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 SandersOn The Money: Democrats deals to bolster support for relief bill | Biden tries to keep Democrats together | Retailers fear a return of the mask wars Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMichelle Obama says 'everyone was concerned' about potential violence at Biden inauguration Ella Emhoff, inauguration designer join forces on knitwear collaboration Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans Democrats worry Senate will be graveyard for Biden agenda MORE (D-Mass.), Cory BookerCory BookerHillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans Why do we still punish crack and powder cocaine offenses differently? MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls Gillibrand: Cuomo allegations 'completely unacceptable' Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package MORE (D-N.Y.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharAlarming threat prompts early exit, underscoring security fears Raimondo has won confirmation, but the fight to restrict export technology to China continues Pentagon prevented immediate response to mob, says Guard chief MORE (D-Minn.) among its speakers.


Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegHere's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Biden's COVID, border policies prove he's serious about neither Harris pushes for support for cities in coronavirus relief package MORE (D), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Third approved vaccine distributed to Americans Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump's second impeachment trial begins MORE (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) — all 2020 candidates — will also be appearing.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe West needs a more collaborative approach to Taiwan Abbott's medical advisers were not all consulted before he lifted Texas mask mandate House approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act 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.


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 TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE’s tenure has also roiled the waters, with some Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - J&J vax rollout today; third woman accuses Cuomo 'Lucky': Inside Ocasio-Cortez's endorsement of Sanders 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 LeeBiden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip Obama says reparations 'justified' 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 GoreAl Jazeera launching conservative media platform Exclusive 'Lucky' excerpt: Vow of Black woman on Supreme Court was Biden turning point Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing 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.”