New York Times
March 27, 2000

Political Memo: Giuliani Is Making It a Sharpton-Clinton Ticket


If Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's handlers could have their way, his opponent in this year's United States Senate race would be Hillary Sharpton Clinton. But since Mrs. Clinton's surname is Rodham, not Sharpton, the mayor's aides are doing everything they can to create the perception that she and the minister from Harlem are siblings in spirit, if not in blood.

In campaign fliers and in public comments, the mayor and his advisers have stopped just short of portraying the Rev. Al Sharpton as a political Beelzebub who advises an attentive Mrs. Clinton in ways that, if she is elected, would set the republic on the path to perdition. In fact, they have recently begun to respond to any criticism of the mayor's actions by throwing out one name: Sharpton.

On Tuesday, Mr. Giuliani's campaign manager, Bruce Teitelbaum, referred to "her pal Al Sharpton" in responding to Mrs. Clinton's charge that the mayor had too quickly sided with the police in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer on the West Side of Manhattan nearly two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, the mayor continued his derogatory portrayal of the dead man, Patrick Dorismond, and, to counter Mrs. Clinton's charge that he was engaging in racial polarization, said she was "reading from a script provided by Al Sharpton."

On Thursday, after the Rev. Jesse Jackson referred to the mayor as "mental," Curt Ritter, a spokesman for the mayor, spread the wealth of guilt-by-association among several Democrats: "Jesse Jackson, Dov Hikind and Alan Hevesi have joined the political pile-on team being captained by Al Sharpton in the name of Hillary Clinton." That same night, Mr. Teitelbaum appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics" program to share a thought about the Clinton campaign: Sharpton, Sharpton, Sharpton.

By the weekend, the association had become an assumed element of the political debate -- assisted along the way by Giuliani campaign fliers warning Republican leaders around the state about the "Al Sharpton wing" of the Democratic Party. After the funeral for Mr. Dorismond on Saturday turned into a melee between protesters and the police, the mayor could afford to be vague when laying blame on unnamed "demagogues."

Several of the mayor's usually available advisers did not answer repeated requests to discuss the Giuliani campaign's constant invocation of Mr. Sharpton's name. And yesterday the mayor denied that he often brought up Mr. Sharpton's association with Mrs. Clinton.

"I haven't," he told a reporter. He then added: "I don't know, you just brought it up. So now if I talk about it you are going to accuse me of bringing it up all the time. So I am not a sucker."

Political consultants say the tactic is elementary politics. Polls suggest that Mr. Sharpton, perceived by some as inflicting as many wounds as he heals, is particularly unpopular among Jewish voters, and his inextricable link to race-based politics may offend in the overwhelmingly white electorate in upstate New York. Any voters lured from the Democratic camp by linking Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Sharpton could be the margin of victory in a neck-and-neck race.

"The mayor wants to get off the police brutality issue, so he moves it on to a person who, polls say, generates negative feelings in the minds of Jewish voters," said Norman Adler, a consultant who works for both Republicans and Democrats. "It's one of the oldest political strategies in the book: never defend if you can attack, and always attack in a place where they're soft."

Clearly, Mr. Adler said, Mr. Giuliani's advisers see softness in Mrs. Clinton's recent appearances with Mr. Sharpton. "They have the TV tape of Mrs. Clinton and the Reverend Sharpton," he said. "Bingo! Instant commercial."

But several people, black and white alike, said that although attacking someone for the company she keeps was a familiar tactic, Mr. Giuliani approaches dangerous ground by using Mr. Sharpton as his foil so freely.

The mayor has virtually no friends among the city's black leaders, a reality that does not seem to bother him. In addition, many blacks say they are too often the victims of his administration's aggressive police tactics.

Finally, there is Mr. Dorismond, killed March 16 under hazy circumstances after reacting angrily to an undercover officer who approached him with a request to buy drugs from him. For many, the incident recalls surnames other than Sharpton: Diallo and Louima. And Mr. Giuliani's attempts to offset criticism of the police by questioning the dead man's temperament have widely been seen as insensitive.

Such context is not forgotten when Mr. Giuliani invokes the Sharpton name, said Prof. Manning Marable, the director of African-American studies at Columbia University. "This is a wedge issue," he said. "Giuliani knows what he is doing. He's a smart politician but an unprincipled one. And he's doing this for all the worst reasons."

In recent years Mr. Sharpton has tried without complete success to distance himself from parts of his own past: his involvement in the Tawana Brawley case, and his divisive comments after a deadly fire at a Harlem store whose owner was Jewish. Still, he has emerged as one of the country's best-known civil rights leaders, leading the outcry against racial profiling in New Jersey and organizing protests in the wake of the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo in New York.

"He's gained a respectability and a legitimacy in the black middle class that 10 years ago would have nothing to do with him," Mr. Marable said. A Republican strategist agreed: "Sharpton's a rehabilitated character."

But Mr. Sharpton is still perceived by some as too quick to condemn the police, too eager to shout "Race!" in time for the evening news. While running for president earlier this year, Senator John McCain lumped him together with Louis Farrakhan, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance." And Mr. Giuliani's antipathy for Mr. Sharpton predates his run for the Senate; years ago there was a spell when the mayor refused even to utter the Sharpton name.

The minister's "stock-in-trade is race; that's how he pays his mortgage," said Mr. Adler, the political consultant.

"And Sharpton keeps reminding people about who he is and what he's about, thereby playing into the mayor's hands."

Consultants say that as a Democratic candidate banking on the black vote in New York, Mrs. Clinton had no choice but to shake hands with Mr. Sharpton, if not embrace him outright. She finally met with him two months ago at a public event that included an episode that could have been designed by her opponent's advisers.

At a moment when neither Mr. Sharpton nor Mrs. Clinton was present, a Queens minister talked about Jews in a way that some found to be anti-Semitic. Both Mr. Sharpton and Mrs. Clinton quickly denounced the comments, but the opening for the Giuliani camp had been made. That night, Mr. Teitelbaum declared: "When you make a decision to attend an Al Sharpton-sponsored event at Al Sharpton's headquarters, it shouldn't be a shock when anti-Semitic rhetoric rears its ugly head."

A few days later, Mr. Giuliani appeared on a dais that also included Jörg Haider, a right-wing Austrian political figure who has had to apologize for finding positive things to say about Adolf Hitler. Mrs. Clinton tried to embarrass the mayor about the appearance, but the issue soon evaporated. Mr. Haider is in Austria; Mr. Sharpton is in New York.

Speaking from a purely political point of view, Mr. Adler said that he saw no cost to the mayor's attempts to conjoin the Clinton and Sharpton names. "The mayor is not driving away black votes by demonizing Al Sharpton because he doesn't have them," he said. "If he would be demonizing Ed Koch, he would risk losing some of the votes he already has. I would say blacks, Puerto Ricans and liberals are fair game."

But Charles Rangel, the Democratic representative from Harlem, said he found such political rationalizing to be sad -- and classic Giuliani. "What an indictment it would be" not to seek the black vote, Mr. Rangel said. "And isn't it amazing how he's been able to distance himself from African-Americans?

"Even if the community that he's appealing to comes at the expense of African-Americans," Mr. Rangel added, "it reaches a point with them that enough is enough." Why does the mayor single out Mr. Sharpton for demonization? Simple, Mr. Sharpton said: "He's playing the race card."

"To the guy in Buffalo, it's 'She's reading from Sharpton's script' -- which is the blacks," Mr. Sharpton said. "What they're really saying is, 'She's with the blacks.' "

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