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The Sharpton Generation

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This year's primary run will be different for him from the 1992 race. In the first place, there are now expectations that must be met. A poor showing could seriously damage his reputation as a political force. However, given his opponent, that doesn't seem likely. Instead of running against three white liberals, at least one of whom—Elizabeth Holtzman—had a significant track record in the black community, Sharpton is taking on Daniel Patrick "Benign Neglect" Moynihan. The powerful senator may be the chairman of the finance committee and a charming, innovative, towering thinker, but he is, for many blacks, the apotheosis of the white devil. For Sharpton, this means that instead of getting a little less than 70 percent of the black vote, as in 1992, he could get better than 90 percent of a much stronger turnout, as well as some votes of whites inclined toward symbolic "progressive" gestures.

The emergence of Sharpton as a political power broker in New York over the past three years has amazed black insiders like Lynch. "In 1982, before Jesse Jackson and before David Dinkins," says Lynch, "Carl McCall got 400,000 votes in a losing bid for lieutenant governor, and he wasn't made king. As I sit and watch this now, I say to myself, 'I can't believe it.' " He's not alone. But even those black politicians who resent Sharpton—and the resentment is intense—are envious of his extraordinary ability to use television and to manipulate the conventions and symbols of the black struggle. Every aggravating Day of Outrage march, every mindless cry of "No justice, no peace!" and every appearance with a black family grieving over the murder of one of its members has left an image of Sharpton burned into the public psyche. He is, for many white people, something that drives them nuts, like a pebble stuck in a shoe. And he is for many blacks—because he drives white people nuts—a heroic crusader.

"There's a feeling that we need to go back to the streets," says Dinkins's man Bill Lynch.

The most important part of the shift for Sharpton—along with his buffed and modulated image—has been his ability to reach the middle class. "The black middle class has found that there hasn't been the kind of inclusion that they had expected," says Lynch, who lives in Harlem and will work on Cuomo's campaign as an unpaid adviser. "There's a feeling that progress, if not having come to a halt, has at least slowed way down. There's a feeling that we need to go back to the streets. Middle-class blacks [say,] 'I put on a tie every day, I go to work, I pay my taxes, I send my kids to school. I'm an upright citizen, but I'm not respected in the same way.' "

Part of the frustration that Sharpton has tapped is with the political process itself. "There are a lot of [black] people saying Dave Dinkins did everything you wanted and you [whites] still didn't vote for him," Sharpton says, "so maybe we do need an Al Sharpton who will confront you." Over and over, black politicians talk about the impact that the Dinkins defeat has had on the way blacks in the city view the system. People are angry not simply that he lost but because of the way he lost. There is a strong sense that in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by five to one, the party didn't work hard enough for him. And that despite his efforts to reach out—efforts that David Paterson, for one, says could be seen as obsequious—whites abandoned him in droves. Though there has been talk of forming a third party, it has not progressed beyond the exploratory stage.

For now, Sharpton, of all people, is working within, albeit barely within, the system. His epiphany came on January 12, 1991, at the end of a five-inch kitchen knife thrust into his chest by a crazed white man in Bensonhurst. When he woke up in Coney Island Hospital after the stabbing, he says, his life, his activism, and how he conducted himself took on a different hue. "I come out of the King-Powell-Jackson house, and I've begun to take that tradition and my relationship to it more seriously," he told me one recent afternoon. "I know now that I have to weigh what I'm doing based on what I'm trying to achieve, and not just go for the cheap rhetoric and the rap."

Already the Sharpton ascendancy is having an effect on the backstage strategizing of the Democratic Party. Though the official party endorsement will obviously go to Moynihan, everyone is tiptoeing around Sharpton for fear of alienating him and, by extension, his constituency. "At some point, these [black Moynihan supporters] are gonna have to ask themselves," Sharpton says, "if they come out strongly for Moynihan, how do they call me after the primary? And how do they go to the black community in the name of unity when they didn't practice it themselves?"


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