Whither Al?

From the moment he entered the presidential race, Al Sharpton made no secret of two things. That he could and would win the South Carolina Democratic primary, and that he would win it exclusively with black votes. This did not seem farfetched. Blacks make up about 40 percent of the state's Democratic voters. That's the single biggest percentage block of Democratic voters in any state.

In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson won what was then the South Carolina Democratic Caucus. But Sharpton's much-hoped-for breakthrough in South Carolina didn't happen. He came in a distant third behind the winner, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and second-place finisher, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who split the bulk of the black vote.

Sharpton fared little better in Missouri, where blacks also make up a sizeable number of black Democratic voters. He came in second to last. He was no factor in the other five primary states.

But the Sharpton-Jackson comparison falls flat for other reasons. In his presidential campaign runs, Jackson got the majority of black votes and the attention of policymakers. But he got both because he had solid standing in the Democratic Party, a much admired track record of civil rights activism, an established national organization in his Rainbow Coalition, and good support among labor, environmentalist and women's groups. He downplayed the racially inflammatory and polarizing issues of police abuse and affirmative action, and stressed greater funding for education and health care and labor protections, and promised to rebuild America's then crumbling industrial infrastructure. It was non-racial, moderately populist, and did not threaten whites.

He got the endorsement of a sizeable number of top black elected officials, and black Democratic organizations. Those endorsements swayed many black voters who are loyal and traditional Democrats, and convinced them that Jackson was a serious and credible candidate, and could actually wield influence at the Democratic make national conventions and on the campaign trail.

Though Sharpton has at times looked and sounded like a thoughtful Democrat in debates and TV appearances, there's still the deep suspicion that underneath his immaculately coifed hair and three-piece tailored suits he is still just a protest candidate, and at heart a racial rabble-rouser. Sharpton did much to reinforce that suspicion with his blatant racial appeals to black voters in the Washington D.C. and South Carolina primaries, and his shameless race baiting of Democrat Howard Dean for failing to appoint blacks when he was Vermont governor and Dean's clumsy quip about courting Southern white males.

Sharpton opposed the war on Iraq, the death penalty and Bush's tax cuts, and he demands universal health care. This appeals to many moderate white Democrats. But his message gets hacked up, lost, distorted or ignored when the messenger is perceived as irresponsible and an opportunist, or both. The majority of black Democratic elected officials, and Jesse Jackson, have endorsed Kerry, Edwards or Dean, or have publicly sung their praises. They have been mostly silent on Sharpton.

Meanwhile, the greatest unease about Sharpton has come from Jackson. Though he is careful not to criticize Sharpton by name, he obliquely chided him before the South Carolina primary when he noted that no Democrat could be effective without a real message, money and a campaign infrastructure. Sharpton has made little apparent effort to develop any of Jackson's requisites for a successful campaign. He has built his campaign on appearances on TV talk shows, at campaign debates, at showpiece protest rallies, and by tossing out well-timed media barbs.

Then there's ABBA -- the Anybody But Bush Again mania. That mania affects blacks more than any other group. And there's no mystery why. Bush refuses to support tougher hate crimes legislation, and has been mute on the fight against racial profiling. He backed the white students in their effort to eliminate the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, and he has tried to ramrod Congress to confirm a wave of racially insensitive, ultra-conservative appointees to the federal appeals court. There's the even deeper fear that if given the chance he'll appoint more justices such as Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Many blacks are petrified that if Bush is reelected he will further erode civil liberties protections and gut health and education programs. This cements the belief among blacks that the Republican Party is an insular, bigoted party permanently hostile to their interests.

Sharpton deserves some credit for trying to break up the clubby white male pack of Democratic presidential contenders, and trying to prod mainstream Democrats to do and say more on race and poverty issues in 2004. But with the presidential stakes far higher this time then in 2000, a vote for Sharpton is not a wasted vote -- it's a dangerous vote. By voting for Kerry and Edwards, the overwhelming majority of black voters in South Carolina and Missouri, and almost certainly in any other primary Sharpton enters, sent and will send a clear message that they want a Democrat who can win, and it's not Sharpton.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press). This article appeared in Pacific News Service, February 3, 2004.

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