2020 Dems audition for Al Sharpton's support

The leading Democratic candidates for president will be auditioning before Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network this week — a testament to both the importance of the black vote and Sharpton’s increasingly mainstream image.

The four-day convention, which begins in New York on Wednesday, includes Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Krystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick MSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted MORE (D-Mass.), Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Gillibrand Gillibrand relaunches PAC to elect women Analysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads Two years after Maria, Puerto Rico awaits disaster funds MORE (D-N.Y.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharMSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot The two most important mental health reforms the Trump administration should consider Sanders searches for answers amid Warren steamroller MORE (D-Minn.) among its speakers.

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Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul Buttigieg2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE (D), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLeft off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa Yang says he would not run as a third-party candidate The Hill's Morning Report - Hurricane Dorian devastates the Bahamas, creeps along Florida coast MORE (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) — all 2020 candidates — will also be appearing.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE, who is not scheduled to appear at the convention, spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Washington organized by Sharpton.

Biden, who has not yet declared his 2020 candidacy, used that occasion to express regret for his support of a 1990s crime bill that remains deeply controversial in minority communities.

Sharpton ran for president himself in 2004, and though he was never a serious contender for the nomination, he placed third in the South Carolina primary, the first major contest with a significant number of black voters. 

The 2004 primary campaign was also a pivot point for Sharpton, marking a transition from his earlier career as a sometimes inflammatory and polarizing activist to more recent years, when he was welcomed to the White House under former President Obama and became an MSNBC anchor.

Asked what he wanted to hear from the candidates at the convention, Sharpton told The Hill, “I want to hear substance. I don’t want to hear sound bites. Like, yes, we need to alter the criminal justice system. How? What would you do about the mandatory sentencing laws? What would you do about police reform? Would you reinstitute consent decrees?”

Addressing persistent economic inequality is also important, he said.

“I want to hear in terms of the economy, how do you close the race gap in employment? Yes, black unemployment is lower than it’s ever been, but it’s still double that of whites. How do you close the race gap in terms of health care? I want to hear specifics. Where’s the meat? Not just giving us the dessert,” Sharpton said.

Harris and Booker are the two leading black candidates in the race, and either could plausibly become the nominee — though Harris is considered by most observers to have the stronger shot.

The mere fact that there are two strong contenders for the nomination who are black is a sign of how much the political ground has shifted in recent years.

Obama was the first black candidate to have had a serious chance of winning the presidency, whereas previous bids by figures such as Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and then-Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) in 1972 were important more for their symbolic power.

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More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, racial injustice in policing and the related “take a knee” NFL protests have become central political issues.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE’s tenure has also roiled the waters, with some Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Progressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan MORE (D-N.Y.), flatly accusing him of being racist.

The issue of reparations — once a fringe concern — is bubbling up in this year’s Democratic race. Harris and Warren have suggested they have some sympathy for the demand for reparations, though the specifics are not clear. 

Sanders has been warier of reparations per se, though he supports a long-held plan by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to direct federal funds to some of the nation’s most impoverished congressional districts, many of which have significant black populations.

Sharpton himself calls for further study.

“I support [Rep.] Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeDemocrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt Democrats bicker over strategy on impeachment Jackson Lee: 'Racism is a national security threat' MORE’s [D-Texas] legislation that there needs to be a commission to study it,” he told The Hill. “Clearly, we have got to define what we are talking about when we talk about reparations. Clearly, something should be done, in my judgement. But done how and what vehicle?”

More broadly, the civil rights activist noted that the strong turnout of 2020 contenders at his event was evidence of how issues that had once been marginalized have become more central to the national political debate.

“A lot of the issues that we have been at the forefront of — in terms of criminal justice reform, in terms of voting rights, in terms of racial disparities, in terms of the economy — have become mainstream issues,” he said.

He noted that his organization’s first similar event occurred almost 20 years ago, in 2000, when then-Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreGinsburg calls proposal to eliminate Electoral College 'more theoretical than real' Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election Emma Thompson pens op-ed on climate change: 'Everything depends on what we do now' MORE (D) and his Democratic primary challenger, Bill Bradley, debated at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater.

“Every cycle we’ve done them since, more and more [of] our issues have become mainstream,” Sharpton said. “You cannot now run without dealing with these issues.”

News clippings from around the time of the Apollo Theater event underline the distance Sharpton himself has traveled.

In a March 2000 Washington Post story, the writer noted that “the mainstreaming of Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. is underway, sparking a war of words over the acceptability of associating with this racially controversial figure.”

That debate is long over, at least among Democrats and liberals. The presence of the leading presidential candidates — as well as other leading lights of the party, including Ocasio-Cortez and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — this week is testament to that. 

Sharpton’s support is clearly worth having.

He says he is not about to endorse a candidate anytime soon — but he doesn’t rule it out.

“I may. National Action Network will not, but I may — late in the campaign,” he said. “I endorsed Obama in late ’07. I did not make an endorsement in ’16. But I think that it’s important that we deal with this whole presidency of Trump, so I may do something late this year.

"But again,” he repeated, referring to the candidates appearing at this week’s conference, “I want to hear something.”