The man who embodied New York’s bad old days of the 1980s now wields influence as never before—at City Hall and in the White House.
By Heather Mac Donald
The Rev. Al Sharpton once epitomized New York’s bad old days of the 1980s, when the then-corpulent, gold-medallion-bedecked tub thumper inflamed racial hatred and courted violence. Today, against all expectations and at least 100 pounds lighter, he has been rehabilitated into the Democratic Party’s civil-rights leader of choice. Has Mr. Sharpton changed or simply outlasted his critics?
President Obama ’s embrace of Mr. Sharpton has been particularly intense this year. On Monday he called Mr. Sharpton’s radio show to discuss the Nov. 4 elections. In April the president appeared at a political rally organized by Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network. Mr. Obama’s closest adviser, Valerie Jarrett, conferred with Mr. Sharpton in August about the police killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., as Mr. Sharpton led protests against the Ferguson police.
The Democratic establishment is just as obsequious. It turned out in force earlier this month to celebrate Mr. Sharpton’s 60th birthday party at New York’s tony Four Seasons restaurant. Hillary Clinton phoned in with best wishes. Barack and Michelle Obama sent a congratulatory letter. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gushed: “He’s the nation’s Rev. Sharpton—and the nation is better for it.” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman , Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand , and Reps. Charles Rangel and Jerry Nadler rushed to pay their respects.
Worrying as it might be for America to see Mr. Sharpton catapulted into the national limelight, that is nothing compared with the alarm felt by many New Yorkers now witnessing his emergence as a political power in their city.
When New Yorkers elected Bill de Blasio as mayor last year, they knew they were getting a self-styled “progressive” who pledged to soak the rich and shackle the New York Police Department. What they didn’t know was that they were also voting to bring Al Sharpton and his influence into the very heart of City Hall. The mayor’s alliance with the racial provocateur is now creating the biggest crisis of his mayoralty.
So far Mr. de Blasio is pretending not to notice. As the crisis escalated, involving a former Sharpton aide now working for the mayor’s wife, Mr. de Blasio ladled on the praise at the Four Seasons. “Al Sharpton has been a blessing for this city,” the mayor enthused. “He’s been a blessing for this nation. And the more people criticize him, the more I want to hang out with him. Because a lot of times, just look who’s doing the criticizing and the way they’re saying it—it makes you realize the Rev must be doing something right. You know, sometimes, your enemies are the best endorsers of the righteousness of your actions.”
Where to start in evaluating what a “blessing” Al Sharpton has been to New York and America? For those who have forgotten or are too young to recall, here is a brief history of the man now so warmly embraced by the mayor, the governor and the president.
There was Mr. Sharpton’s frenzied involvement in the Tawana Brawley case. In 1987 Ms. Brawley, a 15-year-old African-American, concocted a tale of being raped by six white males. The allegation was ultimately revealed as a hoax, but not before Mr. Sharpton had commandeered the racially incendiary story and poured fuel on it by accusing a white county prosecutor of having been among the attackers. The prosecutor, Steven Pagones, won a defamation suit in 1998 against Mr. Sharpton, Ms. Brawley and her lawyers. Mr. Sharpton refused to pay the judgment against him, which was eventually discharged by a group of supporters.
In 1991 a Hasidic driver in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights accidentally ran onto a sidewalk and killed a 7-year-old black child named Gavin Cato. Mr. Sharpton led protesters in angry cries of “No justice, no peace,” criticized Jewish diamond merchants in the neighborhood for selling goods from apartheid South Africa, and spoke at a rally where a banner said, “Hitler did not do the job.” During three days of violence following the accident, rioters beat to death an Australian rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum.
In 1995 Mr. Sharpton led a protest in Harlem to stop a Jewish landlord—a “white interloper,” in Mr. Sharpton’s words—from evicting a black-operated record shop. One of the protesters would later set fire to the store, killing seven store employees.
Mr. Sharpton has never apologized for his involvement in the Brawley hoax. Nor has he taken responsibility for his agitation in Crown Heights.
In 2008 the Associated Press reported that Mr. Sharpton and his business entities owed nearly $1.5 million in taxes and penalties, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in fines for unpaid workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. By this year Mr. Sharpton’s tax liabilities had ballooned to $4.7 million, according to the New York Post. He still owes the Federal Election Commission $208,000 for the improper use of campaign money during his 2004 presidential bid.
Not relevant, apparently, to Mr. Sharpton’s increasing reach into Democratic circles. Mr. Sharpton believes that New York’s mayor owes him his job—a belief shared, it seems, by Mr. de Blasio himself. Mr. Sharpton pointedly declined to endorse the sole black candidate in the Democratic primary last year. That left the field open for a late-surging Mr. de Blasio, who had run a demagogic campaign against the New York Police Department, denouncing its stop-question-and-frisk policies as racist. Candidate de Blasio also pandered to black voters by prominently featuring his biracial son in campaign ads. “We won the election,” Mr. Sharpton later told CBS New York.
Mr. de Blasio’s first offering of thanks was to hire Mr. Sharpton’s longtime public-relations adviser as his wife’s $170,000-a-year chief of staff. Such a position was unprecedented, but the choice of Rachel Noerdlinger to fill it was even more startling. It put an Al Sharpton confidante at the center of city power.
Next, Mayor de Blasio implied that Mr. Sharpton was a major player in police affairs. In late July the mayor convened a meeting of “community advocates” to discuss the death of a black man following the man’s arrest for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. Mr. Sharpton’s inevitable protests against the NYPD had blamed the death on the enforcement of public-order laws, including the ban on selling loose cigarettes. Such enforcement is key to “broken windows” policing—stopping minor crimes as a way of preventing major ones.
Mr. Sharpton was led in to the mayor’s community meeting by his former aide, Ms. Noerdlinger, and seated on Mr. de Blasio’s left, with Police Commissioner William Bratton , serving his second tour as New York’s top law officer, on the mayor’s right. The symbolism was lost on no one, least of all police officers. The next day, a mock NYPD identification card circulated through police headquarters showing Mr. Sharpton as commissioner.
By the time of the Four Seasons birthday blowout, the mayor’s Noerdlinger-Sharpton connection was turning toxic. As the local press reported, the 43-year-old single mother had failed to disclose in her City Hall background check that she was living with an unemployed ex-convict who had served time for fatally shooting a man over a jacket and for drug dealing. The boyfriend, Hassaun McFarlan, had referred to the police as “pigs” on his now-vanished Facebook page.
Ms. Noerdlinger had received a waiver of the city’s residency requirement by citing her teenage son’s need to continue a physical-therapy regime in New Jersey following a traffic accident. She didn’t mention that he was fit enough to play linebacker on his high-school football team. Like Mr. McFarlan, that son has referred to the police as “pigs” on social media, and he has tweeted: “I’m convinced all white people are the devil.”
Ms. Noerdlinger has a federal tax lien against her, typical of the Sharpton inner circle, but failed to report it to the city’s conflict of interest board. She has been involved to varying degrees in McFarlan-related dust-ups with the law, including hundreds of dollars in unpaid traffic tickets issued to her Mercedes-Benz since her City Hall job began.
Mayor de Blasio has refused to discuss the implications for his administration of these and other revelations. Nor has he disciplined Ms. Noerdlinger for her multiple omissions on city background checks.
Police morale is plummeting, given the mayor’s stubborn allegiance to a former Sharpton aide and the seeming elevation of Mr. Sharpton to near-parity with Police Commissioner Bratton. Cops in certain high-crime precincts have all but abandoned pedestrian stops, which candidate de Blasio had so fiercely criticized.
As for Mr. Sharpton, he portrays the Noerdlinger fiasco as a conspiracy to bring down the de Blasio mayoralty and Mr. Sharpton’s connection to it. After leading a few rounds of “no justice, no peace” on a recent Saturday at his National Action Network headquarters—still little more than a shabby storefront despite the millions shoveled into it by supplicant corporate donors—Mr. Sharpton told his supporters: “They will keep trying to prevent [the mayor] from transforming this city, whether it’s Rachel”—Ms. Noerdlinger—“or it’s someone else. When Mayor de Blasio and his wife reached out and said they wanted Rachel to come, I said: ‘Don’t think that they won’t put a target on your back. They’ll find something. They gonna think I cut some deal.’ ”
The longer Mayor de Blasio sticks by Ms. Noerdlinger, the more it will appear that the mayor did cut a deal. But firing her would invite Mr. Sharpton’s wrath, jeopardizing Mr. de Blasio’s hopes for a second term. Worse, Mr. Sharpton is demanding an end to broken-windows policing, while Commissioner Bratton has vowed to continue it. Mayor de Blasio cannot satisfy both men.
Despite Mr. Sharpton’s current mainstream patina, his stock-in-trade has changed little from his Tawana Brawley-Crown Heights days, as the disintegration of his inflammatory narrative about the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., demonstrates. Apart from rare forays into the rhetoric of personal responsibility, he still peddles the dangerous lie that police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men and that racial discrimination is the main force holding blacks back.
In fact, it is other young black men who are responsible for the high homicide risk faced by black teens, and it is proactive policing that has dramatically reduced that risk, saving thousands of young lives in places like New York City. Mr. Sharpton’s longevity as a public figure rests on the enduring power of racial grievance to elevate those politicians who accede to it, while distracting attention from the family and social breakdown afflicting the black community. Mayor de Blasio’s Sharpton predicament is nevertheless a cautionary tale about the risks of getting too close to the Reverend Al.
Ms. Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.