Sharpton's last laugh

Harlem's own presidential candidate will never make it to the White House. But as David Usborne reports, he's earned grudging respect from voters before Tuesday's New York primary

Among the small crowd buying takeaway dinners of collard greens and shrimp salad at the restaurant called the Servants of God, Taste of Seafood, on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Harlem on Thursday night, reactions to the continuing and surely quixotic presidential run of the Rev Al Sharpton were barely encouraging.

"He's a joke," was the not-so-measured response of Ed Colson, 33, a paralegal assistant at UBS bank in New Jersey. "With him, everything is self-serving. It's all about getting himself on television." He is echoing the criticism of many that Mr Sharpton is more interested in showmanship than helping others. Behind the counter, Sheila McLoyd just shakes her head. "He's just not presidential material."

Tanya Evans, 32, on her way home from her accounting job in midtown Manhattan, concedes that Mr Sharpton "says things others are afraid to say". But even she is not going to vote for him in New York's Democratic primary on Tuesday. "You wouldn't expect him to run for president," she says.

There are lots of reasons why you might reasonably assume Mr Sharpton should throw in the towel. He is a New York creature, and Harlem should be the epicentre of his support, yet polls show him winning only 5 per cent of the New York vote on Tuesday. He has yet to win a single state, although two weeks ago he managed second place in Washington DC, another heavily African-American town.

On top of everything else, his chaotic campaign, with just one assistant in his Harlem headquarters, is almost bust. Filings show he had $1,030 in the bank at the end of January, some $500,000 in debts and campaign salaries that have not been paid since last May. Nor does it help that questions are being raised about the extravagance of his lifestyle on the campaign trail. Mr Sharpton, who still sports a bouffant hairstyle although the purple training suits and gold jewellery of past years have been retired, has paid $3,200 (£1,700) for a single night at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel in Dallas, and $7,000 for four nights at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles.

But it is enough for Mr Sharpton that he is still able to get his voice heard. The rules of campaigning mean, for example, that he and the other no-hoper in the race for the Democratic nomination, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, can take their places at the regular candidates' debates alongside the frontrunner, Senator John Kerry, and his only serious rival, Senator John Edwards.

So Mr Sharpton was able again to say his piece at the latest of those debates in Los Angeles on Thursday evening. And the packed crowd, many of them university students, gave him the loudest applause of the evening.

He drew loud laughs when he tangled with Larry King, the CNN host and moderator of the debate, over the number of questions he should be allowed to answer, compared with Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards. "I believe in affirmative action," he said, then butted into the debate repeatedly, even when not invited.

And the audience clapped loudly when he said there were other issues in this campaign than the question of gay marriage and President George Bush's push for a constitutional amendment to codify marriage as between men and women. "The issue in 2004," he said, "is not if gays marry. The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether you have a job when you get up in the morning."

And Mr Sharpton played his part in sabotaging the candidacy of Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont. During a debate in Iowa, Mr Dean was put on the defensive when forced to admit to Mr Sharpton that no one from an ethnic minority was employed in his state administration.

By Mr Sharpton targeting his meagre resources on urban areas densely populated by African Americans, he has accumulated at least a handful of delegates - 16 so far - who will represent him at the Democrat convention in Boston in July. He has made it clear he will remain in the race all the way until then, "even if it means strapping sneakers to my feet".

His campaign manager, Charles Hallora, said: "To walk away early is not in his nature. It's important that he pushes on ... but he wants the eventual nominee to know he will be with him all the way. As long as he's standing and speaking, he will continue to campaign."

Mr Sharpton hopes that by taking his own delegates to the convention he can wield at least some influence on the platform that will be adopted to take on President Bush. His quest also is at least to equal the status attained by the Rev Jesse Jackson, who ran for president twice, in 1984 and 1988.

But even that may be asking too much. Mr Jackson came second in New York in 1988 and, through his campaigns, easily established himself as the political standard-bearer of American blacks. For his efforts, he was given the microphone at successive Democrat conventions. But it is unclear whether Mr Sharpton can garner similar respect.

A Gallup poll in March 1988 showed 53 per cent of all Americans holding a favourable view of Mr Jackson. But another Gallup poll last November showed only 16 per cent viewing Mr Sharpton favourably, and 49 per cent had negative feelings about him. Worse, perhaps, 24 per cent said they had never heard of him.

If Mr Sharpton can get his voice heard, he has a platform of his own that emphasises universal health care, support for public education and, above all, an emphasis on getting minority figures into places of government. He notes, for example, that America does not have one black governor.

Where Mr Sharpton is very well known is New York City. He was born in a well-to-do neighbourhood of Brooklyn in October 1954. But his life was shattered when his preacher father impregnated his half-sister and left the boy and his mother to fend for themselves in penury in a far harsher corner of the borough.

But the youngster was a prodigy, being ordained at aged nine. When he was 14, he started working with Mr Jackson's Bread Basket organisation. His life as an activist for black causes had begun. He was later to form the National Action Network, which he still heads, in Harlem.

His often inflammatory and racially polarising rhetoric frequently landed him in the headlines. One episode may have done more than any other to damage his hopes for mainstream respectability.

In the 1980s, he spoke up for a black New York teenager, Tawana Brawley, who claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by a group of white men, including one upstate prosecutor, Stevenen Pogones.

A decade later Mr Sharpton was told Ms Brawley had fabricated her ordeal, and Mr Pogones successfully sued Mr Sharpton for defamation. To this day, he has failed to apologise to the former prosecutor. "Apologise for what?" he asked one interviewer two years ago. "I stood up for a young lady ... I think it helped me." That is not an assessment many analysts - or a good number of voters - would share.

In the 1980s, attacks in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, where white gangs killed black youths in predominantly white neighbourhoods, helped to make Mr Sharpton a household name. After Howard Beach, he helped to force the appointment of a special prosecutor. He led mass demonstrations in Bensonhurst three years later, and was stabbed, and nearly died.

And in 1991, Mr Sharpton thrust himself to the forefront of the Crown Heights riots, which turned the Brooklyn neighbourhood into a national symbol of black-Jewish strife.

In more recent years, he has interceded himself in the controversy surrounding police brutality in New York City, notably in the 1997 case of the Haitian Abner Louima, who was assaulted by police officers with a toilet plunger. Three years ago, he was imprisoned after leading protests against US Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Money questions have frequently haunted him. In 1990, a jury acquitted him of charges that he had stolen from his civil rights organisation, the National Action Network.

In 1993, he pleaded guilty to not filing a state income tax return in 1986. In July, a report Mr Sharpton filed with the Federal Election Commission showed the Internal Revenue Service has begun an audit of his finances. "We don't know what the result will be," a typically bold Mr Sharpton said of the tax audit. "They could owe me."

Running for political office is not a new departure for him. And he has enjoyed moderate success. When he campaigned for a seat in the US Senate in New York in 1994, Mr Sharpton came in third in a four-way contest in the Democratic primary, with 25 per cent of the vote. In 1997, he took 32 percent of the vote in a Democratic mayoral primary.

The father of two girls, Mr Sharpton has been married for 20 years to Kathy Jordan, a former back-up singer for James Brown. He says he has always drawn on his Christian faith - "belief that said the world could be better" - especially during his frequent times of public turmoil.

If Mr Sharpton seems to be enjoying his run for the presidency to a degree that far outstrips any hope he has of actually winning, it is because he can afford to. There are clear advantages to running campaigns that have low expectations. You can be controversial, without much fear of losing supporters. Mr Sharpton can be blunt, where Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards often cannot.

Without the burden of meeting expectations or worrying about committing gaffes, running for president has its pleasures, John Pitney, a professor at California's Claremont McKenna College, said. "You get all the fun of a presidential campaign without any of the angst," he added. "And you don't have to worry that when it's over someone will hand you the nuclear football."

Mr Sharpton also knows that when it is all over, he can return to his life of activism, but with greater recognition than he has had before. In fact, he is not even waiting for the end of his campaign to continue that life. At a press conference on Tuesday in a Harlem church - his preferred kind of venue - he announced plans to travel to Haiti for talks with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It is characteristic of Mr Sharpton that he holds hope of resolving the Haiti crisis on his own.

Back at the seafood restaurant, Ms McLoyd said: "He is an activist and that is where he should stay." Of only a few in the restaurant who planned to vote in the primary here on Tuesday, she said her support would be going to Senator Kerry.

But when Larry King flatly asked Mr Sharpton why he was staying in a race he could not possibly win, the preacher had a quick and confident answer. He is in the race to represent constituencies - he means black America - that otherwise would not have a voice. And he quite reasonably questioned in the debate whether either Mr Kerry or Mr Edward had any kind of urban agenda in this election.

And ultimately, he clings to the importance he attaches to having delegates of his own at the Boston convention, however small in number they will end up being. "I think that's why we have to have a convention and delegates," he told Mr King. "We have to keep these guys honest."

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