Painting Sen. Joe Lieberman as hypocritical for first seeking his support and later attacking him, the Rev. Al Sharpton blasted the Connecticut pol on Monday for "open and flagrant race baiting" and "risking black-Jewish relations" through comments at a heavily Jewish fundraiser last week.
But Lieberman’s campaign is firing back, insisting he never asked Rev. Sharpton for his endorsement in the race against Ned Lamont.
"That’s a myth being peddled by the Lamont campaign," said Lieberman’s top political advisor, Dan Gerstein, on Tuesday. "It’s just not true."
In an open letter to Lieberman, Rev. Sharpton wrote that the senator called him before he endorsed Lamont last summer, asking for his support based on the cordial relationship forged when both men were seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
But Gerstein on Tuesday said, "Senator Lieberman in no way asked Reverend Sharpton for his support" and the reverend was "a partisan supporter of Ned Lamont trying to create a diversion."
Rev. Sharpton could not be reached for comment Tuesday.The open letter was prompted by an Oct. 5 New York Times account of a fundraiser the previous day at the Loew’s Regency Hotel that was geared toward Jewish donors and supporters of Israel.
According to the report, Lieberman, running as an independent against Democratic nominee Lamont, told supporters that his opponent was "surrounded by people who are either naive or isolationists or, frankly, some more explicitly against Israel."
He did not include Rev. Sharpton in that category. But shortly thereafter Lieberman said the reverend’s appearance with Lamont at his victory celebration was "a remarkable moment," without elaborating.
"For you to … turn around and try to demonize someone you yourself had befriended and were comfortable enough to talk to at any time either of us reached out to one another was unimaginable to me …," Rev. Sharpton wrote. "You never once attacked or questioned my commitment to Israel or any racial group in private or public. In fact, you commended my 2001 trip to Israel as a guest of the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, where I denounced terrorism. To now rewrite history and play on peoples’ fear for petty political gain is abhorrent."
Asked if the senator considered the reverend a friend, Gerstein said, "He does not appreciate some of the comments Reverend Sharpton has been making."
Tying Lamont to Rev. Sharpton, a polarizing figure among many white voters, particularly Jews, seems to be a key strategy for Lieberman in the final stretch of his stormy re-election bid, in which he’s been on the defensive for supporting Bush administration policies, especially the decision to invade Iraq.
In a statement published in the New York Post and Daily News Tuesday, a Lieberman spokeswoman, Tammy Sun, referred to Rev. Sharpton as "one of Ned Lamont’s closest advisors" and dismissed his letter as "a baseless, extreme and divisive attack."
Former mayor Ed Koch, a Lieberman supporter, was at the breakfast but said he did not recall the senator’s remarks about Reverend Sharpton. "I don’t think he said anything that Al Sharpton should feel insulted about," Koch said Tuesday. The former mayor said he did not feel Sharpton was a supporter of Israel. "I have never heard him say anything pro Israel," Koch said. He later added: "But I wouldn’t say he is anti-Israel either."
In his letter and in other public comments Reverend Sharpton said he disagreed with Lieberman’s support for the war and his opposition to affirmative action but considered him a decent man, noting the senator’s participation as a young man in civil rights activities in the Deep South."
"Little did I know that you would adapt the political strategies of those southern bigots you marched against," Reverend Sharpton wrote.
Jeff Wiesenfeld, a Lieberman supporter who organized last week’s breakfast at the Loew’s Regency Hotel in Manhattan said that even if Lieberman had befriended the reverend, it was not inconsistent to seek cordial ties with him while expressing concern about him before a Jewish audience.
"Everyone that I have worked for has had some kind of conversation with Al Sharpton," said Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Koch, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki and other politicians. "But there is a difference between having a conversation behind the scenes that might be useful on both sides in a limited context and campaigning with someone. It’s sending a signal on a wholly different level when you appear with someone in campaign mode."
Wiesenfeld said his fundraiser took in about $105,000 for the senator’s campaign, in which he appears to have a comfortable lead over Lamont, the founder of a telecommunications company and former Greenwich selectman. Republican Alan Schlesinger holds a distant third place in the race.
It remains to be seen whether Rev. Sharpton will further involve himself in the Connecticut Senate race, or what impact it could have on the dynamics of the contest.
Scoring points with angry, left-wing, anti-war Democrats who defeated Lieberman in last summerís primary may prove to be an irresistible appeal, says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.
"Whether Lamont is going to win or lose, Sharpton can ask himself, ‘Will I benefit myself by backing Lamont and going after Lieberman?’" said Sabato. "Within the ranks of Democratic activists, the answer is clearly yes. Lieberman is enormously unpopular with the activists who run the party, especially at the grassroots. The grassroots are, in part, Sharpton’s constituency.
"So lining up behind Lamont and taking some hard shots at Lieberman helps Sharpton, regardless of what happens on Nov. 7."