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 SandersFox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel Feehery: A whole new season of 'Game of Thrones' Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisFeehery: A whole new season of 'Game of Thrones' Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan O'Rourke says he would 'absolutely' do Fox News town hall MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFeehery: A whole new season of 'Game of Thrones' Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan O'Rourke says he would 'absolutely' do Fox News town hall MORE (D-Mass.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDe Blasio pitches himself as tough New Yorker who can take on 'Don the con' Sanders pledges to only nominate Supreme Court justices that support Roe v. Wade From dive bars to steakhouses: How Iowa caucus staffers blow off steam MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandO'Rourke says he would 'absolutely' do Fox News town hall Gillibrand 'very unhappy' with 'Game of Thrones' finale Gillibrand endorses DC statehood: Democracy doesn't mean 'for some of us' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharFox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan O'Rourke says he would 'absolutely' do Fox News town hall 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 ButtigiegFox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel Trump hits Fox News after Buttigieg town hall: 'What is going on with Fox?' Feehery: A whole new season of 'Game of Thrones' MORE (D), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn Wright HickenlooperDe Blasio pitches himself as tough New Yorker who can take on 'Don the con' 2020 hopeful Hickenlooper swipes at Dems on security, says Trump 'fueling national crisis of division' Inslee gives public option first test in Washington state MORE (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) — all 2020 candidates — will also be appearing.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump: Foreign countries want Biden in office so they can continue 'ripping off' the US Feehery: A whole new season of 'Game of Thrones' Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan 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 TrumpWhat the Mueller report tells us about Putin, Russia and Trump's election Fox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel Anti-US trade war song going viral in China MORE’s tenure has also roiled the waters, with some Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSteve Bullock puts Citizens United decision at center of presidential push Fix the climate with smaller families Dem Sen. Markey faces potential primary challenge in Massachusetts 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 LeeDems probe DOJ's handling of civil rights violations by law enforcement Reparations: The 'lost cause' of black politics? Dem lawmaker says Trump 'has in many respects become a dictator' 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 GoreSeveral factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Montana Gov. Bullock enters presidential race Bullock hires senior staffers ahead of likely presidential run 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.”