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  Dossier #1: Reverend Al Sharpton, Reformer
On May 17th I attended the annual New York Fair Elections Project Conference. The event was held in Manhattan at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. This year's topic was "Campaign Finance Reform and Communities of Color". Last year's featured speaker was New York State Comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Carl McCall. This year's star was the Reverend Al Sharpton. What a difference a year makes. Especially in the world of politics. I was particularly interested in this year's topic, because campaign finance reform has not been a popular issue with many political representatives of communities of color. Stop here to wonder who coins names like "communities of color". It suggests a home decorating slogan from an old House & Garden: "Towels & Throw Rugs in Complimentary Tones Can Turn Your Bathroom into a Community of Color!" The phrase may be an attempt to replace the often inaccurate, "minority community". But COC? Not only is it awkward, but those who belong to communities of color, are of course, "people of color". How far is that from "colored people"? Which went out with separate drinking fountains.

I was also interested in seeing Reverend Al Sharpton in an up close speaking situation. I thought I might find him compelling, with some over arching message that transcended his specifics. Political meaning is sometimes a matter of essence, as well as ideology. And one incisive aspect of a politician can be more meaningful than the whole. I also believe people can change. But though Reverend Al was sleeker than he was in the days when he paraded Tawana Brawley through the streets, the only thing compelling or meaningful about him was his awfulness.

Immediately upon hitting the dais, His Awfulness launched into a tirade about reformers who advocate campaign finance reform but who, in his opinion, were suspect on race. Such as Senator John McCain. Sharpton implied strongly that McCain's campaign finance reform interests were meant to secretly advance a racist agenda. From that high point, Sharpton moved on to another suspect reformer: Corey Booker in Newark, New Jersey. Corey Booker is a black Democrat and Newark city councilman who recently challenged incumbent Sharpe James (also black, also a Democrat) in the Newark Mayoral race. Booker, a relative unknown, lost. But not before running a surprisingly competitive race, basing his campaign on two main issues: James' uneven economic development record in Newark (big, connected, downtown projects got jazzed, nabes got crumbs) and crime in poor neighborhoods. One of the ways Booker addressed crime when a councilman, was to set up camp in a RV outside of housing projects awash in unchecked drug trade. Which made him quite popular with besieged project residents. Booker has only lived in Newark for 4 or 5 years. Newark born Sharpe James attacked him as an outsider. As did Al Sharpton-- from the dais of an event partially funded by the "Open Society Institute". According to His Awfulness, reform leadership is only valid if it grows from within an established, on-site political community. He illustrated with an analogy about how when Moses died, Joshua was picked to lead the Hebrews, as opposed to someone from Pharaoh's army. The allusion, with its enemy army image, meshed with Sharpton's declaration that Booker was "sent" to Newark and bankrolled by mysterious "outside" money. Booker did receive financial support from non Newark residents. Some with fish to fry. But Sharpe James also received outside donations. Plenty of them. Plus, Jersey Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey stopped by right before the election to deliver a tax payer funded mega stadium. And if valid reform leadership can only spring from within an on-site political community, many Americans would still be calling Jeff Davis' descendants "Master".

Though broader participation was regarded with suspicion, a campaign reform concept that seemed of genuine interest to Al Sharpton was public funding. Several New York State elected officials who preceded Sharpton seemed similarly minded. One called term limits "a way to keep us out of power". I truly hope that interest in "Campaign Finance Reform And Communities of Color" isn't based solely on a drive for government funded campaigns. Because that's least likely to achieve reform. When taxpayer dollars are used to fund anything, those in power can do wonders to direct the flow. We'd be taking the power to choose candidates out of the hands of business and entrenched politicians-- and shifting it totally to the politicians. Far better to stress stronger disclosure requirements and stricter contribution and soft money limits. Plus tougher prosecution of corrupt officials and public contractors. Death penalty, anyone? Less draconian term limits would also help.

The New York Fair Elections Project conference made clear the growth of Al Sharpton's political clout. The mood in the room was decidedly kiss up. Sharpton is increasingly seen as a Democratic king maker. But up close, it's obvious that for His Awfulness, the world will only fall into place when he himself mounts the throne. Let's hope he's just another megalomaniac with a wacky dream. On a bright note, ex New York City mayoral candidate Mark Green was in the audience and shot a zinger across the plate when he asked Sharpton to explain, factually, just who "sent" Corey Booker to Newark. For a moment Sharpton looked like Ralph Kramden. As in, humma humma humma. And the food at the conference was great. No rancid baloney for the New York City Bar Association. At least, not at the buffet table.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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Copyright (c) 2002 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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