By Ciro Scotti For a New Yorker who has watched Al Sharpton chase one racial ambulance after another, his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination has always seemed an affront to the democratic process. It's certainly a far cry from the ideal system, where candidates of principle and substance would rise to the fore.
Here is a man seeking the most powerful post on the planet who has a history of being a prime player in racially divisive incidents (Exhibit No. 1: the sordid Tawana Brawley affair from the 1980s). Here is an oratorical bomb-thrower who has popped up to exploit any tragedy in town with a racial component and whose singleminded self-promotion makes Donald Trump seem like a Trappist monk.
Oh, sure, he's a preacher -- been one since he was a lad. So you can't expect him to have ever held a real job, served his country, or managed anything besides his hairdo. No, he has been too busy yapping and scrapping and collecting the hard-earned cash of those seduced by his silver-plated tongue.
POWERLESS PLAYER. Sharpton's apparent strategy in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination was to roll up as many delegates as possible, starting with an impressive finish in South Carolina, and then head to the Democratic National Convention in Boston this July with enough power in his pocket to be a real player. In the process, he would have wrested the unofficial leadership of the liberal African-American community from weary warrior Jesse Jackson.
A funny thing happened on the way to Beantown, though: Democrats of color in South Carolina, whom he was endlessly courting and counting on, delivered unto the clergyman a third-place primary finish -- only 10% of the vote and not a single delegate. And he finished fourth in Feb. 7's caucuses in Michigan, which has a significant black population.
To give Sharpton his due, he battled hard on a shoestring budget -- though what money he was given came not from the little people, according to The Washington Post, but from big donors like Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. He injected much-needed humor into candidate debates starved for one-liners. He wasn't cowed by the big stage and remained outspoken, if occasionally at sea, under questioning. He showed he can take a ribbing during a star turn on Saturday Night Live.
And if this pack had a populist, it was Sharpton, who easily found that footing by just taking his usual demagogic message down a notch or two.
CAMPAIGN QUESTIONS. Most of the time, however, Reverend Al got a pass from big media and rival pols afraid to put him under the same scrutiny as candidates like Howard Dean. Why wasn't he hammered repeatedly about the Brawley incident and other contributions to racial polarization, or about his problems with the IRS, his lack of managerial knowhow, his dearth of foreign policy experience, and the sources of his income? Isn't the fact that he pretty much got a pass a form of racism?
Now, according to The New York Times, the right-wing National Legal & Policy center is asking the Federal Election Committee to investigate whether Sharpton's nonprofit group, the National Action Network, improperly subsidized his campaign. The Times said Sharpton dismissed the allegations. Then there's a piece by Wayne Barrett in New York's Village Voice newspaper suggesting that the Sharpton campaign has been at least partially orchestrated by Roger Stone, a longtime GOP operative who worked for George W. Bush during the Florida recount. The Sharpton campaign didn't respond to efforts to elicit a direct comment on these reports.
Those stories came after the South Carolina primary, so they didn't contribute to the rejection of the reverend. Perhaps Sharpton is doing so badly because like other Democrats, black primary voters are gravitating to candidates who might have a shot at unseating Bush. What's just as probable is that the good people of South Carolina and elsewhere saw through a preacher who has more often been out for the shepherd and rarely the flock. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online