It says everything about the cult of personality that is the Rev. Al Sharpton that the annual convention for the National Action Network, the quarter-century-old social-activism organization he founded, pauses from its four-day, round-the-clock schedule of events at 6 p.m. each evening so that conventioneers can, at Sharpton’s urging, return to their hotel rooms to watch PoliticsNation, the show that the reverend hosts each night on MSNBC.
Sharpton has been alternatively a national pariah—as he was in his Tawana Brawley and tracksuit days—and at home in the corridors of power, as he is now, when he is a regular visitor to the Oval Office and premier political powerbroker among the black activist class.
And just as Sharpton is not shy about reminding an audience about his upcoming cable hit—which he did repeatedly from the dais Wednesday—nor is he reluctant to shout out his ability to convene a roster of political heavy hitters for his annual Sharpton-palooza.
Speaking of his relationship with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was sitting on the stage next to him, Sharpton pushed back against media insinuations that their relationship was “corrupt like some backroom deal.”
Sharpton, you see, has no need for such spaces.
“There is nothing in the backroom we want,” he said. Instead, he said, “We want everything out front.”
Paying tribute to Sharpton and his group’s work over the course of the four-day festival at the Times Square Sheraton in Manhattan are three Cabinet-level officials in the Obama White House, plus former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs; no fewer than four mayors; most of the city and statewide elected officials of New York; and three would-be 2016 presidential contenders: Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Republican Ben Carson.
Not there is Hillary Clinton, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee.
If Sharpton is now mainstream, Clinton may be the last to get the memo. The two have a fraught history, even though the former first lady called Sharpton on his birthday last year—a fact known because the reverend blasted it out in a press release apparently as soon as they hung up. Back in 2008, Sharpton told his congregation, “Hillary Clinton has never done nothing for us.” More recently, he pushed back on the widely held notion that the 2014 midterm Democratic drubbing was due to Obama’s popularity, aping Republicans who hung the loss around the Clintons since they spent so much time out on the campaign trail.
On the first day of the convention, which ends Saturday, Sharpton laid out his group’s plans for 2016, which included touring the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire to promote voting rights. One of the few times Clinton was publicly mentioned came when Sharpton decided to poke at the media. With a row of honorees on the stage, Sharpton told the convention that the next day’s story would be that “de Blasio is whispering to Sanders! So de Blasio is giving up on Hillary.”
De Blasio was not, at the time, whispering to Sanders.
Without Clinton, the wooing of the Sharpton contingent fell to unlikely contenders like Carson, who was booed when Sharpton spoke his name, and Sanders, whom Sharpton touted as a progressive fighter, even as he introduced him as “Sen. Bernie Saunders.”
Sanders, the lone socialist in the United States Senate, delivered a version of stump speech that he has been giving to college campuses and progressive gatherings as he inches closer to a presidential run, railing against oligarchs like the Koch brothers and the Walton family, jabbing the air with his whole arm, his white hair tufted around his head in a gravity-defying display.
It was the kind of speech that liberals have been begging Clinton to deliver. Sanders called the current minimum wage “a starvation wage” and hit back against Republican criticism of Democratic efforts to reduce income inequality by pointing out that “there has been a massive transfer of wealth. The only problem is that it is has been in the wrong direction.”
After the speech, de Blasio did offer high praise for Sanders, calling the senator someone “I’ve been a fan of… going back to his time as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.” De Blasio declined to comment on Clinton, citing her continued lack of a campaign, but did say a “forthright message on how we will address economic unfairness and create a more balanced society again in terms of economic opportunity is absolutely necessary for anyone running at this point for 2016.”
This line was echoed elsewhere.
Democrats win, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told The Daily Beast, when they start “dealing with the base of the party, the base of Americans who have come together to vote for the president of the United States twice in a row. That group of people needs to be catered to and needs to be expanded and needs to be strengthened. Democrats win if they come out with a clear message that counters all this reaction that is going on in this country.”
Asked if that meant he was ready for Clinton, as so many in his party are, Baraka replied, “I am ready for a change, man. I am ready for a continuation of progressive politics in America. The president ran up against some brick walls. We need to push past those walls even further, and any candidate that is willing to do that, I am ready for them.”
One member of the National Action Network rank-and-file said that what he liked about Clinton was that “she seems to be the one most likely to win, and I want to see the presidency remain with the Democrats.”
“Bernie Sanders is excellent,” said Mack Williams, who came in from New Jersey for the convention. “I like him. And of course everybody loves Elizabeth Warren, as well.”
It is unlikely that African Americans would vote for Clinton in the same numbers they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012. But they remain a crucial Democratic voting bloc and one that Republicans are desperately trying to court. According to Robert Gibbs, who helped engineer Obama’s victory and who appeared on a panel on Wednesday, groups like the National Action Network are crucial to the Democratic cause.
“This is going to be a very, very close election,” he said. “The outcome is going to depend on who is the most energized, who is the most organized, and who gets activated.”
One of those Republicans vying for the votes of the Sharpton crowd is Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.
But Carson, who has had trouble staying on message, spent most of his remarks walking back some of his earlier comments, including a comparison of Obamacare to slavery.
A lie, he told the audience: “I said since slavery,” he tried to clarify.
Sharpton looked on, mostly unamused, particularly when Carson, in discussing the recent spate of police shootings, said blacks have to “recognize that we have people who do not obey the law, and are thugs, and when we try to hold them up as heroes, it makes our legitimate complaints not as substantial.”
Still, Carson was well-received, and afterward Sharpton told the conventioneers, “You may not be my choice for president, but if I need surgery, you my man.”
And with that, he called the convention to a brief break in the proceedings. PoliticsNation was about to start.