
sophisticated in its decision making. That was reflected in the fact that
two leading Democrats Howard Dean and Wesley Clark came to the Black
capitol to promote important endorsements: Al Gore's backing of Dr. Dean
(Councilman Bill Perkins joined them) and Charlie Rangel's nod to General
Clark (State Senator David Paterson was there, too.)
Afterwards, presidential candidate Al Sharpton was upset about these
appearances. In an imitation of a party boss, he let fly with a series of
threats that there would be future payback to local Black elected officials
who supported presidential candidates other than himself.
Sharpton has fashioned himself a premier power broker in New York. He went
to a private meeting with former President Clinton while Clark was in town
and I doubt he stood on a chair during the meeting. But if Sharpton
actually had the power to pay back local Black elected officials, they
wouldn't be backing his rivals for the Democratic nomination.
Sharpton's actual base of support is pretty hard to measure. Many of his
followers don't vote. His vote has come in primaries where there was no
real contest as in 1994 when he polled 26% statewide against incumbent
U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (I know that strategy because I've
used it myself and gotten almost identical results.)
Sharpton has never challenged a Black Democratic incumbent. Given his
overall strategy to be accepted as a legitimate Democrat, he probably never
will. His threats of retribution were mainly designed to grab a few
headlines and to trick the New York Times into doing another story on
him. He succeeded. The Times isn't very bright on these matters.
I'm sure Sharpton is disappointed that more Black elected officials haven't
endorsed his run, but he is limited in how far he can play the "Black card"
with them. He is running for President of the United States, and to be
taken at all seriously he must broaden his appeal beyond the Black
community and prove he can command a more diverse following.
Howard Dean, who is being taken seriously and who begins with a largely
white progressive and populist base has started to build his appeal to
younger Black voters. They see him as a possible winner. They see a
coalition around a new politic taking shape and they believe that the Black
community will benefit from participating in it.
This new attitude among Black voters is also propelling the trend towards
political independence among African Americans under 30 40% of whom
identify as independent, not Democrat. In redefining themselves they have
the power to redefine the bigger political scene. You could say of Black
voters today that the nationalists are for Sharpton and the rationalists
are for Dean.
Dean had some insight into this when he made his remarks about the
confederate flag. Though Sharpton jumped on Dean for the reference, hoping
to inflame Black and liberal passions about the racial divide, many younger
Blacks including in the South did not take the bait. For them the
confederate flag flap is a red herring that is mainly used to empower
traditional Democrats Black and white.
Dean's refusal to bow to the conventional wisdom did not cost him Black
support. If anything, it gained him respect. Sharpton's response to Dean,
ultimately, let Dean off the hook. He could have instead said that he
agreed with Dean that the country needs a different kind of conversation on
race (it surely does!) and that he was prepared to help lead it as Dean's
vice-presidential candidate. That would have shaken everybody's tree and
put the ball back in Dean's court.
Both Reverend Sharpton and Governor Dean are participants in Choosing An
Independent President 2004 a national process I've helped to convene
through which presidential candidates connect with and reach out to
independent voters, the 35% of the electorate that everyone agrees will be
key in this year's presidential race. Sharpton says he can appeal to Nader
voters and bring them back to the Democratic fold. Dean sent greetings and
congratulations to the Independence Party's Anti-Corruption Awards last
week part of his outreach to Black and white independents. Both see the
value of the independent voter.
There may be some in Dean's camp who are advising him to minimize his
investment in reaching out to Black voters on the grounds that Blacks will
automatically vote Democrat in the general election and will be a
non-factor in the primary. That would be unwise. Dean's presence in
Harlem and outreach to Black independents suggests he will not make that
mistake. I hope he doesn't.
As far as Sharpton is concerned, he'd do well to recognize that members of
the hip-hop generation are not automatic Democrats, nor automatic
voters. There is a sea change in Black politics, as the Amsterdam News has
been known to comment. The winds are blowing in a new and
* * *
DR. LENORA FULANI is a developmental psychologist and chairperson of the
Committee for a Unified Independent Party, Inc. She can be reached at
1-800-288-3201 or 212-962-1811.
Monday, December 22, 2003