Ballot Box

The Flip-Flops of Al Sharpton

What he said then. What he says now. What happened.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, and worst moments. This series assesses the candidates’ purported flip-flops. Here is a sequence of switches often attributed to Al Sharpton—and the context his critics leave out.

Flip: In 1986, Sharpton endorsed Republican Al D’Amato over Democrat Mark Green in New York’s U.S. Senate race.

Flop: In 1992, Sharpton ran for the same New York Senate seat as a Democrat.

Flip: In 1994, Sharpton effectively backed Republican George Pataki in the New York gubernatorial race. After Pataki won, Sharpton was one of the first people invited to the governor’s mansion.

Flop: In 1998, Sharpton endorsed Green in the Democratic primary for D’Amato’s Senate seat. Sharpton said, “Mark Green has been consistent on issues that affect working-class people. He has integrity and would be an excellent senator for all New Yorkers.” Sharpton did not endorse D’Amato even after Green lost the primary to Rep. Charles Schumer.

Flip: Sharpton supported Fernando Ferrer over Green in the 2001 New York City mayoral primary. When Ferrer lost to Green, Sharpton refused to back Green, thereby contributing to Green’s loss to Republican Michael Bloomberg.

Flop: In the 2004 campaign, Sharpton has frequently implied that his Democratic rivals are closet Republicans. On July 30, 2003, he said on CNN’s Crossfire show, “We have too many elephants running around with donkey jackets on.”

Context: Sharpton wants to make Democrats pay attention to the concerns of the left. He says he has occasionally endorsed Republicans to send a message to the Democratic Party when he thinks it is taking black voters for granted or ignoring the poor. Referring to his hardball tactics in 1994 and 2001, Sharpton has said, “I’m not gonna be a battered wife for the Democratic Party.” His complaints about the Republican leanings of fellow Democratic presidential candidates arguably fit that pattern.

On the Crossfire broadcast in which he complained about “elephants” in “donkey jackets,” Sharpton also sent a more conciliatory message. When a caller asked which Democratic candidate was Sharpton’s “biggest threat,” Sharpton replied, “I respect all of the Democrats. … The only one I’m worried about is Bush winning again.”