2020 Dems Audition for Al Sharpton’s Support

Niall Stanage, The Hill, April 3, 2019

The leading Democratic candidates for president will be auditioning before Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network this week — a testament to both the importance of the black vote and Sharpton’s increasingly mainstream image.

The four-day convention, which begins in New York on Wednesday, includes Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) among its speakers.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) — all 2020 candidates — will also be appearing.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is not scheduled to appear at the convention, spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Washington organized by Sharpton.

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Asked what he wanted to hear from the candidates at the convention, Sharpton told The Hill, “I want to hear substance. I don’t want to hear sound bites. Like, yes, we need to alter the criminal justice system. How? What would you do about the mandatory sentencing laws? What would you do about police reform? Would you reinstitute consent decrees?”

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“I want to hear in terms of the economy, how do you close the race gap in employment? Yes, black unemployment is lower than it’s ever been, but it’s still double that of whites. How do you close the race gap in terms of health care? I want to hear specifics. Where’s the meat? Not just giving us the dessert,” Sharpton said.

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The mere fact that there are two strong contenders for the nomination who are black is a sign of how much the political ground has shifted in recent years.

Obama was the first black candidate to have had a serious chance of winning the presidency, whereas previous bids by figures such as Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and then-Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) in 1972 were important more for their symbolic power.

More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, racial injustice in policing and the related “take a knee” NFL protests have become central political issues.

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The issue of reparations — once a fringe concern — is bubbling up in this year’s Democratic race. Harris and Warren have suggested they have some sympathy for the demand for reparations, though the specifics are not clear.

Sanders has been warier of reparations per se, though he supports a long-held plan by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to direct federal funds to some of the nation’s most impoverished congressional districts, many of which have significant black populations.

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He noted that his organization’s first similar event occurred almost 20 years ago, in 2000, when then-Vice President Al Gore (D) and his Democratic primary challenger, Bill Bradley, debated at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater.

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In a March 2000 Washington Post story, the writer noted that “the mainstreaming of Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. is underway, sparking a war of words over the acceptability of associating with this racially controversial figure.”

That debate is long over, at least among Democrats and liberals. The presence of the leading presidential candidates — as well as other leading lights of the party, including Ocasio-Cortez and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — this week is testament to that.

Sharpton’s support is clearly worth having.

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