Of all Newt Gingrich’s liaisons, there’s the one relationship with a significant other—a controversial figure who’s shown the ability to capitalize on presidential-primary debate time, draw attention, and shake up the field—that the candidate has yet to address.
The unlikely frontrunner has yet to account for his potentially devastating partnership with the Reverend Al Sharpton.
The pair of rotund revenants, joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “headlined” a five-city school tour in 2009 after the unlikely duo sat down with President Obama at the White House earlier that year—the only known conversation between the president and the former speaker who’s aiming to replace him. (Also at the meeting were Sharpton’s patrons over the last decade, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his then–education chancellor, Joel Klein.) After meeting with Obama, Gingrich and Sharpton, joined by Duncan, hit the road later that year to “set aside partisanship and ideology and join together in support of a common education-reform agenda,” according to a statement signed by all three men that nicely captures the trio’s purposefully vague but camera-friendly mission. Effectively, Obama and Duncan exchanged a bipartisan sheen for their education agenda in return for camera time for Sharpton and Gingrich, who at the time played up the unlikely alliance.
“I’m going to be side by side with Al Sharpton as the original odd couple,” Gingrich said at a rally at the Ellipse, just south of the White House, as they launched their tour. Sharpton, at the same rally, led the crowd of a few hundred in a “No Justice, No Peace” chant.
Campaign spokesman R. C. Hammond, who this week told The New York Times that Gingrich would “answer all the questions” about his lengthy record and “let it all hang out,” didn’t respond to emails asking about the former speaker’s tour with the reverend. A brief and carefully worded statement on the “Answering the Attacks” page of Newt.org claims that Sharpton and Duncan “decided that they agreed with the Gingrich position,” which the site describes as “his pro-family conviction that it is the parents’ right to send their student to a charter school of their choice.”
Sharpton, who’s effectively worked on retainer for Bloomberg and Klein over the past decade, has emerged as an aggressive voice for charter schools. He stressed in an interview that he “did not agree with the Gingrich position,” though he didn’t elaborate on what exactly they disagreed on, other than vouchers. The famously loquacious Sharpton said that he “was there to listen” on the speaking tour that the men embarked on “at the request of the president.” Throughout that tour and on the three men’s appearance afterward on Meet the Press, Sharpton hewed to generalities, calling education reform “the civil-rights issue of the 21st century” while avoiding specifics.
“I think what the president was trying to do,” said Sharpton, who, after keeping his distance in 2008, has since emerged as a frequent surrogate for the Obama operation, “was show he could get bipartisan support for his education reforms. Frankly I was caught off guard and I assume [Gingrich] was as well when the president asked us to go to five cities together. But there was no alliance with Gingrich and me.”
Gingrich, though, has continued to play up the partnership, calling in to Sharpton’s MSNBC show in October to give his birthday wishes, and sing the reverend’s praises. “I had such a great time going around America with you,” Gingrich said, after Sharpton had used his cable show and other forums to rip into the Republican presidential candidate even before his surge in the polls. “You were tremendous on those trips,” said Gingrich. “While we may disagree about 99 things, on that one thing we were so much on the same team that it really was remarkable.”
Despite Sharpton’s long history of racial provocations, which have helped incite murder on two occasions, and his shady political and financial dealings, Gingrich’s primary foes have yet to seize on the association. That’s in part an inadvertent benefit of the sudden frontrunner’s promise when he was at the back of the pack to eschew attacks on his fellow Republicans, a move that until Thursday’s debate had helped to protect the former speaker from his decades-long checkered record.
Sharpton has no regrets about teaming up with Gingrich, he said, since his road show with the former speaker means he can show that “Newt knows better” than to engage in race-baiting. The reverend, no stranger to that art, has accused Gingrich of trying to suppress the African-American vote, channeling Willie Horton, and turning his back on the inner cities. “It’s the opposite of saying these kids come out of neighborhoods with no work ethics and should be janitors,” said Sharpton. “I don’t regret going out with Gingrich. I regret the media giving him a pass on a glaring contradiction here.”
“If Mitt Romney loses” the early races in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Sharpton continued, “then Gingrich could be the nominee. And if Gingrich is the nominee, President Obama should thank me for the easiest reelection a Democratic president had in recent memory as we distribute pictures of Newt and the president and I everywhere.”
“He can’t explain how he called [Obama] a food-stamp president,” Sharpton went on, “after he went on the road with his education secretary, and me.”