Ever since Caroline Kennedy announced that she’s seeking the United States Senate seat in New York expected to be vacated by Hillary Clinton, it seems like almost everyone’s had an opinion about it. Some argue that her work as an attorney and education advocate are credentials enough for the job, but others question whether just being the daughter of a former president makes her qualified to be a senator. Then there is the Reverend Al Sharpton, who last week met with Kennedy for a highly visible lunch at Sylvia’s, the famed soul food restaurant in Harlem. While he remains tight-lipped about supporting Kennedy, he told ESSENCE.com his thoughts on their conversation, the real reason people are casting doubt on her, and why he’s tired of the idea that having a soul food lunch is pandering to Black folks.
ESSENCE.COM: How did the lunch with Caroline Kennedy come about?
She called me the day she called [New York]Governor [David] Paterson to tell him she was interested. She called him, me, and I understand several other leaders based in New York, to let us know that she was hoping to hear what we had to say and what we thought were important national issues. In jest, while we were talking that day, I said, “We should sit down; I’ll take you to Sylvia’s.” She said, “Let’s do it.”
ESSENCE.COM: Why do you think she reached out to you in particular?
At the lunch she made it clear that she came to me because Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer both came to me when they came to New York. Many people come to [the National Action Network] because we have a strong civil rights movement and presence. The other thing is, I’m the only Black that ever ran for senator in the history of the state. Both times I got an overwhelming majority of the Black vote so she knows about a lot of the communities I’m going to draw. The last thing, and I’m speculating here, she probably knows that Governor Paterson and I have a good relationship. He spoke at the National Action Network Conference, and he was the host of my birthday party. So if you’re trying to get the governor’s nod, you would naturally not only reach out to people with a standing with the public, but also a standing with the governor.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think she’s qualified to be a senator?
I take issue with those that say she’s not qualified. I don’t agree with that. I think a lot of the backlash is from New York Democrats who are angry with her for not standing with Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries and going for Barack Obama. She hasn’t held office or had governing experience, but neither did Hillary Clinton when she came to New York. To have a different standard for Caroline Kennedy than for the person preceding her, it’s inconsistent at best. She worked on the Board of Education here, she’s worked on education reform, and she’s probably had more New York experience than Hillary did. Clinton didn’t even live in New York, much less work here. So I think she is being punished by some pro-Clintonites who felt that a New York woman should have stood with a New York senator rather than support Obama. I’m not prepared to support her, but she certainly has the right to be considered.
ESSENCE.COM: Is there somebody you are supporting?
I doubt I would endorse anyone publicly. I will probably talk to all of the people running, as I’ve already talked to three of them (Carolyn Maloney, Andrew Cuomo and Caroline Kennedy) and support whoever the governor decides. It’s a governor position, not a voter decision. Unless something
crazy happens to warrant taking sides, that’s going to be my position.
ESSENCE.COM: What did you talk about at Sylvia’s?
We talked specifically about education. We talked about how the graduation level among Blacks is half of what it is among Whites, and how the federal government should deal with school choice. We also talked about the criminal justice system, from the high incarceration rates among Blacks to police misconduct. And I talked about the economy, and how there must be some targeted way of dealing with the racial disparities of unemployment and equal opportunity in the employment world. Those are the basic things I covered with her. She did more listening than talking because I saw it as an opportunity to talk about the issues that I think are not being confronted in the United States Senate.
ESSENCE.COM: Earlier this year you took President-elect Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly to Sylvia’s, and now Caroline Kennedy. Why Sylvia’s?
I’ve always felt that if people wanted to have dialogue with us, they should come to us. When I ran for office in the nineties, if I wanted people’s support, I had to go to them. I think it’s important that people understand that if people want to have dialogue with people in the Black community, they should come to the Black community. It’s functional because that’s a place where I eat, but it’s also political. If you want us, show us some regard.
ESSENCE.COM: Some critics have seen Caroline Kennedy eating with you at Sylvia’s as pandering to Black people. What do you think?
Was it pandering when she met with labor union leaders? Was it pandering when she went upstate and met at the mayors’ city halls? But to meet with the leaders of a Black organization in Harlem is pandering? It would be different if she didn’t meet with everybody else. So why shouldn’t she come here? Why shouldn’t she come to Black leadership, and see some of the people who raise these issues? If she’s going to get the seat, then she needs to hear from all of us. I’m not preoccupied with who it is; I’m preoccupied with that they’re doing.