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Democrats court controversial Sharpton

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (JTA) — The Rev. Al Sharpton has always presented something of a dilemma for Democratic politicians.

The New York preacher’s history of stirring up racial divisiveness and anti-Semitic feelings makes some Democrats uncomfortable with him.

Nevertheless, they feel compelled to seek his support, and this year’s Democratic presidential candidates are no exception. Both former Sen. Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore have met with Sharpton — sometimes out in the open, but mostly behind closed doors.

In August, Bradley spoke at a forum hosted by Sharpton, and recently Bradley hired a former Sharpton aide to run the campaign in New York. In the past, Bradley has said Sharpton has to be given respect and a chance to grow.

Gore has not been as public with his attempts to gain Sharpton’s support, but this month he met with Sharpton in secret.

Sharpton has had a troubled relationship with the Jewish community. Many Jews resent that Sharpton has never apologized for past conflicts, such as his involvement in the Crown Heights riots in 1991.

Lately, however, Sharpton seems to be finding new ways to legitimize himself. During a nationally televised Democratic presidential debate in New York, he was selected to ask the candidates the first question.

Has the controversial figure turned over a new leaf — or are the Democrats still making a questionable political alliance?

Citing Sharpton’s history of racism, anti-Semitism, and incitement to violence, Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks dismissed any possibility of a change in Sharpton’s agenda and called the Democrats’ association with the black activist disturbing.

“It’s utterly disgusting that anybody would associate themselves with that kind of hatred for the sake of a political endorsement,” Brooks said.

But Tony Wyche, a spokesman for the Bradley campaign, said Sharpton provides an opportunity to speak to the black community.

“Sen. Bradley does not agree with everything that Al Sharpton has said or done,” Wyche said. “But it’s important to address the community’s concerns.”

A Gore spokesman makes a similar argument. “Rev. Sharpton is a leader in the African-American community and one of the many prominent figures that Vice President Gore has met with over the past several months in New York,” said Peter Ragone, of Gore’s New York campaign office.

As for the potential problems a Sharpton-Gore relationship could cause among Jewish voters, Ragone only said, “The vice president’s record on issues of concern to the Jewish community speaks for itself. His relationship with the Jewish community is strong.”

Both campaigns do have a number of well-known African-American leaders who serve in an advisory or supportive role. A number of New York ministers, as well as Harvard professor Cornel West, are assisting Bradley, and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) work with the Gore campaign.

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, called the issue of Sharpton’s influence a “non-story” and said Sharpton is not an insider in either the Gore or Bradley campaigns.

Many Jews still recall how nine years ago Sharpton spurred on the Crown Heights riots in New York, which erupted after a black child was killed by a Jewish motorcade. Sharpton led protests through the Jewish section of Crown Heights. Days later a Jewish student was killed by a mob.

Four years later, Sharpton picketed a Jewish-owned department store in Harlem because it was evicting a nearby black-owned business. Following months of violence a protester entered the store, shot and killed several employees, and set the building on fire.

Why, then, do the candidates go after Sharpton’s support?

Because despite the well-publicized incidents, which harmed black-Jewish relations, Sharpton remains for the black community the activist who can voice their concerns and bring their problems to national attention like no other leader.

The dilemma that the candidates face is whether they can win the trust and votes of the black community in New York without Sharpton’s support.

A recent poll of black voters in New York shows Gore leading Bradley by 55 to 29 percent.

As it gets closer to New York’s primary, perhaps the real question is how much of a factor will Al Sharpton be in voters’ minds on March 7. Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant and pollster, thinks people will take notice of a candidate’s record and not a candidate’s relationship with Sharpton.

“It won’t make any difference in the race,” Mellman predicts.

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