Questionable Pasts Mark Sharpton, Moseley-Braun Candidacies

African-American Democratic presidential candidates Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun could play spoilers in the 2004 primary race, but some say their pasts might be questionable enough to hurt them at the polls.

Though a popular activist who held court during the 2000 campaign with prominent candidates like Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, Sharpton, who has never held public office, is best known for a 1998 defamation trial in New York in which he was ordered to pay $65,000 in damages to a white man whom he publicly named in 1987 as the rapist of black teen Tawana Brawley. The case was thrown out in 1988 for lack of credibility.

The New York activist also led protests over the 1986 assault on three black men in Howard Beach and over the 1989 killing of a 16-year-old black youth in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, inflaming already strained relations between the Jewish and black communities in New York.

In 1991, during the now infamous Crown Heights riots between Orthodox Jews and blacks, Sharpton was blamed for fueling the violence that led to the stabbing of a Jewish rabbinical student.

Soon after, he led protests against Freddy's Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem, and called the owner a "white interloper." A deranged man later burst into the store and set it aflame, killing himself and seven others.

A former ambassador to New Zealand and a former senator from Illinois, Moseley-Braun lost her first re-election bid to the Senate in 1998 amid controversy related to allegations of illegal campaign funding in her 1992 campaign. She was never penalized by the Federal Elections Commission.

During her tenure in the Senate, she was often criticized for what some said was a warm embrace of African dictatorships, including Nigeria's Sani Abacha.

The first black woman senator, she was dogged by accusations that she split an inheritance from her mother that should have been reimbursed to Medicaid. She was also criticized for spending a month in Africa after her loss with then-fiancé Kgosie Matthews, who was accused of sexually harassing campaign workers.

Moseley-Braun denied any foundation for the criticism.

Recently asked what her major was in college, Moseley-Braun, who graduated from the University of Illinois in 1969 and received her law degree from the University of Chicago in 1972, said she couldn't remember.

"The problem is that they both have high negatives," said Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.

Walters adds that the candidates may not win the support of black Democrats because their ascendance did not have the blessing of the black political elite.

While Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy emerged out of high-level meetings among the black Democratic leadership in the 1980s, no such conversations took place regarding the candidacies of Sharpton or Moseley-Braun.

"Unfortunately, the black community did not have a role in the process. These people put themselves forward, and sometimes you have to deal with what you’ve got," said Walters, who is nonetheless happy the two are running.

But Walters said their candidacies may benefit from the direct approach.

Sharpton and Moseley-Braun will be able "to talk directly to the American people, without the message being filtered through other candidates," Walter said. "I think it's an important strategy."