Al Sharpton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination has so far attracted little support from voters, but plenty of financial backing from a loosely knit coalition of wealthy black media barons and impresarios.
Sharpton, the fiery and colorful New York preacher, has been the candidate of choice for business executives such as billionaire cable TV mogul Robert Johnson of Washington, Cathy Hughes of Radio One Inc. in Maryland, and hip-hop entrepreneurs Russell Simmons and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Each has given Sharpton the maximum permitted, $2,000.
Indeed, if not for the financial contributions of the black media establishment, Sharpton's underdog candidacy would be even harder pressed for funds. According to records his campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission, Sharpton had spent almost all of the $283,530 he had raised by the end of September. He had just $24,070 cash at that time, more than three months before the first Democratic caucus vote in Iowa. Sharpton's $283,530 total puts his campaign in the fund-raising basement among the nine Democratic contenders.
Up one step from the basement is former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Ill., also black, who has raised $341,669. Both Sharpton and Moseley Braun are barely registering in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states, which have few minorities.
However, Sharpton is among the leaders in one category: the percentage of campaign funds that have come from large donors (those giving $1,000 or more to a candidate). Thanks in part to Johnson, Hughes and others, Sharpton has raised 82 percent of his funds from large donors, third among all candidates behind President Bush at 84 percent and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., at 83 percent, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, an organization affiliated with George Washington University.
Sharpton's high-profile backers say they do not realistically expect him to win the Democratic nomination. But they do believe he is raising issues of concern to black Americans that they feel others in the Democratic field have ignored.
Sharpton has based his campaign on raising issues that might be "overlooked," such as affirmative action and abolition of the death penalty, according to his Web site. He favors constitutional amendments guaranteeing voting rights, universal access to health care and "equal high quality" education. He also supports statehood for the District of Columbia.
Sharpton has won spirited applause, wider exposure and a measure of credibility during a series of Democratic candidate debates, but he has yet to gain the endorsement of Jesse L. Jackson. A candidate himself in 1984 and 1988, Jackson has not endorsed anyone this year, leading to speculation of a rift between the Sharpton and Jackson camps.
The group backing Sharpton represents a powerful collection of media properties targeting blacks. BET, which Johnson sold to Viacom Inc. in 2001, is available in more than 75 million cable and satellite TV homes. Radio One owns 66 stations nationwide. Two other contributors, David Mays and Keith Clinkscales, head companies that publish such black-oriented magazines as the Source and Savoy, respectively.
Other financial backers include Black Enterprise magazine founder Earl Graves; Essence magazine chairman Edward Lewis; comedian Steve Harvey; and Pierre Sutton, chairman of the board of Inner City Broadcasting Corp., a New York-based company that owns 17 stations; and Los Angeles attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.