The Untouchable

The handy thing about the political demand for “respect” is its elasticity. Political accommodation is usually doled out in tangibles – a freshly sliced legislative district, a few million for a new day-care center. But respect, being intangible, is a kind of recurring political vigorish: You think you’ve settled your debt, and along comes another goon from Accounts Payable.

That is a neat summation of Al Sharpton’s political – I hesitate to use the word – career. When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992, the respect that Sharpton demanded meant full inclusion in debates and so forth. Granted. Next, as a result of the votes he pulled then, came recognition of his status as a legitimate power broker. Granted. Then the pilgrimages, by Chuck Schumer and Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton, to his National Action Network headquarters on King Day. And so on, each new demand for respect duly met.

Taken singly, perhaps, none of these demands was unreasonable. But they add up to the accumulated capital that Sharpton and his allies used to great effect in the Democratic-primary debacle. And now, respect means that no one may criticize Sharpton or the candidate who has Velcroed himself to Sharpton (or speculate on Sharpton’s likely influence should that candidate be elected) without such attacks being called racist. The implications of this for next year’s gubernatorial race and for 2004 are – well, I’ll describe them later and let you apply your own adjective. First, some details on how we got here.

In the general election, Fernando Ferrer and his backers essentially withheld their support from Mark Green, probably costing him the election. But the time frame that concerns us here is the week leading up to the October 11 runoff. After Green won that contest, the Ferrer forces complained about three tactics: Green’s last-minute attack commercial, flyers that circulated in some Brooklyn neighborhoods that reproduced a tasteless Post cartoon depicting Ferrer puckering up near Sharpton’s derrière, and anonymous phone calls to voters linking Ferrer and Sharpton. The commercial first aired the night of Monday, October 8. The flyers were learned about the next day, when Green immediately denounced them; the phone calls came to light on the day of the vote itself.

But if the problems began October 8, why was Ferrer’s campaign head, Roberto Ramirez, calling state Democratic officials on Friday, October 5, to complain about the turn the race had taken? At that point, Ferrer had had a good week, winning the endorsements of Ed Koch and the teachers’ union. Green had agreed to Rudy Giuliani’s request for a three-month term extension, which brought him a slew of bad press. Green was on the ropes, and he finally decided to go after Ferrer.

Up to that point, it was Ferrer who had been attacking Green. Of Green’s capitulation to Giuliani, Ferrer said, “There are only two kinds of people – stand-up people and sit-down people … Why is a candidate wasting the time of the electorate if he is not ready for a crisis?” Koch poked hard at Green, and Ferrer ripped into Green backer William Bratton several times.

But around October 3, Green began hitting back. In a debate that night he rapped Ferrer’s “two New Yorks” theme and his response to September 11. Bratton began defending himself and stepped up his attacks on Ferrer’s public-safety plans. By that Friday, the Ferrer team could see that Green would return fire, and the results were beginning to show in tracking polls.

Hence Ramirez’s October 5 phone call. He wanted Judith Hope, the state Democratic chair, and national chair Terry McAuliffe, who was contacted shortly thereafter, to issue statements urging both sides to play nice, which really means he wanted them to tell the Green people that no attacks on Ferrer or his surrogates (i.e., Sharpton) would be tolerated. That would be an unusual dispensation, to say the least. Intra-party primaries often get hot – just ask Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown, or George W. Bush and John McCain – and party chairs aren’t supposed to take sides.

It was political strategy, no more, no less. But when Green released his attack commercial, whose tag line (“Can we afford to take a chance?”) could be construed as carrying a subtle racial aroma, and when certain party operatives in Brooklyn began circulating the Sharpton flyers, dressing up strategy in the eveningwear of principle proved simple. Suddenly, Mark Green was a racist, in no small part because of some flyers, which there’s still no hard evidence he knew about, that failed to show Al Sharpton the proper respect.

My concern isn’t Green’s reputation. he’s certainly no racist, but he lost, the election’s over, and his reputation is his worry.

But consider this: Eight days after the runoff, at a so-called unity press conference, McAuliffe delivered a stem-winder criticizing the Sharpton flyers, vowing that if he finds the culprits, he’ll “ask them to leave the Democratic Party.” By one interpretation, McAuliffe merely meant last-minute Xeroxes of grotesque cartoons. But I doubt that’s Sharpton’s interpretation.

Whether McAuliffe knows it or not, he has now implicitly accepted the idea that an attack on Al Sharpton is by definition a racial attack. So, in the upcoming gubernatorial primary between Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall, Sharpton’s candidate, what happens when Sharpton inveigles himself into a position of prominence among McCall backers and figures out a way to make himself some sort of litmus test? Will Cuomo be able to say the obvious without being Greened?

Or fast-forward to the spring of 2004. Sharpton is running for president. He can stay in the primaries until the bitter end, since his point will not be to win and since his run will be financed by the same businessmen who paid his debt to Steven Pagones. It’s entirely possible that he could get, say, 16 percent of the vote in Michigan, or 22 percent in Alabama. He walks into the Democratic convention with 4 million votes (Jesse Jackson got 7 million in 1988) and even a few dozen delegates. Al Gore, or Tom Daschle, or John Edwards, or whoever, will not be able to criticize him. What, then, will be the vigorish? A prime-time convention speech, undoubtedly boycotted by half the delegates, comes to mind, among other possibilities.

If that day comes, the New York Post will write, as it has on occasion in the past, that the Democratic Party “is the party of Al Sharpton.” Then, it was hyperbole, but this time, it’ll be true. It will all be traceable to this runoff, and to a sequence of events that turned reality inside out, leaving the state and national Democratic Parties quaking before the demands of two men, Ramirez and Sharpton, who signaled to their voters that they should punish the Democrat and then openly celebrated the Republican candidate’s victory! Happy days are here again, right?


The Untouchable