Which Side is Al On?

The front page of this morning’s Post carries a headline screaming that the FBI is after the Reverend Al Sharpton. According to the story, which leans heavily on an article in the previous day’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Feds have videotape of Sharpton accepting money from a pair of dubious fund-raisers and are probing whether Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign broke filing requirements.

When the average public figure is trashed on the front page of a tabloid, he issues a denial through his lawyer. Al Sharpton calls a press conference. On the sidewalk in front of the Post. A dozen TV cameras, three dozen reporters, and passing tourists stand in the sun on Sixth Avenue, enjoying the show.

There are jokes (“The crime is I didn’t get enough money!”) and denials. There are conspiracy theories that raise the alleged persecution of Al into the historical firmament (“Are we looking at a Watergate here, where they were really surveilling my campaign?”). There’s a 17-year-old kid from Arizona whom the reverend has dubbed “Little Al Sharpton,” a protégé right down to the processed hair. And there’s absurdity: The way Sharpton fulminates about “chicken and pensions,” he makes it sound like a special at Denny’s instead of the core of the accusations against him—that he was peddling access to his friend Bill Thompson, the city comptroller, to the fund-raisers, who wanted Thompson to steer pension money into a scheme to invest in the Church’s Chicken chain.

It’s a vintage, bravura performance. Still, something is wrong. Something apart from the eternal impossibility of determining whether Sharpton is telling the truth. No, what’s off is a matter of tone. The one time Sharpton’s tongue tangles is when I ask him why, if the facts are on his side, he’s so worked up. “What I’m angry about is reading a story that they say is based on a story and they leave out of the story that according to that paper, they looked and we in fact had filed monies that these gentleman raised. So if you’re gonna put a story on the front page, you should at least put all of the facts on. That’s all.” There’s something new in Al Sharpton’s long-running act: a touch of desperation.

With good reason. His cable reality show, I Hate My Job, disappeared quietly in January after eight episodes and Neilsen ratings that began with a zero. His marriage of 23 years collapsed. At 50, Sharpton lives mostly in hotels and airports. Sitting in his midtown office—an unmarked, windowless cubicle inside the occupational safety and health department of the Service Employees union building next to the Port Authority—the reverend is starting to look old.

On the political front, his 2004 presidential campaign sputtered quickly. And even though Sharpton claims the run solidified his stature as a national figure, New York is his base. And for reasons unconnected to Sharpton, that base is wobbling.

What not long ago played as racial tragedy—the Bensonhurst gang killing of Yusuf Hawkins that turned the 1989 mayoral campaign in David Dinkins’s favor; the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo that galvanized anger at Rudy Giuliani—has devolved into farce. In 2001, racial politics turned into a cartoon, literally, when the circulation of a Post drawing ridiculing Sharpton and Freddy Ferrer drove minority voters away from Mark Green in his general-election matchup with Michael Bloomberg. This year, the “controversy” is over Ferrer’s revisionist remarks about the six-year-old Diallo shooting.

For the city as a whole, the shift is a hopeful sign. But it has disoriented the candidates. No one is sure which of the old racial-politics formulas works anymore. The changes in city demographics, and in Sharpton’s own fortunes, make it difficult to estimate how much clout he has left. Certainly he’s still able to grab media attention, as when he backed the West Side stadium. Sharpton says he did it because the project will create jobs, and because a Jets staffer, the son of the singer from Cameo, asked for his help; the move doesn’t hurt him with Bloomberg, either. “Sharpton does exceptionally well among poor people and among upper-middle-income blacks,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant not working for any of this year’s mayoral contenders. “If you keep your distance from him, you run the risk of alienating some of the people who swear by him.”

Yet there are fewer of those people than at any time since 1985. But lacking a clear picture of the new racial landscape, all four Democratic candidates, on a Friday afternoon in early April, do the obvious thing and dutifully appear at the annual convention of the National Action Network, Sharpton’s organization. It’s easy to understand why C. Virginia Fields is here. The Manhattan borough president is the only black candidate in the field and eager for Sharpton’s backing. Gifford Miller and Anthony Weiner, lagging in the polls, have nothing to lose. It’s the Democratic front-runner who has the most at stake. And it’s his appearance that’s the most baffling.

Where’s Freddy?” yells Rachel Noerdlinger, Sharpton’s PR woman. She’s charging down a hallway inside the Marriott on Seventh Avenue. “We need him now!” she says. Spotting Freddy Ferrer ambling in her direction, Noerdlinger cries, “Put some pep in your step!” and leads him by the arm.

In March, when Ferrer made his infamous statement that the shooting of Diallo wasn’t a crime and there was an attempt to “overindict” the cops involved, Sharpton’s initial reaction was muted. Perhaps he was giving Ferrer room to recant gracefully. Or maybe he was waiting to pounce.

Why is Sharpton thinking of not endorsing? “I don’t see Schumer and Clinton jumping into the primary.”

Today, after three weeks of futile attempts at contrition, Ferrer could offer an abject apology, or he could tell Sharpton and the hostile crowd to vote for somebody else if they don’t like him. Instead, he repeats his passive half-explanation that his words were “careless.” He’s booed by the audience, but Sharpton delivers the true humiliation personally. “You believe the police officers should have gone to trial?” he asks the candidate, who is standing maybe eight inches away.

Ferrer pauses.

It’s only a few seconds, but as his cheeks turn pink, you can almost see the thoughts racing through Ferrer’s brain. He’s being set up, and he’s trying to instantly calculate which angle the punch is coming from. “Sure,” he ventures tentatively, almost pleading. “I’ve said that from the beginning.”

Sharpton’s response is instant: “But you know you can’t go on trial unless you’re charged with a crime!” The crowd hoots.

Ferrer needs an outside event to change the subject. Maybe one of the other candidates will say something dumb at the first formal debate this week. More fittingly, Ferrer might get help from Sharpton. “Sources close to the clergyman” recently told “Page Six” that the reverend might not endorse anyone in the Democratic primary. “I don’t see Schumer and Clinton jumping into the primary,” he tells me. “I’m dealing national now; why would it be different for me?”

Sharpton on the sidelines? That would be the real shocker. He’s most likely to support Virginia Fields. Then it will be her turn for serious scrutiny. And that would be the best thing to happen to Freddy Ferrer in more than a month.

Which Side is Al On?