That other Al

Rev. Al Sharpton explains why Condi Rice and Colin Powell are not "black leaders," and how his presidential bid can save the Democrats.

Published November 21, 2002 7:37PM (EST)

Al Sharpton knows he has baggage. He wants his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 to evoke memories of Jesse Jackson's historic campaign 20 years earlier. But he's well aware that the only person his name will evoke in others is Tawana Brawley, and every bit of race-baiting that ugly episode represented.

And he's done plenty to add to that baggage through the years. He is a ubiquitous presence in New York -- whenever there is an allegation of police brutality or racial discrimination, you can bet that Sharpton will be smack in the middle of it. But Sharpton also demands attention from mainstream politicians. Sharpton received one-third of the Democratic vote in the 1997 New York mayoral primary, and 2001 mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer credits Sharpton's support as helping boost him into the runoff against Mark Green. When Hillary Clinton wanted to run for Senate, she set up a meeting with Sharpton. When Al Gore came to New York during his presidential campaign, a meeting with Sharpton was arranged.

But Sharpton the candidate should expect a much colder reception from the political world. "The Democrats would avoid him like the plague if he decided to run," said David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who monitors African-American voting. "There is very little comparison between Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. In '84 and '88, Jackson was totally accepted by the white candidates in the race. They didn't think he was going to win, but they thought they benefited to be associated with him. When Sharpton's around, there is a tendency for the Democratic candidates to be someplace else."

Also, Bositis believes Sharpton's impact will be limited because, unlike Jackson, Sharpton is an urban Northerner without Jackson's Southern civil rights movement appeal. "In terms of support in the Democratic primaries, the black vote is most important in the South, by far," Bositis says. "That's the area of the country where he's least well known. I do not anticipate that Sharpton is going to get significant black support in the South."

Sharpton answers these criticisms by pointing out that Jackson was shunned by most black-elected officials, and did not even earn the support of Martin Luther King's family. Still, he says he's all too happy for people to dismiss his candidacy as a joke, promising to catch the field by surprise when they start counting the votes in early primary states. If nothing else, he says, his White House run could help reshape the Democratic Party. On a recent trip to Washington, in his hotel room at the Ritz Carlton, Salon talked with Sharpton about the legacy of Jesse Jackson, Sharpton's disdain for the moderate Democratic Leadership Council and that other Al running for president.

There's a lot of talk about what's wrong with the Democratic Party? What's your sense of the party's problems?

I would say the problems started way before the election. It's disconnected from its base. The base of the Democratic Party has been workers -- labor and minorities and women. The leadership of the party doesn't reflect any of that. Until Rep. Nancy Pelosi, [D-Calif., who was elected House minority leader] the other day we didn't have a prominent woman in the party. Who's the prominent black in the party? Who's the prominent Latino? And what's more important than the personalities -- what are the positions of our leaders? We're an opposition party that doesn't oppose anything.

Most of the people who are running for president supported Bush on the vote on Iraq. Some of them supported him on tax cuts. There has been in my judgment a conscious shift over the last decade or so to the right -- the DLC [the centrist Democratic Leadership Council] matrix. And it has failed. It captured the White House for Clinton because Perot was there, but never did capture Congress, never did capture the Senate. What is funny to me is when they say, "We can't go the old liberal way." They're the ones who have been in charge for the last decade. If anything has failed it is not the liberals, it's them. Because for the last 10 years, three national elections, how long are you going to keep this experiment going before you say, "You know, this don't work, fellas"?

I was the only prospective candidate who spoke at the antiwar march [in Washington on Oct. 26]. How do you ignore 200,000 people? It just doesn't even make sense. They say our problem is, well, we can't get the independent, white male voter. No, your problem is you're not energizing your own voting base.

Had the black vote come out in key states, had women voted more with us, had Latinos voted more with us, we'd have won. They keep going after a vote that they never had, and may never get, ignoring the vote they had that is dwindling every election because they're being taken for granted.

Isn't there also a crisis, though, in black leadership within the Democratic Party? The most prominent black political figures in the country are Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

I don't agree. I don't think anyone is a follower of Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. I think that the media [confuses] leading blacks with black leaders. Yeah, Colin Powell is a leading black, but I've never met anybody who's a follower of Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. And I think that's a misnomer. In the '60s, there was a Republican black in the U.S. Senate, Ed Brooke, while Dr. King and Roy Wilkins and them were out there. There's nothing new about having a prominent black with the Republicans. Ed Brooks was on the other side of the civil rights movement. So I think that the media fools themselves with this idea of the new leaders. Of course, they have name recognition. But that doesn't mean that's politically where we are.

Powell's political views don't mirror the majority of black Americans ...

Absolutely not.

So is that part of what's motivating your run for the presidency -- to get national recognition for leaders who you feel more closely represent black America?

Absolutely. I am absolutely trying to mirror not only black America, but progressive America. Why did 3 million people go with Ralph Nader? The discussion in the Democratic Party is going with folks on the right, nobody's talking about the people who left the party because we weren't progressive enough. If we had 2 of those 3 million, we wouldn't have been counting hanging chads in Florida.

I said to some leaders of the Democratic Party, George Bush got 5 percent of the black vote in 2000. Do you think that after three to four years of daily doses of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice that vote will go up? They said probably. I said, well, what's your African-American strategy to counteract that? You have none. So what you fear in me running may end up being the best thing for you. The evidence is, turnout went down in black America in the midterm elections. What was their strategy for turnout? They used Bill Clinton. Now I'm not attacking Bill Clinton; I think Bill Clinton is very popular. But obviously you're going to need more than that to energize black votes and Latino votes.

Bill Clinton and I spoke at the same rally the night before Election Day in New York. I was joking with him, saying if I win, I'll be the first black president, not him. He was the first beige president. They used to joke he was the first black president, but I think [Democratic National Committee chairman] Terry McAuliffe actually believed it, and used that as his strategy, and it backfired big time.

Do you expect a lot of talk about the rivalry between yourself and Jesse Jackson?

I think that there will be, but I started with Jesse. I lived through Jesse. In the end, I'm not running against Jesse Jackson. I'll be running against Al Gore and Joe Lieberman and John Edwards. There will be some of that comparison, but in the long run, I think it will take care of itself. I don't consider myself a rival to Jesse Jackson. I consider myself an extension of him, I'm a student of Jesse Jackson. I hope to do in 2004 what he did in the '80s.

But Jackson had roots in the South, having been born in South Carolina, and being involved with the civil rights movement. Given your roots in the Northeast, what is your message to the South?

My message there has been that we as a community cannot sit by and allow a war to go down where we're going to be on the front lines. We cannot allow public education to take a back seat, because that's how we're going to educate a majority of our children whether there's vouchers or not, and this whole thing of conceding to privatization of education hurts us more than anybody in the country.

Who has had more of a track record in confronting racism? No candidate can compete with me there. And in terms of the whole quest to redefine what black life and black culture should be about. This whole moving kids away from drugs, violence, misogynist-type of mentality. And that's why I've been packing places.

Jesse was born in the South, but when Jesse ran, he was based in Chicago. The difference is, in the '80s, the culture and style was more Southern black. Even the South now acts more urban. A lot of urban blacks have moved back to the South. And now with hip-hop and other [trends], we've gone from an agrarian, gospel culture to a Northern hip-hop culture. In many ways, I personify that, from my James Brown roots all the way to [Def Jam Records founder] Russell Simmons and all the people promoting me to run. If you live in Atlanta now, you're as New York as New York is.

Did I see somewhere that L.L. Cool J had endorsed Gov. George Pataki, while Russell Simmons endorsed the Democrat, Carl McCall?

Yeah, Russell Simmons is on our exploratory committee. Cool J and I are friends. Jay Z's got me in his CD, where he was denied some apartment, and he says, "Don't make me go get Sharpton." I was in "Mr. Deeds." When I spoke at Howard University last night, one student got up and said, "You're the only civil rights leader I know. I know Jesse Jackson. I know you."

But a lot of people who know you don't necessarily have a positive association with you.

Well, every candidate has baggage. You don't think when Gore comes back they won't start talking about the Buddhist temple and all these other things? You know, a guy stopped me at an airport in San Francisco not long ago. He said, "I don't agree with everything you do." But he said, "I don't know that I could go into the booth and vote against you, because you have shown the consistency and sacrifice that I don't see in others." And I don't think people understand that, in fact I hope they don't. I hope they underestimate us to the degree that they'll wake up one day and understand that this is a lot more serious than personality. People are tired of being marginalized.

Of course, no one gives you a chance.

People will be surprised that there are a lot of progressive whites who will support me because of my antiwar populist message. I could not have gotten 33 percent of the New York City mayoral primary vote without getting white votes.

But the Democratic nominee, Ruth Messinger, went on to lose that race. So is your run an attempt to get the party to take some notice of some of these issues, even if you don't win?

Those of us that supported Jesse, we got Ron Brown as the chairman of the party. We got Doug Wilder elected governor of Virginia, eventually Sen. Carol Mosley Braun [D-Ill.]. Mayor Dinkins in New York. Changed the platform, got [the African National Congress] and [Nelson] Mandela on the national platform. We won a lot losing with Jesse. People who supported [Gary] Hart or [John] Glenn or Mondale got nothing. They weren't engaged in democracy, they were playing the lotto. They put their money on the winner, and if you don't win, you lose everything. I'm practicing democracy saying we can win it all, or win in increments. But it's about winning in terms of where you want the country to go.

There has been a lot written about the new generation of more moderate black leaders, people like Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn, who is 32; Ron Kirk, 48, in Texas, Cory Booker, 33, in New Jersey. Do you think too much is made of that?

I think the media's going to wake up and realize it didn't happen. Cory Booker lost. You can't keep saying there's new leaders if the people aren't following. He lost. Sharpe James [who defeated Booker] said I was a big reason why Booker did lose, and Cory Booker's a lot closer to me generation-wise than Sharpe James. I'm in their generation. [James is 65, Sharpton is 48.]

Harold Ford called me and asked me to support him for minority leader. I told him, "Have you got the right Al? This isn't Gore, this is Sharpton." But he lost. When we look at the so-called moderate leadership, where have they won? In the races of [Rep. Earl] Hilliard, D-Ala., and [Rep Cynthia] McKinney, D-Ga. [who both lost to more moderate black opponents], you've got to remember those are races where Republicans voted in the Democratic primary. So you can't say that's a shift in black leadership. If those weren't open primaries, you don't know what would have happened. Don't forget, Hilliard won the primary, he lost the runoff.

The party has not shown a significant support base for any of the black leaders. You couldn't get more party loyalist, more paper-perfect résumés, than Ron Kirk and Carl McCall. They lost double digits, and many people thought the party didn't really get behind them. Terry McAuliffe comes to New York two weeks before the election, gets on the front page of the New York Times and says, McCall can't win.

We still have not proven that this party is inclusive.

Do you see the rise of Pelosi as a sign that the party is moving left?

I do. I think the intoxication with the DLC is about over. I think Pelosi's win says that. And I think Gore is the face of the DLC. Let's not forget, Gore and Clinton, that's who they were, and it hasn't worked.

But Clinton had strong black support.

Absolutely. But I think it was overestimated in 2002, that he could energize the base. If there were other things going on, he could have been a great force. But to just have him out there and nothing else, it was a great disservice to him.

So are you going to be calling Harold Ford and ask him to support you?

No. I think Harold will be with Gore, but I think Harold will be respectful.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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