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, Sanders contend for top place in new national poll Biden leads Democratic primary field nationally: poll Warren calls for Brazil to drop charges against Glenn Greenwald MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris weighing Biden endorsement: report California Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarris weighing Biden endorsement: report Biden, Sanders contend for top place in new national poll Biden leads Democratic primary field nationally: poll MORE (D-Mass.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two Patrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Booker ahead of Trump impeachment trial: 'History has its eyes on us' MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 MORE (D-N.Y.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharHarris weighing Biden endorsement: report Biden leads Democratic primary field nationally: poll CNN cancels next week's Iowa town halls 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 ButtigiegBiden, Sanders contend for top place in new national poll Biden leads Democratic primary field nationally: poll Trump to hold rally on eve of New Hampshire primary MORE (D), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperMitch McConnell may win the impeachment and lose the Senate Hickenlooper raised .8 million for Colorado Senate bid in fourth quarter of 2019 George Conway group releases ad targeting GOP senator: 'You're just another Trump servant' MORE (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) — all 2020 candidates — will also be appearing.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation 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 TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation MORE’s tenure has also roiled the waters, with some Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBiden to go on Iowa tour with swing district lawmakers CNN cancels next week's Iowa town halls Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez hit back at JPMorgan CEO over comments on socialism: 'That's funny' 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 LeePatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' The US should work to counter India's actions against the people of Kashmir Sheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade 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 GoreTrump's reelection looks more like a long shot than a slam dunk Gore praises Greta Thunberg after meeting: 'Nobody speaks truth to power as she does' Climate 'religion' is fueling Australia's wildfires 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.”