Sharpton’s Man of the House: Serrano

Posted May 16, 2003 at 5:35pm

It looks like the Rev. Al Sharpton will have a super delegate.

“I plan to endorse him, yes,” Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) revealed last week in a casual discussion with reporters.

The endorsement would make Serrano the first Member of Congress to back the fiery street preacher, who is one of nine Democrats to declare for the 2004 presidential nomination thus far.

Serrano cast his support for Sharpton, who has carved out a niche at the left end of the field, as a means of helping to ensure that the reverend remains viable through the primaries.

This, he hopes, will force the other contenders to fight for backing from liberals who represent the most committed segment of voters in the party.

“I want the Democrats to be Democrats,” Serrano said of the presidential field. “Without Sharpton, they start to talk like Republicans.”

Sharpton emerged on the national scene in the 1980s as the rabble-rousing public representative for Tawana Brawley, a young black woman who initially claimed to have been raped by white police officers but ultimately admitted to perpetrating a hoax.

With that event as his stepping-stone, Sharpton gradually moved from activism into the political sphere, swapping out his trademark two-piece sweats for sharply tailored suits with pinstripe accents.

In a Democratic field that includes confirmed liberals such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), Sharpton has nevertheless solidified his credentials as the group’s uber-leftist with a mixture of economic progressivism and canny base politics, particularly in his voluble support for slavery reparations.

Serrano, who himself boasts of being one of the most liberal Members of Congress, previously backed Sharpton in New York’s 1997 Democratic mayoral primary, which Sharpton lost to Ruth Messinger, who was then Manhattan borough president.

Until 2001, Serrano had a long-standing feud with Sharpton’s campaign manager, former Bronx Democratic Party Chairman Roberto Ramirez. But Serrano and Ramirez came together during the racially divisive New York mayoral election that year, when they — and Sharpton — endorsed then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer (D) in a bitter Democratic primary runoff.

Serrano’s backing of Sharpton would leave only Kucinich and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) without any endorsements from Congress. Both of the latter campaigns have told Roll Call that they have not sought the backing of Members.

This demurral comes in spite of the fact that all Congressional lawmakers are awarded automatic delegate status at the 2004 national convention, where the party’s nominee is selected.

So far Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the former Minority Leader, has claimed the greatest number of endorsements from lawmakers, with 30. These include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).