WASHINGTON – Howard Dean (search) defended his record on minorities Tuesday after rival Al Sharpton (search) resurrected a 1995 Dean comment that affirmative action should be based "not on race, but on class."
In a statement, Sharpton responded to the news that Democratic Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (search), planned to endorse Dean for president, sharply criticizing the former Vermont governor's record on affirmative action and gun rights.
"Howard Dean's opposition to affirmative action, his current support for the death penalty and historic support of the NRA's agenda amounts to an anti-black agenda that will not sell in communities of color in this country," Sharpton said.
Sharpton also cited a Dean remark from April 9, 1995 in which he was questioned on affirmative action. Dean said: "You know, I think we ought to look at affirmative action programs (search) based, not on race, but on class and opportunities to participate."
Dean called himself a "vigorous supporter" of affirmative action and explained the 1995 remark to reporters while in Las Vegas for two private fund-raisers.
"That's about help for people who don't have any money, and I think we should do that. But I also think affirmative action has to be about race, and I've said that all throughout this campaign," Dean said.
A spokesman for Jackson said Tuesday that the Illinois congressman would make the endorsement shortly, and Sharpton's complaint would not change his position.
In a statement, Jackson said Sharpton was "inaccurate" when he said Dean was opposed to affirmative action, and he faulted Sharpton for criticizing a fellow Democratic candidate.
Sharpton responded that "if Dean has changed his position, he should just say so, but don't accuse others of not talking straight."
While Dean has built a large following through his Internet-based campaign, it has been mostly a white, upscale group. Dean has pledged to build more support among core Democratic groups such as black voters.
Jackson had hinted at his plans on Monday when he introduced Dean at an event in Chicago.
Dean "doesn't put his finger in the air to test the wind before he takes a stand," Jackson spokesman Frank Watkins said of the candidate. Watkins had served as Sharpton's campaign manager before leaving the operation.
Dean said he was pleased that Jackson planned to endorse him.
"He is one of a group of up-and-coming African-American leaders in this country and to have him endorse me, I think verifies I am a strong supporter of the things the African-American community really has to have. Affirmative action and opportunity are two of those things," Dean said.
Jesse Jackson sought the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, and several of this year's hopefuls have sought his son's backing. The younger Jackson traveled to Charleston, S.C., with Dean earlier this month and appeared at several campaign events.
Winning a large share of the black vote will be crucial in the Feb. 3 primary in South Carolina, where blacks could make up close to half of the Democratic primary voters.
Dean has also been endorsed by Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., who is black. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., escorted Dean to two black churches in Detroit, site of the last Democratic debate, on Sunday.