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As New York's Republican hierarchy tries to finalize a budget that will treat the poor the same way their Washington counterparts want to treat immigrants -- as deserving of nothing -- it would seem some black leaders might be having second thoughts about indirectly electing George Pataki.

The devil they didn't know has turned out to be a lot worse than the one they did, and the outcome will leave hundreds of thousands in a devil of a fix.

But don't try telling the Rev. Al Sharpton that black desertion of the Democratic Party was the wrong way to go.

Few were as critical of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, or had their criticisms as well chronicled, as Sharpton. His vitriolic critiques no doubt helped depress the black turnout that could have returned Cuomo to office and made Pataki no more than a passing fad from Peekskill.

Instead, Pataki is now writing state budgets that write off the poor, and Sharpton is leading marches to protest the new governor's attempt to take the "help" out of self-help.

It's a strange turn of events, but not one Sharpton is ready to admit could have been handled any other way, given Cuomo's deliberate turn to the right.

"I don't subscribe to taking the lesser of two evils," he says now.

But it's a turn of events that also raises the question African-Americans are continually faced with: If not the lesser of two evils, then what? An election, after all, is a choice -- not a wish list.

That's where Sharpton finds fertile ground in the rise of George Pataki, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the new political disorder.

It's easy to suspect the voluble activist marched the 170 miles from New York City to Albany last week to milk publicity in a feat worthy of someone who's never been camera shy. But Sharpton says the real goal of treking from town to town was to mobilize at the local level for what's always been considered a political pipe dream for blacks: the quixotic third party.

The former U.S. Senate candidate concedes a third party might not begin by electing governors. But he argues it can be the difference in Assembly and State Senate races, where small districts can magnify the black vote and change the face of the Legislature that a governor must bargain with.

But the question remains why that might be more feasible now than in the past, when such talk always has fizzled.

"In the 15 days (of the march), we saw white and black people coming out," Sharpton answers. "I've seen a spirit I haven't seen in a long time."

That shouldn't be surprising. As Washington cuts aid programs and sends them down to the state level, where Pataki and other like-minded governors are waiting with even sharper budget axes, comfort levels have suddenly been shattered. The result is the "spirit" Sharpton talks about.

But can that spirit be converted into action when third parties have failed to draw blacks before?

Sharpton is doing his best to aid the conversion, blending both the "self help" rhetoric of more radical blacks with legitimate demands on American society to repay the debt still owed those shut out for so long.

That latter message, of course, is usually the only one whites hear on nightly newscasts. What most don't hear is the Sharpton who showed up here at Bethel AME Church last weekend to tell a capacity "Men's Day" crowd that "if those ahead of us had been like us, we would not be where we are."

In the cadence of the preacher he still is, he ran through a caustic assault, not on whites, but on blacks who've forgotten, or never knew, the essence of the struggle. No group, from professionals to religious leaders, was spared.

"Master's degrees and master of nothing. . . . Big titles and no power," he thundered. "Too many ministers that don't minister to nobody. . . . Too many trustees that can't be trusted.

"We sing, 'If I can help somebody!' and then get in our new car and leave everybody in church standing at the bus stop."

It was vintage Sharpton, designed not just to preach to the converted, but to reignite the converted into action in the tradition of churches that led the country's last great human rights and human dignity struggle.

Those same churches would be the foundation of a grass-roots effort to break the two-party system's chokehold on the black vote. For Sharpton, despite criticism from some so-called militants, is not foolish enough to think any kind of black self-help movement can flourish without also using the political system to make the nation pay the debt it owes.

But the question remains: Why this year, why now? And the answer is simple.

Democrats have never moved so far right at the same time those already on the right have seemed so bent on wrecking so many lives. That confluence of circumstances is what is different this year.

It's what makes Sharpton worth listening to a lot more closely today. And it's what should scare the heck out of Democrats who didn't listen to blacks before.

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