A Run For President

By Stan Simpson, The Hartford Courant, 7 December 2002

Soon after the ball drops in New York and 2003 kicks in, look for Al Sharpton to announce he’s running for president of the United States.

The colorful, outspoken, agitating minister and civil rights activist doesn’t have much of a shot. But by cobbling a coalition of progressive whites and segments of African Americans and Latinos, Sharpton can do with his constituency what Ralph Nader did with his—make enough noise to become a distraction to Democrats.

Sharpton was at the University of Connecticut Friday for a Kwanzaa celebration. He encouraged his mostly African American audience of several hundred to aspire to excellence and not fall prey to misguided notions that academic achievement is somehow anti-black.

We talked by telephone before he flew in from St. Louis, and briefly at dinner in the campus ballroom. Sharpton bemoaned the recent mid-term elections, saying the Democratic party is on life support and in need of resuscitation. The minister sees his presidential exploratory committee, which includes Harvard professor Charles Ogletree and Newark Mayor Sharpe James, as a group of surgeons. They’re trying to determine whether major surgery can save the party, or whether the patient cannot be saved, Sharpton says.

Sharpton won’t be the only candidate trying to navigate a new direction for a party that clearly lost its compass. Al Gore, Richard Gephardt and John Kerry are among the others expected to throw their names into the presidential mix.

When you look at the direction of the Democratic party, in my judgment it has gone to the right, and even more importantly, been wrong on the issues, Sharpton says. When we look at the fact that a lot of working class, middle class and minorities have been ignored by the party, it’s the kind of race that I’m very seriously inclined to do. I’m just making sure that we put the infrastructure together to be successful. Obviously, if I run, I’d want to win. But I’d also want to save the soul of the party.

If Sharpton runs in ’04, it would be 20 years after his mentor Jesse Jackson first ran for president. Jackson promoted his rainbow coalition agenda and made a respectable showing in early primaries.

A Sharpton agenda would recruit the children of the rainbow coalition constituents.

His agenda would include Medicare coverage of prescription drugs, opposition to a war with Iraq and a renewed discussion on affirmative action, which is back in the courts and very much back in the news. Sharpton has also spoken out against the Navy’s bombing practices in Vieques and corporate corruption.

As founder and president of the National Action Network, which has 30 branches, he’s on the road often, and has visited 80 cities in the past year alone.

At 48, Sharpton presents a more polished presence than in his younger days. The once-obese activist was usually dressed in athletic warm-up attire and sported gaudy jewelry. Today, Sharpton is trimmer, groomed, graying at the temples and wearing tailored suits and pocket handkerchiefs.

He has a new book out—doesn’t everybody these days?—called Al On America, a personal and political manifesto for a man who has become a regular combatant on the conservative-leaning cable gabfests. He rebuffs suggestions that he, like the Democratic Party, has grown more moderate.

All of these ‘reinvention of Al Sharpton’ stories, I never bought into, he says. I grew up an activist and preacher and I’ve grown into being very involved in what some would say is a political force through the civil rights movement. Anyone is different at 48 than they were at 28. The question is whether it is a logical growth from where I started.

He knows that to some he’ll always be associated with the Tawana Brawley rape hoax that polarized New York and heightened racial tensions in the late 1980s. He accepts that, but says people ought to at least give him props for being front and center 13 years ago about what he insisted was the wrongful prosecution of five African American teens in the raping of a Central Park jogger.

This week a New York prosecutor conceded that those teens, all of whom served time for the offense, were not guilty of that crime. Their convictions are expected to be reversed.

I was castigated and absolutely [pummeled] in the press on that one, Sharpton says. But today, I’m right.

In two previous political runs, Sharpton made respectable showings in Democratic primaries. He generated close to 30 percent of the vote in runs for New York City mayor in 1997 and for U.S. Senate in 1994.

I’ve always been able to use people’s underestimating of me to my advantage, Sharpton says.

Maybe the Rev. Al will hook up with Ralph Nader for the ultimate insurgent 2004 presidential ticket.

At the very least, Sharpton could make some of the early primaries more interesting—and certainly entertaining.