ALBANY, N.Y. – In his long shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, civil rights activist Al Sharpton (search) has been getting advice from an unlikely source: Veteran Republican operative Roger Stone (search).
They are, to say the least, a political odd couple.
In late 2000, when Sharpton was in Florida claiming black voters had been disenfranchised in the Bush-Gore election, Stone was helping the George Bush campaign's effort to halt the recount there.
While both have downplayed the influence of the self-described "Ronald Reagan Republican" in Sharpton's campaign, Stone told The Associated Press he helped Sharpton build a campaign staff and assisted in getting donations from across the country so he could qualify for federal matching campaign funds.
The alliance has led to speculation in political circles that Stone — once referred to by The New Republic magazine as a "state-of-the-art Washington sleazeball" — is trying to disrupt the Democratic presidential race to help President Bush, or is bent on using Sharpton connections to help a billionaire businessman get elected governor of New York after three unsuccessful attempts.
Stone dismisses such scenarios and said it is more a case of one political maverick helping another.
"I help people I like," Stone told the AP Thursday.
While Sharpton didn't respond to a request for comment, he said in a recent interview that Stone is one of many political strategists involved in the campaign.
"I talk to him from time to time on his perspective," Sharpton told The New York Times. "Does he have a role in this campaign? Do I consider him an adviser? No."
Nonetheless, Sharpton's campaign manager, Charles Halloran, is a Stone associate as are several other campaign aides.
Halloran said Stone "referred me" to Sharpton, but "Roger is not running the campaign."
The Stone-Sharpton political cooperation began, according to the weekly Village Voice newspaper, with a March 2003 lunch at a Manhattan steakhouse.
Veteran New York Democratic operative Hank Sheinkopf said he arranged the meeting at Stone's request, lending a hand because Sharpton had no experience running for national office.
"Stone had invaluable knowledge about running presidential campaigns on a day-to-day basis," Sheinkopf told the AP. "As to what they did afterwards, I am clueless."
"I don't think anybody is under the illusion that he can be nominated," Stone said. After primaries in seven states on Tuesday, Sharpton had collected just six delegates, compared to 260 for front-runner John Kerry.
"I do think he has an important point of view," Stone said. "I do think he's doing his party a service. If you don't produce a nominee who can maximize the vote of the minority community, they don't have a chance."
"My pedigree is as a Ronald Reagan-Jack Kemp Republican (but) I am not a lockstep organization Republican," Stone added.
Asked directly if he wanted to see Bush beaten, Stone said: "There are a lot of things in the administration that I've been disappointed in. I still don't know who the Democratic nominee is going to be. I don't think Sharpton is going to be the nominee, so I don't feel any particular conflict."
Stone drew the ire of Republicans when he took on the 2002 campaign for governor of Rochester businessman B. Thomas Golisano (search) and spent $65 million of the billionaire's fortune in an unsuccessful attempt to oust Republican Gov. George Pataki (search). In what proved to be a big payday for Stone and Halloran, Golisano kept Pataki from winning the ballot line of the Independence Party and, for the third time, Golisano was the candidate for the Ross Perot-inspired party. Pataki won easy re-election to a third term.
Some top Golisano advisers would like to see a fourth run for governor in 2006, this time as a Democrat.
Speculation that the Stone-Sharpton connection might be part of an effort to help Golisano win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination grew stronger when it came out that one of the businessman's top advisers, Steven Pigeon, was helping run Sharpton's South Carolina primary effort.
Pigeon, a Buffalo attorney and former Erie County Democratic chairman, said this week that he was just helping a friend by aiding Sharpton and that it has nothing to do with a desire to get Golisano into the next governor's race as a Democrat. Sharpton could be helpful given his support within New York state's Democratic electorate.
"Tom Golisano has nothing to do with this," Pigeon said. "I know it sounds juicy, but people are reading too much into it."
"I don't think Tom Golisano is likely to ever run for public office again," Stone said, "although I guess you couldn't rule it out."