NEW YORK -- It was another hot and steamy day in the soup kitchen of Emmaus House, a one-time house of prostitution and drug hangout in Spanish Harlem converted into a self-supporting residence for the homeless. In the kitchen, former Gov. Jerry Brown started dishing out fried chicken as television cameras recorded his fealty to his 1992 constituency of the poor.
The scene was one more "photo opportunity" through which Brown could demonstrate his commitment to that constituency, whose plight has put purpose into his presidential campaign, if not financial support. That has come from liberal activists and others fed up with the status quo who have kept his now-famous 800 telephone number ringing.
Brown stayed in the sweltering kitchen for only a few minutes, then walked out and held a brief conversation with three residents of Emmaus House, again as the cameras whirred. One of them, Gregory Burt, a 35-year-old black man, told Brown he had been living in a cardboard box under the Brooklyn Bridge nine months ago, until he underwent drug detoxification and found a home at Emmaus House.
Brown listened sympathetically and then launched into his standard campaign complaint that while government underwrites the savings-and-loan bailout and supports "corporate corruption," self-help efforts such as these at Emmaus House receive "a pittance" of governmental assistance.
Until the Democratic Party once again sees these people as its constituency and gives them some reason to feel the party cares about them, Brown said, it will surrender not only its traditional purpose but their votes. He called for universal registration, in such places as soup-kitchen lines, to bring them into a political process in which they now have no place.
Afterward, the man who had been living in the cardboard box was asked what he thought of Brown. He observed that he "has the sincerity" to improve the plight of the homeless, "but what can he do about it? Who can change it?"
Brown's brief visit to Spanish Harlem seemed in one sense the meaningless gesture of a political candidate who didn't know when to quit. With the party's presidential nomination already in Gov. Bill Clinton's grasp, Brown now resembles a runner who keeps on going after his opponent has already crossed the finish line ahead of him.
He talks about giving the poor and homeless "leverage" in the party by withholding his own endorsement of Clinton, when the fact is he has very little real leverage, with only 614 delegates, or less than 15 percent of the total.
What he wants for his endorsement is incorporation of what he calls his "humility agenda" -- a list of steps he says party leaders should take to reduce their own power and perks and thus regain the trust of the 4 million Democrats who voted for him in the primaries. The list includes rolling back recent congressional pay raises, outlawing political action committee campaign contributions that go so heavily to incumbents, and agreeing to congressional term limits.
The Clinton campaign has already indicated, however, that its candidate is not ready to swallow the Brown agenda, and while Clinton would like to have Brown's endorsement, he is not going to pay that price. The Democratic platform is already written and about to be approved routinely by the convention.
Brown's reply to repeated questions about whether and when he will endorse Clinton is simply, "What's the rush?" He argues that the convention is the place to debate the course of the party and unity can come later. His endorsement now, he says, would amount to "enforced uniformity." He says he is "keeping faith" with all those who voted for him in the primaries, and an endorsement should not be "a matter of sprinkling holy water one time."
It is clear from all this that Brown, like Jesse Jackson as a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, is now interested in sustaining a political movement beyond this election year. For him to meekly fold his tent and enthusiastically endorse Clinton would be seen by many of his faithful as a betrayal, considering that he has been talking all year about how corrupt the Democratic as well as the Republican political establishment has become.
Many old liberal Democrats wish they had more of a voice in the national convention here, but relatively few look to Jerry Brown as that voice. While they may agree with much of his message, they still are cool to the messenger, and indifferent to whether he endorses Clinton or doesn't.
* Democrats greeted the latest poll results yesterday with the ambivalence that seems characteristic of this convention. On one hand, they were pleased with news that a New York Times-CBS News survey found Clinton running essentially even with President Bush and independent Ross Perot clearly slipping.
But some older and wiser heads were shaking at the fact that Clinton still has negative ratings higher than positive ratings even after the favorable attention to his vice presidential choice. Said a prominent Democratic officeholder: "Don't quote me, but this is not the stuff of a landslide, maybe not even a squeaker."