Not even Al Sharpton thought that his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination was about winning the White House. But Sharpton fell embarrassingly short of his more modest goal -- to become a major national player. His campaign fizzled with African Americans more intent on ousting George W. Bush than sending a message to the party Establishment. With black primary voters overwhelmingly supporting Senator John Kerry, Sharpton now has just 25 delegates, vs. 1,218 Jesse Jackson in 1988. "Black voters had a candidate, but it wasn't Sharpton," says David A. Bositis of the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies in Washington.
Sharpton's belly flop means that the role of Jackson successor is up for grabs. There are, however, a number of candidates ready to step into the spotlight -- some experienced operatives, others national newcomers. In contrast to preachers-turned-pols, many of the new leaders have graduated from grassroots politics and the Ivy League.
Perhaps the most promising is Barack Obama, a charismatic Illinois state senator who won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate on Mar. 17. Obama, 42, the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, will become an instant national figure if he wins what is shaping up as a hotly contested race against Republican Jack Ryan this November. Clearly, he's prepping for the part. "It's an embarrassment to the entire Senate that we don't have a single African American, a single Latino, and only 14 women," Obama told BusinessWeek. "I intend to give voice to those men on the street corners who have no work and very little hope."
That kind of rhetoric makes Obama a liberal darling. But he also has earned a reputation as an innovative legislator who can cross party lines and build coalitions. Under his leadership, Illinois became the first state to require that all police questioning in capital cases be videotaped.
The 2004 election also could prove pivotal to another rising black star. Representative Harold F. Ford Jr. (Tenn.), the 2000 keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, is co-chair of Kerry's Presidential bid. If Kerry wins, Ford, 33, a University of Pennsylvania grad and member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog congressional coalition, would be in line for a Cabinet post. Even if Kerry loses, Ford -- a booster of capital-gains tax cuts and educational vouchers -- could lay the groundwork for a possible Senate run in 2006.
Still, many veteran black pols see Ford as "too young and too conservative," says University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, a longtime Jackson adviser. To them, Representative Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Ways & Means Committee and a prolific fund-raiser for fellow Dems, remains America's most revered black elected official.
Another possible heir to the Jackson mantle is NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former Democratic congressman from Baltimore. Mfume ran a highly effective, nominally nonpartisan registration and get-out-the-vote effort in 2000 that Republicans say helped Al Gore win several battleground states. He is planning an even larger push this year.
Of course, a Republican sweep could postpone the hopes of this new generation of black politicians. But a Democratic tide this fall could help lift up a leader who might succeed where Sharpton failed. Plenty of economists downplay the impact of job outsourcing, yet its political significance can't be ignored. Some 83% of Americans say it's an important issue in this year's election, and 47% of voters fear that they, a relative, or a friend will have their job shipped overseas, according to a Mar. 26-28 Gallup Poll. And it's not just Democratic-leaning union members who are worried. Almost three-fourths of those earning $75,000 and up say that it's an important voting factor. The good news for Republicans -- at least for now: Highly educated swing voters and party loyalists are much less concerned about losing their jobs than they were just a month ago. Corporate lobbyists have been pushing the White House for years to make universal broadband service a national policy priority. Still, it came as a shock to many of President Bush's tech and telecom allies when their candidate made the long-awaited announcement on Mar. 26 during an event in New Mexico that focused on homeownership. So why was Bush's 2007 target date for universal, affordable broadband service unveiled so abruptly? Sources tell BusinessWeek that Bush campaign officials feared that Democratic rival Senator John Kerry would beat them to the punch at a scheduled Mar. 29 appearance in Silicon Valley. So they rushed out their announcement without making the usual courtesy calls to corporate executives who had been working behind the scenes for years to shape a new broadband policy.