When the Rev. Al Sharpton officially tosses his hat in the presidential ring later this month, his supporters won’t be the only ones rejoicing.
Pundits expect the national GOP, which seems to delight in painting the controversial civil rights activist as a mainstream Democrat, to be elated at the prospect of a divisive primary involving an African-American leader who has been accused of anti-Semitism — a potential replay of 1984.
Republicans are said to be hoping the scenario will fuel an exodus of traditionally Democratic Jewish voters into their ranks, a phenomenon they already believe is under way.
“Look for that Karl Rove $1,000 check to the Al Sharpton campaign,” joked Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, referring to the White House’s political strategist and architect of the Republicans’ Nov. 5 congressional sweep.
Sharpton said last week that he has formed an exploratory committee to study a presidential run and would file with federal election authorities on Jan. 21, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Goldstein believes the Republicans will use the Sharpton factor in appealing to Jewish political donors.
“The arms of Jewish Democratic contributors will be twisted by the Republicans,” he said. “Sharpton is something that will help them twist harder.”
Goldstein added that Democratic Party leaders “for years have been trying to walk a tightrope involving the tension between black Americans and Jewish Americans that seems to have popped up,” he said.
Some of that tension boiled to the surface during primary campaigns by two members of the Congressional Black Caucus last summer. Reps. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama were targeted by pro-Israel forces because of their positions on Mideast issues.
Both lost, touching off an angry reaction among members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“The Democratic Party was very concerned about the perception that a major part of their caucus in Congress was not supportive of Israel and not supportive of Jewish causes,” Goldstein said. “When someone like Al Sharpton is out there getting a lot of attention, it puts other African-American leaders in a box. They have to respond to him — either defending him or criticizing him. This is not something Democratic fund-raisers, party leaders and Jewish Democrats want to deal with.”
In the 2000 presidential race, GOP leaders launched a campaign attempting to link Sharpton to Democratic candidate Al Gore based on a meeting between the two men in New York. The attack was so vigorous that Sharpton sued Jim Nicholson, then chair of the Republican National Committee, for stating that he was responsible for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. Nicholson later apologized.
Allan Lichtman, an American University political historian and expert in presidential prognostication, said Sharpton’s candidacy is “a nightmare for the Democrats.”
“He could get 15 to 20 percent in Mississippi, he could do well in New York City, in Detroit, in Chicago,” Lichtman said. “That makes him a real player.”
The fear among some Jewish Democrats, he said, is that Sharpton, standing out in a lackluster field, could galvanize a part of the Democratic base — the black vote — that has had low turnout in recent years, and use that to pull the party to the left.
Sharpton has insisted, however, that his goal is to bring the party back to the center, having been hijacked by conservatives in recent years.
A leading Republican activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sharpton is a “godsend” for his party, providing Republicans with a highly visible symbol around which to make their case that a big element in the Democratic base is hostile to Israel and indifferent — at best — to Jewish concerns.
Unlike the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the last black Democrat to run for president in 1984 and 1988, Sharpton has not made the Middle East a central issue. But when he visited the region last year he angered some Jewish leaders by meeting with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
In his recent memoir, “Al on America,” Sharpton calls for more active involvement by the United States in getting Israel and the Palestinians back to peace talks, and he rejects calls for Arafat’s ouster.
That platform contrasts with President George W. Bush’s call for Arafat to be replaced, saying his leadership has been compromised by links to terror.
“The Sharpton candidacy comes at a time when Bush and the Republicans have rarely, if ever been, as acceptable to Jewish Americans, at least on foreign policy issues and support of Israel,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “So this is a real problem for Democrats, not an imagined one.”
While Sharpton is not likely to win the nomination, a respectable showing in selected primaries would all but guarantee a seat at the table when it comes to formulating the Democratic Party’s policy.
“Once at the table, as Jesse Jackson found, a candidate can extract promises and become a force to be reckoned with,” said Sabato. “And again like Jackson, Sharpton can move the Democrats to the left, hurting their image with the moderate swing voters and making it tougher for the party to elect a president.”
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee, created in the late 1980s to solidify Jewish support for the Democrats in the wake of Jackson’s candidacy, said he is not concerned.
“Rev. Sharpton has been a divisive figure, and at times less divisive,” said Forman. “It depends on the type of campaign he will run.”
New York attorney Sanford Rubenstein, a close Jewish confidante of Sharpton who serves on his exploratory committee, said the activist had recently taken up issues of concern to Jews.
“There are important aspects that people chose not to remember,” said Rubenstein. “He stood by Mrs. [Doris] Boskey when her son was shot by the police” in a 1999 incident in Borough Park. “There are issues he has been involved with that have affected the Jewish community as well as the black community.”
A Democratic insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sharpton’s candidacy would only pose a major problem for Democrats if several factors coincided.
“If you want to think of the worst-case-scenario for Democrats,” said the insider, “it means that George Bush will continue to be pro-Israel and doesn’t put any pressure on Israel after he’s done in Iraq; that the economy is doing well, and then you throw in the more radical Al Sharpton who is less of a conciliator, and the other candidates have to kowtow to him. That’s the scenario that hurts Democrats most.”
But the insider predicted that Sharpton would be more likely to emulate Bill Clinton’s legendary Sister Souljah speech during the ’92 campaign in which he criticized rap lyrics before a black audience — scoring points for candor — than Jackson’s infamous “Hymietown” gaffe.
In recent years Sharpton has tried to open a dialogue with Jewish leaders, but most will not meet with him until he apologizes for what they consider his contributing to tensions during the Crown Heights riots and another deadly incident in Harlem in 1995, when a Jewish-owned store was burned down.
Sharpton has also condemned black-on-black violence and denounced anti-Semitism.
Another veteran Democratic operative said Sharpton’s candidacy could be a boon for Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, also expected to seek the Democratic nod, because it could increase the Jewish candidate’s endorsements by black elected officials in heavily Jewish states.
“The best way to reassure a Jewish base that they are not playing the Sharpton game is to immediately endorse Joe Lieberman,” said the operative. n
James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.
Adam Dickter is a staff writer.