Obama's nod to Al Sharpton: asset or liability for 2012 reelection bid?

Obama attends the Rev. Al Sharpton's event Wednesday for his National Action Network. Rubbing shoulders with Sharpton may help Obama reinforce his standing with African-American voters, analysts say.

Richard Drew/AP
The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the 13th annual National Action Network conference, marking the 20th anniversary of his Harlem activist organization, in New York, on April 6.

Many Americans may remember the Rev. Al Sharpton for his confrontational marches and his booming oratory, demanding – yes, demanding – corrective action for a perceived injustice.

He still marches when he has to. But these days the Rev. Mr. Sharpton is more likely to be seen in pinstripes, meeting with President Obama’s Cabinet officials and raising money from Wall Street firms for his National Action Network (NAN). Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who once had Sharpton arrested, now calls him a friend. And, on Wednesday, President Obama will travel to New York to attend the NAN’s Twentieth Anniversary and National Convention.

Some political observers see the president's trip as an effort to firm up his African-American base in advance of the 2012 election. Others wonder if it’s the kind of visit that might later become a campaign liability as Mr. Obama tries to woo moderate voters. Still others see it as a mark of acknowledgement that Sharpton has become a more positive force for change, no longer the radical known for interjecting race into every issue.

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“Rev. Sharpton has been a strong supporter of President Obama, and I see the president going there and speaking as a natural evolution of sorts in the reverend’s public persona," says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based organization that conducts research on issues important to people of color. “It is a mark of acknowledgement by the White House.”

It hasn’t always been that way. In the past, many politicians avoided rubbing shoulders with Sharpton, who may still be remembered for his role in the Tawana Brawley case. In 1987, Ms. Brawley, a Wappinger, N.Y., teenager, claimed she was abducted and sexually assaulted by at least three white men, some of them police officers. A grand jury refused to indict anyone, and Sharpton and other local civil rights leaders were ultimately found guilty of defamation as a result of pointing fingers at a specific police officer.

To Mr. Koch, the Brawley incident was a main impediment to Sharpton’s political aspirations. In 2004, Sharpton ran for the Democratic nomination for president and received 16 percent of the primary vote in California, 19 percent in Connecticut, and 30 percent in Delaware.

“I told him, 'You could become a cross-over candidate if you repudiated the Tawana Brawley situation as a hostage,' ” says Koch. “He never has.”

Well before the Brawley case, Koch and Sharpton had tangled. In 1978, Sharpton and others had arrived at then-Mayor Koch’s office. They wanted Koch to agree to use a federal grant for summer jobs exclusively for black and Hispanic children, Koch recalls.

“I said no,” says Koch. “Then, they wanted me to sign a petition to support giving $50 billion in reparations to American blacks for slavery. I said, leave it and I’ll look at it.”

Sharpton refused to leave, beginning a sit-in. Koch had him arrested.

“Since then, whenever we’ve been on the same stage, Sharpton has said, ‘This is the man who made me famous and he never stopped talking to me.' ”

Today, Koch says Sharpton has the ability to rally people in the streets. “There are not many like that,” he says.

That may be one reason Obama is addressing the NAN on Wednesday evening, says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia.

“Maybe he needs Sharpton,” says Mr. Sabato. “The Obama base is less excited than it was in 2008.”

True, the economic recovery has left many blacks and other minority workers behind. Some of them might respond to a Sharpton call to vote, says Sabato. “It’s not that the African-American community is not going to vote for Obama, but that Obama needs a very large black turnout, not a medium-size one.”

Still, aligning himself with Sharpton may have drawbacks as well as pluses for Obama, says Doug Muzzio, a political commentator at Baruch College in New York.

Sharpton “is a smart, savvy guy, articulate [and] with a great sense of humor,” says Mr. Muzzio. “But at one time he was correctly perceived to be a racial arsonist. He is a complex character.”

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