Al Sharpton’s Bid to Be a 2020 Kingmaker

The civil-rights leader says he’s open to eventually backing Michael Bloomberg or Joe Biden but won’t make a formal endorsement for more than a year.

Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

With a Democratic presidential field that’s bigger and more diverse than ever, and with a Democratic Party struggling with racial issues more than ever—both in grappling with its own history and in response to President Donald Trump—the Reverend Al Sharpton wants to be both kingmaker and validator.

The New York–based civil-rights leader and president of the National Action Network has already been flexing that power behind the scenes. He met with Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker over the weekend. He’s had conversations with Kamala Harris and Terry McAuliffe in recent weeks. And he soon will be scheduling an in-person meeting with Beto O’Rourke.

Next Monday will be the biggest public showcase yet: Michael Bloomberg will join Joe Biden at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Washington, D.C., held by Sharpton’s advocacy organization, the National Action Network, while Gillibrand will speak at the group’s event in New York the same day, just after returning from her first trip to Iowa.

The 2020 Democrats’ courting of Sharpton is well under way. He says he expects his endorsement to make a difference when he makes it.

In the meantime, he says, he’s open to eventually backing either Bloomberg, despite the former New York City mayor’s stop-and-frisk policy that was found to have disproportionately harassed young African American men, or Biden, despite the former vice president’s support while he was a senator in the 1990s of a crime bill that included severe penalties that put millions of African Americans behind bars.

Some African American and progressive advocates have called those records disqualifying for Bloomberg and Biden, who are both considering jumping into the presidential race. Sharpton says he doesn’t think they are, and he’ll use his influence to say so.

“I don’t think we’re looking for someone without flaws. I’m looking for someone who can work on an agenda going forward,” Sharpton said in an interview on Monday.

The prospective presidential candidates are not the only Democrats Sharpton is talking to as he expands his reach: He met with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and invited her to the MLK Day events, according to a person told about the meeting.

But Sharpton isn’t making an endorsement any time soon, planning to hold off for at least a year. While candidates try to sort out how to talk about the economy, the president, foreign policy, and the future of the country, he says he is focused on seeing specifics of their plans for how to expand voting rights and civil-rights protections, and for how to deal substantively with police brutality.

“Dr. King is not in history and has a holiday because he just said, ‘Let us come together,’” Sharpton said. “He said, ‘Let us come together and stand for specific things.’”

Sharpton occupies a distinct space. Other than Barack Obama, there is no better-known black leader in the country, nor one with bigger reach: The National Action Network has 100 chapters across America, and Sharpton himself hosts a radio show on 70 stations every weekday and a TV show on MSNBC on Saturdays and Sundays.

Sharpton’s backing proved important for Obama in 2008: Sharpton endorsed him after the South Carolina primary, at a moment when Obama’s campaign was being rocked by questions about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who preached at the church the Obamas used to attend in Chicago. While Obama was in the White House, their relationship deepened and Sharpton moved further into the mainstream.

Sharpton said he’d likely hold off on making a pick until a similar point in the 2020 race, when the field has narrowed.

Sharpton has met with Booker several times, but of the prospective field, he has the longest working relationship with Bloomberg and Gillibrand. Bloomberg reached out to Sharpton the night he was first elected as New York mayor in 2001, and made a concerted effort to bring him into conversations during his 12 years in City Hall, which worked. In the interview, Sharpton said of Bloomberg: “I’m not looking for somebody to be my acolyte; I’m looking for someone to be accessible.” Gillibrand made a stop at the National Action Network her first public appearance after being appointed to the Senate from New York in 2009, and has been a regular at Sharpton’s events since.

Sharpton also hosted many of the others in the prospective field—Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and Amy Klobuchar—at an event in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago. No one has won him over completely yet.

“I’ve been in this too long to be swayed by charisma. I want to hear policy,” he said. “I’m hearing some good things, some incomplete.”