NEW YORK, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- The New York City mayoral race in 2001 was the latest demonstration of three generally unacknowledged truths about the Rev. Al Sharpton: Journalists love him and cover him obsessively, he spends his time shooting his own party's candidates in the back and his influence on actual voters remains fairly small.
Sharpton's ability to generate controversy and thus coverage has led both politicians and journalists to overrate his actual influence.
Thus, Sharpton's endorsement of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer was widely credited for Ferrer's late surge in the polls that carried him within 18,000 votes of winning the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City.
But Sharpton's electoral support has been tested three times, and while it is not insubstantial, it is also sharply limited. The number of New York City votes for him has not been affected by turnout:
Sharpton Total Percent Sharpton
1992 Senate: 136,118 656,283 20.7
1994 Senate: 136,990 419,018 32.7
1997 Mayor: 131,848 411,459 32.0
The consistency of votes for Sharpton was true at the level of boroughs and assembly districts as well.
Was Ferrer's surge at the polls attributable to his endorsement by Sharpton?
Focus groups in the spring showed the Green campaign that Ferrer was probably his most dangerous opponent, and that he would have run better if he had simply run as the most liberal Democrat, rather than trying to appeal to blacks with a campaign for "the other New York." Most public opinion polls had Ferrer running second in the Democratic primary all year.
As it was, Sharpton spent months teasing the Ferrer campaign and yanking the candidate's chain with demands that if accepted would have destroyed Ferrer's chances.
Despite the alleged appeal of a coalition of "people of color," Ferrer began to move close to Green in the polls not with the endorsement of Sharpton, but when a group of black officials, led by Congressman Charles Rangel of Harlem, endorsed him, Sharpton endorsed Ferrer because he was surging in the polls. But everyone, including Ferrer, mistook the bandwagon rider for the reason the wagon was moving.
Ferrer unnecessarily played up Sharpton's role in his campaign, while Green supporters unnecessarily used Sharpton against Ferrer, whose talk of "two cities" had already upset the majority of white Democrats.
The use of Sharpton against Ferrer made it possible for Sharpton to attack Green in the general election as being a "racist," and to call for his supporters to sit on their hands. But there was nothing new about this. In 1986, fueled by some timely cash for his own operations, Sharpton endorsed incumbent Republican Sen. Al D'Amato against Democratic candidate Green. In 1992, after losing the senatorial primary to Attorney General Robert Abrams (who had been his foe in the Tawana Brawley case), he told his supporters to stay at home.
In 1994, two weeks before New York's gubernatorial election, Sharpton spoke at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, likening incumbent Democrat Mario Cuomo's black supporters to a "battered and betrayed spouse," and asked voters to write in his name instead of voting for Cuomo. The newly elected Republican Gov. George Pataki, in his first week as governor, received Sharpton in the governor's mansion.
In 1997, when Ruth Messinger won a bare margin in the Democratic mayoral primary, Sharpton dragged out his vague claims of racism and unfairness for a month, hurting the small chance she had to make any kind of showing against incumbent Rudy Giuliani.
In other words, Sharpton's attacks on Green tell us more about Sharpton than about Green. For Sharpton, it is his standard operating procedure in every campaign. He is indeed a double-barreled weapon -- for the Republicans. Not only do they get to attack the Democrats for paying court to him, but in every general election campaign he is busy shooting the Democratic candidate in the back.
The obvious question one should ask is: how effective was Sharpton in hurting Green? The answer is -- not very.
There are 10 Assembly Districts -- of the 61 in New York City -- that gave Sharpton a majority in all three of his races for office. These 10 overwhelmingly black ADs include four in southeastern Queens, five in north Brooklyn and the central Harlem AD.
These ADs voted 88.0 percent for David Dinkins, 73.9 percent for Ruth Messinger, and 71.6 percent for Mark Green. Green actually got 4,000 more votes in these districts than Messinger did, while abstentions dropped by 1,000, and Bloomberg got 8,000 more votes.
Given that Bloomberg was a far-less racially polarizing figure than Giuliani, it would have been natural to expect that he would have done better than the incumbent in minority areas, and worse than the incumbent in white area. That is exactly what happened.
Ironically, by joining the losing Latino politicians in complaining about racism, it is possible that Sharpton hurt Green more among Latinos and liberal whites than he did among his "own" voters.
But, on the basis of the vote in his "home base," one could well say that Sharpton's direct impact on the actual election result was just about zero.
One suspects, however, that this is an inconvenient truth that the media will continue to ignore. After all, Sharpton is good copy, and confrontation attracts audiences.
So, the symbiotic relationship between the media and Sharpton will continue, and both will ignore the lack of evidence that his antics have much influence upon voters.
(UPI National Political Analyst Jim Chapin is a native New Yorker and a historian who has been involved in Democratic politics for three decades. Before joining UPI, he was senior policy adviser to New York City Public Advocate Mark Green. His column on New York politics appears weekly.)