As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fight to win endorsements from black leaders before South Carolina’s Democratic primary, Al Sharpton is on the fence.
Washington, D.C. — It was meant to be Bernie Sanders’s chance to demonstrate his familiarity with the issues facing African Americans. But when Sanders met with civil-rights leaders at the National Urban League’s D.C. headquarters on Thursday, all eyes were on Al Sharpton. The reverend had participated in a similar gathering with Hillary Clinton earlier in the week, and seemed to suggest then that Clinton had already earned his endorsement. “Only you know, and you’re not telling,” he said playfully, pointing to Clinton as they left their Harlem meeting on Tuesday.
That exchange gave the wrong impression, Sharpton says Thursday. “I told her and Sanders that I was not making an endorsement until after we have put forward what is in our interest as a community,” he tells National Review, saying he wants the issues to take precedence over the horse race — at least for now. Still, it looks almost certain that Sharpton will endorse one of the two remaining Democratic candidates. And he made it abundantly clear Thursday that he plans to use his clout with the African American community on behalf of whomever he ultimately chooses to support. When National Urban League president Marc Morial stressed that the leaders in attendance represented non-partisan organizations that do not endorse a candidate, Sharpton was quick to add a caveat. “Even though each organization does not endorse, some of us may individually,” he said. He later told reporters he’d be making up his mind between Clinton and Sanders “in the next day or so.”
“He has the ear of black America,” says Dominic Hawkins, a Sharpton spokesman, pointing out that the reverend is syndicated in over 40 media markets, “including many in South Carolina.” Though he says Sharpton could still decide to forgo a “formal endorsement,” Hawkins promises that the reverend has every intention of using his public platform to influence the Democratic race’s outcome in South Carolina and beyond. The timing of Thursday’s meeting is no accident. It comes one week after Sanders met privately with Sharpton in New York City, two days after Clinton met with an almost-identical group of leaders, and just over one week before South Carolina Democrats vote on February 27. Black voters make up 55 percent of the Palmetto State’s Democratic electorate, meaning endorsements from African-American leaders — especially those as well known and influential as Sharpton — are a precious commodity there.
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