By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010; A01
NEW YORK -- The Rev. Al Sharpton's brightly colored track suits and gold medallions are a distant memory, long ago replaced by tailored business suits and silk ties. That more-polished image -- a strategy known around his headquarters here as "from-the-streets-to-the-suites" -- has been completed in the past year with Sharpton's new role in Washington: partner to the Obama White House.
In the first year and a half of the administration, Sharpton has had a voice in some of the most important policy debates affecting the black community. He was one of three civil rights leaders invited to meet with Obama about black unemployment. He toured the country at Obama's request discussing education reform. His radio show (broadcast locally on WOL-AM) has been a regular stop for administration officials. And this week, three Cabinet secretaries and a host of lower-level government officials are speaking at Sharpton's annual National Action Network convention in New York.
Sharpton's relationship with the White House is thriving amid a heated debate over whether black leaders should relate to the president as ally or agitator. Early on, Sharpton chose ally, staying off the campaign trail in 2008, for instance, when Obama sent word that he would be a distraction.
More recently, Sharpton has been among the president's chief defenders against criticism from television host Tavis Smiley that "black folk are catching hell" and that the president should do more to specifically help blacks.
"We need to try to solve our problems and not expect the president to advocate for us," Sharpton said on his radio show. "It is interesting to me that some people don't understand that to try to make the president do certain things will only benefit the right wing, who wants to get the president and us."
The confrontational civil rights activist may seem an unexpected partner for a White House that has tried to steer clear of racial issues, but not to those who have followed the minister's arc, said political observers and friends.
At 55, he is a much more mellow and slimmer version of the man who lead street protests against racial profiling in the late 1980s. The White House sees Sharpton as useful in reaching out to an important constituency, said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who spoke at Sharpton's conference Wednesday.
"He's been an extraordinary partner. The fact that we're working together has been great, but the level of his engagement, it's been phenomenal," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who attended Sharpton's conference Thursday and toured schools in five cities last year with Sharpton and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Still, the tie to Sharpton is a gamble for Obama. The president has made clear that he does not want to be perceived as favoring African Americans, and a White House spokesman would not comment about his relationship with Sharpton.
"In the minds of some people, [Sharpton] is always going to be a black man wearing a medallion defending Tawana Brawley," said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University professor who studies politics and race. She was referring to the 1987 case, later dismissed, in which a teenage Brawley accused six white men of raping her.
Sharpton said the decision to give up his hip-hop attire was a natural part of growing older. "I haven't worn a track suit in 20 years," he said. "You have to understand -- I grew and matured in public. Like Nelson Mandela said, you have to have core principles and everything else is a tactic."
Sharpton cast his new tactics as part of the evolution of black politics. He pointed out that he is only seven years older than Obama and that they had met a handful of times before Obama's presidential run.
The relationship solidified in 2008, according to Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe. Sharpton, who ran a long-shot campaign for president in 2004, had planned to go to the Iowa caucuses, but Obama sent a message urging him to stay away or risk "injecting race into the campaign," Plouffe wrote in his book "The Audacity to Win."
The relationship continued after the election. At Obama's celebratory signing of the health-care bill, Sharpton was given a spot in the front row.
Last year, at a large holiday party the first couple threw feting their liberal supporters, Obama singled out Sharpton in his remarks, saying, "I know if I'm doing it right, Reverend Sharpton will be right here to let me know," according to Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, a friend of the Obamas, who was in attendance.
Smiley said this week that he was "heartened" to hear of Sharpton's "meeting to discuss an accountability agenda." But Sharpton's conference was determinedly not focused on accountability for the White House. He repeatedly told his members, "We're leaving with a plan for what we can do."
Administration officials have regular access to Sharpton's daily three-hour talk radio show to promote their policies. At his conference this week, Sebelius pledged to create a plan for dealing with minority health disparities, and Duncan elicited support for the administration's plan to improve public education. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was to talk to the group Friday.
Obama's poll numbers are sky-high with black voters. But the need for an ally such as Sharpton is clear for Democratic Party leaders worried about the steep drop-off in interest in November's midterm elections among African Americans, said John Kenneth White, a political professor at Catholic University. According to a recent NBC/WSJ poll, deep interest has dropped 33 points among blacks, compared with 19 points among whites.
This weekend, Sharpton is to announce a plan to target six states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, for voter registration drives this summer.
"Between our connection with black churches and our radio show, we reach a lot of black America every day," he said. "We're turning that into a strategy."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.