The Rev. Al Sharpton yesterday accused presidential rival Howard Dean of having "an anti-black agenda" and criticized a fellow black leader, Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois, for announcing plans to endorse Dean.
In a news release headlined "Sharpton Rips Dean," the minister and candidate for the Democratic nomination highlighted a 1994 CNN interview in which Dean was quoted as supporting affirmative action based on class, not race. He also noted the former Vermont governor's support for gun rights and the death penalty under certain circumstances, issues that resonate among blacks who point to statistics showing the punishment disproportionately affects African-Americans, as does gun violence..
"Any so-called African-American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights and social justice, to back a candidate whose record on issues of critical importance to us is no better than that of George W. Bush," Sharpton said in a statement.
In an interview with the Globe, Sharpton denied any personal animosity toward Jackson, declaring, "I respect the congressman." Some political analysts say they believe Sharpton is trying to use his campaign to usurp the political influence of the congressman's father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who elevated his national profile with bids for the White House in 1984 and 1988.
Sharpton's statement lashed out at the younger Jackson for saying he planned to support Dean because he has "the best chance to be the next president of the United States."
In the statement, Sharpton said: "If nominating the candidate with the best chance of beating Reagan and Bush were the standard in '84 and '88, Jesse Jackson Sr. would have had no support at all."
Jesse Jackson Jr. did not respond to a request for comment, but his spokesman, Frank Watkins, told the Associated Press that Jackson plans to support Dean because he "doesn't put his finger in the air to test the wind before he takes a stand." The Dean campaign also did not return a call seeking comment, but deputy campaign manager Andi Pringle told the AP that Dean's position on affirmative action is "clear, unwavering, and documented."
The younger Jackson lauded Dean as he introduced the former governor Monday night before a predominantly black audience at Chicago State University.
Jackson later told The New York Times he would make a more formal announcement of his endorsement within the next two weeks.
"I'm not wasting my time with any more non-straight-talking candidates," the congressman told the university audience. "I've seen him stand up for health care. I've seen him stand up for students. I've seen him stand up for ordinary Americans. I'm asking you to stand up for Howard Dean."
Dean, who comes from a largely white state, has been courting support among black leaders. Over the weekend, he was escorted to two Detroit churches by another black member of Congress, Representative John Conyers of Michigan.
Such high-profile support could be critical to Dean's chances on Feb. 3, when the nomination contest moves to South Carolina, a state in which blacks have been a majority of Democratic primary voters. All the candidates have been courting the elder Jackson, who has yet to make an endorsement.
In debates, Dean and Sharpton have clashed over affirmative action, providing Internet service to minority communities, and Dean's comments about the Middle East.
In the interview, Sharpton said his statement merely held Dean to the same standard the former governor was applying to rivals such as Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and retired Army general Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas.
"Governor Dean has been blasting everybody this whole week," Sharpton said. "So, clearly, he can't ask people not to raise his record when he's been the one sharply attacking Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Clark on their record. I mean, clearly, this is time for everybody to be accountable for what they have done."
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.