Soundings

William J. Stern
The New York Democrats’ Real Problem
As they stampede leftward, they can’t do without Sharpton.
Winter 2002

No matter what he says or does, racial arsonist Al Sharpton remains a big player in New York politics. During the recent mayoral race, Sharpton—who wasn’t even running—received more media attention than any of the Democratic candidates, and way more than the eventual winner, Republican Michael Bloomberg. What accounts for his staying power?

To say that New York’s top Democratic politicians suck up to him, granting him legitimacy, is only to move the question back a notch, of course. After all, why do leading New York Democrats, including U.S. senator Chuck Schumer and state attorney general Eliot Spitzer, continue to seek Sharpton’s approval? Why does Sharpton’s support go beyond New York to the highest reaches of the national Democratic Party? After all, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe recently proclaimed that anyone who criticized the reverend wasn’t welcome in the party—the party Bill Clinton restored to electability by expelling rapper Sister Souljah from its ranks.

Democrats, both in New York and nationally, embrace Sharpton because they can no longer win elections without a super-majority among black voters. In the 2000 presidential race, Al Gore ran even with George W. Bush only because he got 95 percent of the black vote. Mark Green, the Democratic standard-bearer in November’s New York mayoral race, won more than 70 percent of black votes—a huge majority in the historical context of American elections—but it wasn’t enough. This need for an ultra-super-majority makes Democrats loath to criticize any black, no matter how extreme his views, for fear of losing even a handful of black votes.

How did the Democrats get into this mess? Look at New York’s recent Democratic mayoral primary and you’ll find the answer. At times, the four candidates seemed to be running for mayor of New York’s unionized government workers instead of all New Yorkers. On other occasions, they seemed to want to be mayor of all those citizens who receive transfer payments from government instead of those who work for a living. All four seemed indifferent—at best—in their commitment to fighting crime. If you were a middle-income person who worked in Gotham’s private sector and found the city’s taxes burdensome and believed in law and order, the Democratic candidates not only had nothing to say to you—they didn’t even seem to care if you existed. Only special interests counted.

As a result, two key Democratic constituencies—white Catholics and Jews, who tend overwhelmingly to fit this middle-income profile—have now voted Republican in four straight mayoral elections. And as Catholics and Jews drift away from the Democrats, the party has been willing to pander ever more to Sharpton, disturbing Catholic and Jewish voters even more. It’s a vicious circle for the Democrats. New York’s politics would be a lot healthier if the party did a little soul-searching and tried to escape it.

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