Home-State Record: Al Sharpton

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(Host) Today, as we continue our series on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates, we look at the Reverend Al Sharpton. The Reverend Sharpton has never held elected office and trails in the polls. But as Jim Colgan from WNYC in New York reports, Sharpton has a history as a man who gets heard.

(Colgan) Al Sharpton’s oratory skills were honed by the time he became a well-known New York City protester. An ordained Pentecostal minister since the age of 10, the Brooklynite was 13 when he organized his first street rally. Sharpton, the life-long preacher, knows how to be heard.

(Sharpton, at a protest) “It is time that murderers pay the price, no matter who the murderers are. There must be justice for all otherwise, it is injustice for everyone. No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace…”

(Colgan) It was at his 29th protest in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where Sharpton suffered a stab wound to the chest. He was leading a protest over the murder of a black teenager. He had led a similar rally in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens a few years earlier.

(Sharpton) “I’ve shown through my public encounters, from Howard beach to Bensonhurst, that I will stand up and fight, even at the risk of my own life.”

(Colgan) The brush with death, he says, forced him to start taking his actions seriously. Sharpton established a national organization to motivate voter registration and embarked on a series of election bids, beginning with US Senator from New York.

(Douglas Muzzio) “What Sharpton is a case study of, is the movement from protest politics to mainstream politics.”

(Colgan) Douglas Muzzio is a professor of public affairs at the city’s Baruch College. He found it remarkable that on a shoestring campaign, Sharpton managed to come in third, beating out a popular city comptroller.

(Muzzio) “So that first Senate election was one of intrigue, is he going to play the racial arsonist? What role is he going to play? And I think he surprised people.”

(Colgan) Sharpton performed even better in a second Senate bid two years later. And in the 1997 mayoral primary, he reached 85 percent of the black vote. Though he never won, these bids secured his status as power broker in New York politics.

(Sound from a protest) “Amadou! Amadou! Amadou! Amadou! Amadou!”

(Colgan) Though Sharpton had matured into a political figure, he never strayed from his protest mantle.
In 1999, New York City police officers shot Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, in the Bronx. For two whole weeks, prominent politicians joined a mass display of civil disobedience, organized by Sharpton.

Though he uses moments like these to label himself a civil rights leader, Sharpton’s critics charge he has nothing concrete to show – other than a penchant for the limelight. Long-time Sharpton critic and head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Michael Myers:

(Myers) “Al Sharpton knows how to stage events, but he doesn’t know how to get anything done.”

(Colgan) Sharpton’s harshest criticism relates to his role in the late eighties as spokesman for Tawana Brawley, a black high school girl who claimed she was raped by a white gang. Brawley’s story was eventually discredited, but Sharpton refused to apologize.

(Sharpton) “I may have a disagreement on any case. Right now a lot of people think O.J. Simpson was guilty. The jury said he wasn’t. Should they apologize?”

(Colgan) That was Sharpton, still sticking by his story at a recent Democratic presidential debate.

With his national polls stuck below five percent, Sharpton admits he has little chance of actually winning the nomination. He says, much like the New York bids, his goal in the debates is more to raise the unspoken issues:

(Sharpton) “Would anyone here meet with Arafat, in terms of trying to get peace in the Middle East? Let’s put the hard questions out, Senator Lieberman.”

(Colgan) Sharpton complains that the attention he gets never relates to his positions, such as his platform centerpiece of federalizing public education. But despite his vocal stances, many see Sharpton as merely vying for influence on a national party level. And if he can scoop enough delegates at next year’s convention, Sharpton could make his voice heard even more.

For the Home-State Record project, I’m Jim Colgan.

(Host) On Wednesday, in the conclusion to our series on the home state records of the Democratic presidential candidates: General Wesley Clark.

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