“I want to make a difference” is a common statement of purpose for coming to work in the nation’s capital. Al Sharpton, no stranger to Washington during the Obama years, wants to make a difference. But given his track record, it will be the wrong kind. Last Wednesday and Thursday, July 8-9, Sharpton, under the banner of his New York City-based nonprofit National Action Network, sponsored a “Legislative and Policy Conference” on Capitol Hill. The well-attended event amplified his campaign to expand race-based affirmative action to uncharted areas of voting, sentencing, welfare reform and other policy areas. A parade of guest speakers urged the audience to pressure Congress to act. Like all of Reverend Al’s gambits, the campaign flies under the flag of “justice.” But given the planned core activity – lobbying – he may be skirting the law.
National Legal and Policy Center often has noted in recent years that Reverend Al Sharpton, a black civil rights leader with a long history of incendiary and criminal behavior, and damaging results, has gone respectable. That is, though he has not softened in his conviction that whites owe blacks huge monetary, legal and emotional debts, he has modified his public image. His loud, flamboyant, menacing style of the Eighties and Nineties has given way to something resembling self-restraint and open-mindedness, even though he remains in deep tax arrears to federal and New York State authorities to an estimated tune of $4.5 million. The image makeover has worked wonders. And because he is less extreme in appearance, he is more dangerous in fact. This was a central point of my book, Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise, published early this year by National Legal and Policy Center.
Now 60, Sharpton isn’t just a part of today’s political mainstream; he provides much of its current. He enjoys regular personal access to President Obama and other top administration officials, many of whom (including Obama himself) have been guest speakers at NAN events. Obama’s choice of Loretta Lynch nearly a year ago to replace Eric Holder as U.S. attorney general would not have happened without Sharpton’s approval. Sharpton, who long ago discarded track suits and medallions for power suits and ties, for many years has hosted a syndicated radio talk show. And for the last four years he has anchored a weekday evening news and commentary show, “PoliticsNation,” on MSNBC-TV. His National Action Network brought in around $5 million in 2013, according to the nonprofit monitoring group Guidestar.
Al Sharpton arguably is the most powerful black civil rights leader in U.S. history, more powerful even than his early mentors Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. Corporate executives, rather than arouse his (and his followers’) ire, usually wilt in the face of his demands and donate funds to NAN. To such executives, it’s an inexpensive way of avoiding a boycott and other bad publicity that could affect their bottom line. Reverend Al Sharpton’s native turf is New York City. He was born and raised there. During his grammar school years he was known to local blacks as the “boy wonder preacher.” The majority of his misguided mass protest campaigns over the past 30 years have occurred in Manhattan or the outer boroughs. His National Action Network is headquartered on West 145th Street in Harlem. Yet during the Obama years Sharpton has established a parallel and growing Washington, D.C. presence. He has visited the Obama White House, whether to talk with the president or someone else, dozens of times. And National Action Network a few years ago opened its Washington bureau. Located at 818 18th Street NW, Suite 850, the bureau is headed by NAN’s national executive director, Janaye Ingram. Back in 2012, NAN held its annual April conference at the Washington Convention Center rather than its usual Sheraton Times Square Hotel venue in midtown Manhattan.
The intent is clear: Al Sharpton intends to be, and remain for a long time, a prime mover in Washington politics, regardless of which party wins the White House next year. He knows that to achieve victories, he has to focus on the legislative as well as the executive branch. Toward that end, he and the National Action Network team held a Legislative & Policy Conference last Wednesday and Thursday on Capitol Hill. Bankrolled by PepsiCo – participants received a PepsiCo logo notebook and nylon tote bag – the theme was “From Demonstration to Legislation.” Marching and chanting in the streets is fine, Sharpton and his allies argued, but activists also need to make lawmakers feel heat.
Wednesday’s presentations were held on the House of Representatives side of Capitol Hill in Room 2168 (“the Gold Room”) of the Rayburn Office Building; Thursday’s presentations were held in Room G-50 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The man’s got his bases covered. That’s kind of the problem. The July 8 cover letter to “NAN Members & Friends” summarized the conference mission. It read:
On the behalf of National Action Network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau, it is our pleasure to welcome you to this year’s Legislative & Policy Conference. Our ongoing theme, “From Demonstration to Legislation,” expresses the sense of action and advocacy we are bringing to Washington, D.C. and reflects where we need to go with our activism. As leaders within our communities it is our obligation to seek enactment and enforcement of federal, state, and local laws securing and promoting civil rights. Overall, this conference is designed to allow constituents to interact with elected Members of Congress, fellow activists and advocates alike and to work on concrete ways to achieve Dr. King’s dream. It is vital that we continue to advocate for legislative policies that protect our rights on matters such as a fair criminal justice system, access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and an equitable public education. National Action Network continues the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights, for equal justice under the law, and for a stronger and more hopeful America. It (is) our intent that this conference will further equip you with the knowledge and the tools necessary to actively engage elected officials and organize efforts around the cause of justice.
National Action Network put words into action. NAN reserved the 3 PM-4:30 time slot on July 8 for visits to House of Representatives offices and the 1 PM-2:30 PM time slot on July 9 for visits to Senate offices. Moreover, NAN local chapter leaders had the opportunity during 3:30 PM-5 P.M. on July 9 to attend a White House meeting. What we have here, then, are the makings of a large-scale lobbying operation. And given that 13 members of Congress were listed attendees/speakers, NAN has a head start. Indeed, Sharpton has a seal of approval from congressional leaders – how else was he able to hold this shindig in the Rayburn and Dirksen office buildings? Participating Representatives were: G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.); Judy Chu (D-Calif.); James Clyburn (D-S.C.); Keith Ellison (D-Minn.); Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.); John Conyers (D-Mich.); Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.); Terri Sewell (D-Ala.); and Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Participating Senators were: Gary Peters (D-Mich.); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.); and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
Sharpton’s views, and the way he expresses them, far from being wild and eccentric, have become the standard adopted by the Democratic Party and, in more muted tones, a sizable faction of the Republican Party. Given Sharpton’s long history of violating election and tax laws, all of this ought to raise a red flag. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, as amended by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, states that all congressional lobbyists must register with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate. To fail to do so is punishable by a civil fine of up to $50,000. The law defines a “lobbyist” as a person: 1) employed or retained by a client for persuasion services involving more than one contact; or 2) engaged in such activity at least 20 percent of work time over a given six-month period.
Reverend Al might not like to use the word “lobbyists,” but that’s pretty much what he wants NAN members to become. If his mission statement is evidence enough, the sample “NAN Congressional Visit Form” included in attendee packets is even more compelling. The one-page National Action Network-logo sheet provides space for a visitor to indicate the date of visit, the name of the senator/representative (with corresponding state or district), and whether the lawmaker is a sponsor/co-sponsor of the bill in question. The form then asks the visitor, in a “yes” or “no” format: “Did you meet with member?,” “Did you meet with staff?,” “Did staff join the meeting?,” and “Was the member/staff knowledgeable about the issue?” It then asks: “What is the member’s position?” (“Support” or “Does not support?”) and “How long did the meeting last?” Finally, the form leaves six blank lines to summarize the meeting and asks the visitor to indicate any planned follow-up actions, the choices of which are: “Schedule another meeting,” “Write an op-ed,” “Town hall meeting,” “Follow-up with staff,” and “Other.”
It would be difficult to avoid concluding that the activity described amounts to lobbying. It likewise would be difficult to avoid concluding that lobbying constitutes the bulk of a visitor’s time, well in excess of the 20 percent legal threshold. That Al Sharpton and top NAN officials are planning a lobbying blitz without necessarily complying with federal lobbying requirements is troubling enough. Every bit as troubling is the premise on which the lobbying rests: Nonwhites, especially blacks, systematically are being denied rights in this country, a situation requiring a radical rewriting of law and its enforcement. As someone who has attended many Sharpton-organized conferences during the past several years, I will guarantee that his intent, and that of his supporters, is not to protect individual rights for all Americans. It is to punish “white racism,” however imagined, if it can be shown to create or perpetuate statistical disparities by race. It is also to expand further the large and punitive affirmative action apparatus in this country. And it is to make impartial, race-neutral law enforcement virtually impossible. An army of civil rights lawyers and activists, at the U.S. Justice Department and elsewhere, would stand ready to “discover” smoking guns.
National Action Network from the very start has been a mix of black identity politics and progressive socialism – in that order of importance. While Leftist politics heavily define the NAN mission, the group exists primarily to serve the interests of blacks. Fittingly, almost all of the speakers at the conference were black, as were the vast majority of the roughly 75 to 100 persons in the audience. Having attended the conference, I can attest to how thoroughly the speakers constituted an echo chamber for the civil rights orthodoxy espoused by National Action Network and other black civil rights organizations. Indeed, at the doorway entrance, NAN staffers handed out NAACP advocacy briefs on a variety of bills before Congress.
Especially telling was the first House policy forum, “Criminal Justice and Community Policing.” The panel should be seen in the context of the recent deaths of black arrestees under (or facing) police custody in Ferguson (Mo.), Staten Island, North Charleston (S.C.) and Baltimore. In each case, the use of police force was justified, as the suspect had behaved in a highly unruly manner; in the case of Ferguson, the suspect was behaving violently and very likely would have killed the arresting officer. The refusal last fall by grand juries in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases, as I explained at length in my book and in NLPC articles, was fully justified, the products of exhaustive investigations. The five black activists who sat on the panel – Nicole Austin-Hillery (The Brennan Center); Tanya Clay-House (Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law); Hilary Shelton (NAACP); Mary-Pat Hector (NAN Youth Move); and Alexis Moore (Office of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.) – evidently didn’t think so. Each speaker denounced these cases as egregious examples of police brutality and institutional racism, when in fact they were nothing of the sort. Tanya Clay-House was particularly strident in her denunciations. As for National Action Network, it has gone on record as supporting Rep. Conyers’ Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act (H.R. 2875), which would establish federal guidelines for eliminating racial/ethnic bias for local police departments around the country; panelists expressed support for this measure.
The second forum, “Voting Rights,” proved no more satisfying. The four speakers – Lisa Bornstein (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights); Melanie Campbell (National Coalition of Black Civic Participation); Michele Jawando (Center for American Progress); and Brianna Patterson (Youth Move, Northeast Region) – each shared the view that blacks are being disenfranchised. As putative proof, they made frequent reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in June 2013, Shelby County v. Holder, which exempted certain states and localities from having to comply with the “preclearance” mandate contained in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. (Actually, the court invalidated Section 4(b) of the Act, effectively exempting affected jurisdictions from complying with Section 5 in lieu of congressional action.) The ruling, far from “disenfranchising” anyone, was overdue. Preclearance requirements, aside from carrying a presumption of guilt, had imposed an outdated formula. The VRA by then was saddling numerous jurisdictions with costly and time-consuming barriers to establishing voter eligibility standards. By making the preclearance process less burdensome, though without invalidating the process itself, the Supreme Court struck a modest blow for common sense. Outraged, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., a conference attendee, and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), are sponsoring legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S.1659), that would negate the ruling. This wasn’t the only ill-conceived aspect of this panel. Melanie Campbell called for lowering the voting age from 18 to 17 on grounds that the current threshold denies large numbers of people of color “access” to the voting booth. By such logic, why not lower the voting age to 13 or even less?
There was, of course, much more. The session on “Net Neutrality,” featuring Kim Keenan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Multicultural Media, Telecommunications and Internet Council, urged blacks to support a new rule approved this February by the Federal Communications Commission that would open the door for strict FCC oversight of online political content. A lunchtime documentary film, “Brave Spaces,” presented by Rev. MacArthur Flournoy on behalf of the gay rights nonprofit group, the Human Rights Campaign, functioned as a show of support by clergy for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) activism. Predominantly black panels on education, jobs/housing, and health/hunger further put forth the NAN agenda on social welfare programs – an agenda, as always, requiring vast hikes in government spending to benefit blacks.
All in all, the two-day event confirmed what long has been evident: National Action Network is building the infrastructure for a hard-Left victory coalition in the nation’s capital. The nonprofit group intends to shape our laws, administrative practices, court decisions and political culture. Al Sharpton not only fits into the mainstream; he’s re-channeling it. And Congress is letting him have all the building space he needs for that purpose. Principled opponents, if nothing else, should make sure that if his group’s activities qualify as lobbying, it must play by the rules for lobbyists.