“Al Sharpton: Policy Wonk” (Part I)

Carl Horowitz
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Posted: Jul 23, 2015 12:01 AM
 “Al Sharpton: Policy Wonk” (Part I)

It’s a common expression among young adults who come to work in the nation’s capital: “I want to make a difference.” Al Sharpton, no stranger to Washington during the Obama years and no longer young, definitely wants to make a difference. But it will be the wrong kind.

On July 8 and 9, Sharpton, under the banner of his nonprofit group, National Action Network, sponsored a “Legislative and Policy Conference” on Capitol Hill. The well-attended event – I was among the attendees – underscored his ongoing campaign to expand race-based affirmative action to voting, prison sentencing, welfare reform and other policy areas. A parade of speakers urged the audience to pressure Congress to act. Like all of Reverend Al’s gambits, the campaign flies under the flag of “justice.”

Al Sharpton, a black civil rights leader with a long history of outrageous incendiary behavior and damaging consequences, has gone respectable. Well…not quite. Put alternately, though he has not softened a bit in his conviction that whites owe blacks a huge debt, he has modified the way he puts forth his message. His loud, flamboyant, menacing style of the Eighties and Nineties has given way to something resembling self-restraint and open-mindedness, even though for the past few years he has owed the IRS and the State of New York a combined $4.5 million in back taxes. The image makeover has worked. And because he is less extreme in appearance, he is more dangerous in fact. This is a central point of my book, Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise, which National Legal and Policy Center published early this year.

Now 60, Reverend Al Sharpton is more than simply part of today’s political mainstream; he provides much of its current. He enjoys regular access to President Obama and other top administration officials, many of whom (including Obama himself) have been guest speakers at NAN events. Obama’s choice of Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as U.S. attorney general would not have happened without Sharpton’s approval. Sharpton, who long ago discarded his track suits and medallions for power suits and ties, long has hosted a syndicated radio talk show. And for the last four years he has anchored a weekday evening news and commentary show, “PoliticsNation,” on MSNBC-TV. His National Action Network now generates around $5 million a year in revenues. Al Sharpton arguably is the most powerful black civil rights leader in U.S. history, more powerful even than early mentors such as Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. Corporate executives, rather than arouse his (and his followers’) ire, usually wilt in the face of his demands and donate funds to NAN. To such executives, it’s an inexpensive way of avoiding a boycott and other bad publicity.

Sharpton’s native turf is New York City. He was born and raised there. During his grammar school years he was well-known among local blacks as the “boy wonder preacher.” Most of his mass demonstration campaigns over the past 30 years have occurred in New York. National Action Network is headquartered in Harlem. Yet during the Obama years Sharpton has established a parallel and growing Washington, D.C. presence. He has visited the Obama White House, whether to talk with the president or someone else, dozens of times. He has opened a NAN bureau in Washington. And in 2012, NAN held its annual April conference at the Washington Convention Center rather than at its usual venue in midtown Manhattan.

The intent is clear: Al Sharpton intends to be, and remain for a long time, a fixture in national politics regardless of who wins the White House in 2016. He knows to focus on the legislative as well as the executive branch. That’s what National Action Network’s July 8-9 Legislative and Policy Conference was all about.

Bankrolled by PepsiCo – participants received a PepsiCo logo notebook and nylon tote bag – the theme was “From Demonstration to Legislation.” Marching and chanting in the streets is fine, Sharpton and his allies argued, but activists need to make lawmakers feel some heat. The first day’s events were held in Room 2168 (“the Gold Room”) of the Rayburn House Office Building; the second day’s events were held in Room G-50 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The man’s got his bases covered. That’s kind of the problem.

The cover letter to “NAN Members & Friends” summarized the mission. It read in part: “Overall, this conference is designed to allow constituents to interact with elected Members of Congress, fellow activists and advocates alike and to work on concrete ways to achieve Dr. King’s dream. It is vital that we continue to advocate for legislative policies that protect our rights on matters such as a fair criminal justice system, access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and an equitable public education. National Action Network continues the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights, for equal justice under the law, and for a stronger and more hopeful America.”

Sharpton put words into action, too. NAN reserved the 3-4:30 PM time slot on July 8 for visits to House of Representatives offices and the 1-2:30 PM time slot on July 9 for visits to Senate offices. Moreover, NAN local chapter leaders had the opportunity during 3:30-5 P.M. on July 9 to attend a White House meeting.