The Rev. Al Sharpton has never had a friend in the New York City mayor's office like Bill de Blasio.
The Harlem-based preacher is enjoying his closest access to the seat of power since he came of age as an activist and antagonist of city officials during the Ed Koch era.
"There's always an open line of communication. Always," said Rachel Noerdlinger, a top Sharpton aide for 14 years who was hired by de Blasio in January as first lady Chirlane McCray's chief of staff. "We didn't have that before: access . . . I know there hasn't been a thing that we have asked Mayor de Blasio to do that he hasn't done."
Sharpton, 59, and de Blasio, 52 -- the first Democrat to occupy City Hall in 20 years -- are politically simpatico. But their bond also reflects easing racial tensions in the city and Sharpton's evolution from his polarizing past.
Since de Blasio took office, Sharpton's National Action Network has met with the new Department of Investigations commissioner, Mark Peters. The group expects to meet with Philip Eure, the NYPD inspector general named by Peters who is to start in May. Sharpton also gave his blessing to and has met with Police Commissioner William Bratton, who Sharpton said refused to meet with him when he was Rudy Giuliani's head of the department in the '90s.
And Sharpton and de Blasio have each other's backs. The mayor last week praised Sharpton as a good citizen amid new disclosures over his FBI informant past. Sharpton in February ridiculed attacks on the mayor for calling the NYPD about the arrest of Bishop Orlando Findlayter, a de Blasio supporter whom police held after a traffic stop on warrants for not appearing in court on a civil disobedience charge.
Sharpton made no endorsement in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, a perceived snub of candidate Bill Thompson, who is black, and a wink toward de Blasio.
For Rev. Al, it's the issues
"He opened the door to an idea that even a white candidate can represent a black community if they're representing issues that are important to the black community," said former Gov. David A. Paterson.
The pair has made almost a dozen public appearances together since de Blasio's election. They talk regularly by phone about politics, Noerdlinger said. They also talk about McCray -- de Blasio's closest adviser -- whose career Sharpton has followed for years.
"We both value his advice and his guidance," de Blasio said while appearing at a National Action Network convention Wednesday.That's not how it used to be for Sharpton at City Hall. Koch, mayor from the late 1970s through the late '80s, wouldn't have anything to do with Sharpton. David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor in 1990, was a friend privately but kept his distance publicly. Giuliani was fiercely adversarial toward him.
Michael Bloomberg enjoyed a cordial "relationship of convenience" with Sharpton, said Christina Greer, Fordham University assistant professor of political science. But they fought over Sharpton's demands to end perceived racial profiling in the police department's stop-and-frisk practices -- a change de Blasio also advocated and Bratton made.
In the late '80s and '90s, Sharpton was a lead player in racially charged controversies. He promoted the cause of Tawana Brawley, a black teen upstate found to have falsely accused a group of white men of rape, and assailed the landlord of a Harlem store as a "white interloper." Months later, a protester set fire to the store and shot several people inside it.
The latter-day Sharpton, Dinkins said, has grown from "rabble-rouser" to "eminently more responsible."
"I think especially today, he would be somebody who is concerned with fairness and justice irrespective of race and ethnicity," Dinkins said. "That may not have always been the case with him."
National platform via TV
His gig as an MSNBC TV host gives Sharpton a daily national platform. Last week's National Action Network convention drew not only de Blasio but President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as speakers.
Not everyone sees Sharpton and de Blasio's alliance as a plus for the city. State Republican Party chairman Ed Cox said in a statement: "Al Sharpton and Bill de Blasio deserve each other: Both are political showmen whose divisive shticks lack constructive substance."
Still, the ranks of Sharpton's enemies have thinned over time. Paterson joked in an interview that politicians who were once Sharpton's most merciless critics "would push me out of the way to get a better seat" at action network rallies now.
Asked during a news conference last week how he views himself then and now, Sharpton said, "I've grown. I've learned to do things differently. But I do not have any difference today in my calling on the government to do what is right."
Longtime allies agreed he hasn't changed at his core.
"Reverend Sharpton is who he is, that person that was marching and sitting on the train tracks," Assemb. Keith Wright (D-Harlem) said. "He's still that same person. You put forth different tactics."
It's natural for Sharpton to align himself with de Blasio because they share a goal of bridging the inequality gap, political consultant Bill Lynch III said.
"He has his hand on the pulse of not only African-Americans, but a lot of the poor folks that are truly trying to lift themselves out of that condition," Lynch said. "The mayor recognizes that and sees him as an ally to help lift those people."