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 SandersBiden wins Connecticut in final presidential primary of year Vermont Rep. Peter Welch easily wins primary Three pros and three cons to Biden picking Harris MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNAACP seeks to boost Black voter turnout in six states Biden touts Trump saying Harris would be 'fine choice' for VP pick Kamala Harris: The conventional (and predictable) pick all along MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenKamala Harris: The conventional (and predictable) pick all along On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high Hillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick MORE (D-Mass.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCalifornia Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandExpanding our health force can save lives and create jobs simultaneously Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-N.Y.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharCalifornia Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package MORE (D-Minn.) among its speakers.

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Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCalifornia Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE (D), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperKamala Harris makes history — as a Westerner Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Republicans uncomfortably playing defense MORE (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) — all 2020 candidates — will also be appearing.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNAACP seeks to boost Black voter turnout in six states Biden touts Trump saying Harris would be 'fine choice' for VP pick Kamala Harris: The conventional (and predictable) pick all along 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 TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE’s tenure has also roiled the waters, with some Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOmar fends off primary challenge in Minnesota On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high Hillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick 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 LeeDemocratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Steyer endorses reparations bill, commits to working with Jackson Lee Democrats set to hold out for big police reform 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 GoreWill Pence choose partisanship over statesmanship in counting ballots? Willie Brown: Kamala Harris should 'politely decline' any offer to be Biden's running mate Marquita Bradshaw beats establishment-backed Mackler in Tennessee Democratic Senate primary 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.”