Throughout the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vermont governor Howard Dean has displayed a tendency to wax self-righteous on the issue of race. He has claimed, falsely, that he is the only candidate to bring up the subject before white audiences. He has upbraided southerners for–in Dean’s estimation–deciding elections on “race, guns, God, and gays.” And he has famously proclaimed that “dealing with race is about educating white folks.”
But on Sunday night, at the minority-oriented debate sponsored by the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, Dean himself came in for a little educating.
His teacher was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who came to Iowa ready to scold Dean for not showing up last Friday at a candidates’ debate for the Washington, D.C. primary. Unlike the Iowa gathering, that event was, in fact, a non-debate, with just three of the Democratic candidates–Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Dennis Kucinich–bothering to show up. Nevertheless, Dean’s absence gave Sharpton an opening.
“I have to ask you this, Governor Dean, because I was disappointed you weren’t in Washington the other day,” Sharpton began. “You keep talking about talking about race. In the state of Vermont–where you were governor ‘97, ‘99, 2001–not one black or brown held a senior policy position, not one. You yourself said we must do something about it. Nothing was done. Can you explain–since now you want to convene everyone and talk about race, it seems as though you have discovered blacks and browns during this campaign.”
The audience began to laugh and applaud, and Sharpton asked again: “How you can explain not one black or brown working for your administration as governor?”
“Well, actually, I beg to differ with your statistics there,” Dean began.
Sharpton cut him off: “This is according to your paper in Vermont, the Associated Press, and the Center for Women in Government.”
“Well, perhaps you ought not to believe everything in the Associated Press,” Dean said.
“Oh, so you’re saying they’re incorrect?”
“We do have African-American and Latino workers in state government, including–”
“No, no, I said under your administration,” Sharpton interrupted. He then narrowed the category a bit, making it harder for Dean to answer. “Do you have a senior member of your cabinet that was black or brown?”
“We had a senior member of my staff on my fifth floor,” Dean said.
“No, your cabinet,” Sharpton insisted.
At last, Dean gave in. “No, we did not,” he admitted.
“Then you need to let me talk to you about race in this country,” Sharpton said.
At that point, Dean pulled out a line he has used throughout the campaign to claim solid racial bona fides even though he lives and works in a virtually all-white state. “Well, let me just say one thing, which I have said before but I’ll say it again,” Dean said. “If the percentage of African Americans in your state was any indication of what your views on race were, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.”
In the past, Dean has scored some points, and deflected some attacks, with that argument. But this time, the audience didn’t buy it, and neither did Sharpton. “I don’t think that that answers the question,” he said to Dean. “I think if you’re talking–if you want to lecture people on race, you ought to have the background and track record in order to do that. And I think that clearly people–governors import talent, governors reach all over the country to make sure they have diversity. And I think that, while I respect the fact you brought race into this campaign, you ought to talk freely and openly about whether you went out of the box to try to do something about race in your home state and have experience with working with blacks and browns at peer level, not as just friends you might have had in college.”
The audience began to applaud. Dean was clearly back on his heels. There was a possibility for a real, live, confrontation, but debate host Lester Holt clumsily intervened, calling a halt and moving on to another question.
Later, Dean tried damage control. “I believe I have more endorsements from both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus than any other candidate on this stage,” he said. “And I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to civil rights in the United States of America.” But by that time, it was clear that Sharpton’s attack had taken its toll.
One striking thing about the exchange with Sharpton was that Dean alluded to, but chose not to use, the most common-sense explanation for the racial makeup of his state administration. Vermont is an overwhelmingly white state, he might have explained; there are very, very few black people there. In the 2000 census, the state’s population was 608,827. Of that, 3,063, or 0.5 percent, were black. In Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, according to the census, there were 52 black people in 2000.
Dean might have said that his cabinet did not look like America–in a phrase famously associated with a Democratic president–because Vermont does not look like America. Dean might have further explained that, although his motives might be good, the simple demographic facts of life in Vermont meant that he could not have much experience working with a racially diverse population.
Obviously, that would be a non-starter at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum. If he had stated the obvious, Dean would have undermined the months of confident proclamations about race that he has made on the campaign trail. So he invoked Martin Luther King and attempted to educate white folks a bit more.
And not only could Dean not really defend himself, he apparently felt he could not attack Sharpton, who by any standard should be the easiest candidate to attack. In addition to the well-known points on Sharpton’s résumé–Tawana Brawley, Crown Heights, the Korean grocery, any of which would be disqualifiers to a serious candidacy–Dean might have cited fresh evidence of Sharpton’s corruption, straight from the front page of Saturday’s New York Times.
The paper reported that as Sharpton “has struggled to raise contributions” for his candidacy, his campaign “has paid thousands of dollars for him to stay in luxury hotels and to travel around the country with his own personal filmmaker.” In a trip to Dallas last September, Sharpton stayed at the super-luxe Mansion on Turtle Creek. In Miami, he stayed at the Mandarin Oriental. In Los Angeles, it was the Four Seasons. The Times also found that Sharpton’s campaign kept shoddy records of his high living; Sharpton’s finance reports, it said, are “marked by oversights, errors and potential violations.” Nevertheless, Sharpton might soon receive a six-figure infusion of campaign matching funds from the U.S. government.
In addition, when the Times looked at court records, the paper concluded: “Besides disclosing a history of staying in expensive hotels, flying first class and relying on limousine services…such records also reveal a series of judgments, lawsuits and tax debts.” For example, Sharpton’s National Action Network “ran up a debt of $76,704.34 with 1-800-Limo-Center, a business based in Rochelle Park, N.J., which provided Mr. Sharpton with car service at cities around the country.” When Sharpton didn’t pay, a court intervened (although $30,000 remains unpaid). Finally, the Times reported that Sharpton’s organization has “a tax warrant against it for failure to pay New York State $15,446.31 in unemployment insurance.”
Given all that, surely Howard Dean could have come up with an effective rejoinder when the Reverend Al went on the attack. But Dean, like the rest of the Democratic field, was apparently afraid to confront Sharpton. For voters trying to assess the character of the Democratic candidates, that was most educational.