It's always dangerous to write political obituaries, especially for Al Sharpton, who's sprung back from more calamities than Wile E. Coyote, but his pathetic showing in Tuesday's New York primary just might be his last splat on the sidewalk.
In his home state yesterday, Sharpton won a mere 8 percent of the Democratic vote—only 3 percentage points more than Dennis Kucinich. Sharpton's a smart guy, too smart to have thought he might actually win the 2004 presidential election. But he did think he'd win a lot of delegates, expand his constituency, control a few planks in the party's platform, and earn a prime-time speaking slot at the convention.
The way things turned out, he'll be lucky to get a ticket to the convention floor. Not only that, Sharpton has squandered his reputation in New York. Thanks to his sorry showing, his standing as sole spokesman for an entire community, his ability to mobilize an enormous base with the snap of a finger, and his power to inspire fear among any who dared cross him have been substantially diminished.
In recent years, the image of the new, mature Sharpton had started to ameliorate his history as loud, libelous rabble-rouser. In 1999, after four cops fired 41 bullets at unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, Sharpton led the citywide protest rallies and kept them peaceful. Two years earlier, he'd run for mayor and won 32 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. He flew to Sudan and bought a slave's freedom. He went to jail for protesting the U.S. Navy's live bombing runs at a Puerto Rico test site, and emerged from his cell (and a hunger strike) a leaner and, so it seemed, more thoughtful man.
His ambition had always been to be the black leader of New York City—modeling his style on Adam Clayton Powell—and, without question, he had accomplished that goal. With his presidential run, Sharpton sought to make himself the black leader of America, filling the throne that Jesse Jackson had left empty and even exceeding his hero-turned-rival's showings in the 1984 and 1988 campaigns.
Sharpton didn't even come close. In '88, Jackson won 7 million votes nationwide and 1,218 delegates. Sharpton in '04 has won fewer than 300,000 votes and only 24 delegates. In South Carolina, which Sharpton at one point hoped to win, he got just 10 percent of the vote. Jackson won that state in 1988, with 54 percent. Even in New York, Sharpton fell far short. In 1984, Jackson won 25 percent of the vote in New York's Democratic primary; in '88, he won 37 percent—three to four-and-a-half times Sharpton's share. In both cases, Jackson won more than 85 percent of New York state's black vote. Sharpton won only 40 percent of the African-American vote in New York City and just a third of black voters statewide—less than John Kerry in both cases.
Not only is Al Sharpton—to what must be his grave disappointment—no Jesse Jackson, he may no longer even be Al Sharpton.
Each time Sharpton has run for political office in the past—once for U.S. senator, twice for New York City mayor—he has won about 150,000 votes. He has used the ballot box as a way of declaring, very tangibly, the size of his ranks. In yesterday's New York primary, Sharpton won a little more than 50,000 votes.
During last Thursday's CNN debate, Sharpton made a blatant plea for symbolic votes, saying that he needed to amass enough delegates to give him a voice at the convention and to keep the victor honest. The polls at the time (accurately, it turns out) showed Kerry would beat John Edwards by a 3-to-1 margin. The contest was foreordained; Sharpton's traditional loyalists, even those inclined toward one of the front-runners, could have felt secure in casting a symbolic ballot for their friend. The eye-opening thing is that the vast majority of them didn't.
Hank Sheinkopf, one of New York's best-known Democratic political consultants, puts it this way: "The fact that blacks declined to cast a symbolic vote—that's a sign of political growth." Bill Schneider said much the same thing on CNN last night: Black Democrats have joined the mainstream in a variety of ways, and, as a result, they're voting pretty much the same as all other Democrats.
Al Sharpton has built his career on racial protest. But for the moment, there is no issue that's galvanizing racial protest, nationally or locally. President Bush has triggered passionate opposition, but it doesn't have a uniquely racial component. Except for the Iraq war (and, then, only during its prelude and opening shots), this opposition has not been expressed in the streets. And the streets are Sharpton's natural medium. He's made an impressive showing in elections when his constituencies have seen the ballot box as an extension of the streets. This year is not such a time, not in New York or anyplace else.
Sharpton has not lost his entire base. He can still, after all, call on 50,000 people—just one-third of his formerly reliable base, but a lot more than any other aspiring black leader in New York. If another racial crisis erupts in New York City and if the sitting mayor handles it as dreadfully as Rudy Giuliani handled the Diallo affair, then Sharpton may re-emerge as city's black leader and power broker—if only by default. For now, though, he slumps back from the primaries with all such claims thrown in doubt. For the moment, he cannot claim that he speaks and bargains on behalf of New York's or the nation's black community. More to the point, it's far from clear that the black community wants a single spokesman, be it the Rev. Jesse or the Rev. Al.