BOB EDWARDS, host:
Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton knows how to make news, but he's never held elective office. He's run unsuccessfully for New York mayor once and the US Senate twice, and he's considered a long shot for the White House. The self-described street activist and preacher spoke out frequently during several racially charged controversies, notably cases involving allegations of police brutality against black immigrants Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima in New York City. In 1987, he was the spokesman for Tawana Brawley, the black teen-ager who accused white New York law enforcement officers of brutally raping her. A grand jury found no evidence of any crime against Brawley. In 1991, Sharpton founded the National Action Network, a civil rights organization based in Harlem. In the latest of a series of interviews with the nine Democratic presidential candidates, Sharpton says he's running because voters need a clear alternative to the incumbent.
Reverend AL SHARPTON: The 2004 election is not just about a new director. It's about a new direction in terms of the war in Iraq, in terms of tax cuts to the wealthy, in terms of deregulation of big business and consolidation of the media. This whole tax shift strategy by George Bush must be challenged. He gives a tax cut to the rich, shifts a tax increase to the poor. They don't call it a tax increase but it is a tax increase. Sales tax goes up. Property tax goes up. Mass transit goes up. We need to not try and continue to be Bush Lite or Republican imitators. We need to really have an alternative in the White House.
EDWARDS: Shouldn't you hold some office first before you run for president? I mean, you failed three times in local elections.
Rev. SHARPTON: Not at all. I think, first of all, those that are running never held national office, so if it's a question of experience, I probably have more national experience than anyone in the race. I run a national organization. I am the youngest candidate in the race with the longest progressive record, whether it was fighting the war in Vietnam, whether it was standing up for the enfranchisement of voters, whether it was dealing with the questions of racial violence, whether it's the question of labor rights. So the issue to me is, if the youngest guy in the race has the longest, most senior progressive record, then what are we talking about?
EDWARDS: Well, you are known for other things, the Tawana Brawley case, for example, which would bring your judgment into question.
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I don't know why, if I disagree with a jury. First of all, I've been in activism 35 years. If all in 35 years some would raise is they disagreed with me because a jury went against them, I think that that pales compared to questions that others may have seeking office. That many people around the country, they disagreed with the jury on O.J. Simpson. Should I say their judgment is in question? The jury saw it one way, they saw it another.
EDWARDS: What about an apology to the people who you slandered?
Rev. SHARPTON: First of all, I didn't slander anyone. Ms. Brawley accused the people of a crime and I believed Ms. Brawley. People have the right in this country to take positions on criminal cases.
EDWARDS: What about the tax return you didn't file in 1986?
Rev. SHARPTON: You have people running now that haven't filed tax returns for their property. I didn't file one. We filed it and paid the fine, so if you can distract people with a 20-year-old tax bill and not deal with the fact that we have people that are taking billions of dollars out of the country, ruining people's life earnings and retirement funds, then people go for the distraction. I don't think the American voters are that unwise.
EDWARDS: The columnist Robert Novak calls you a professional troublemaker. You probably like that title, don't you?
Rev. SHARPTON: If I respond when people have been abused, when workers have been disenfranchised, if that's trouble for some, then I think that their definition of trouble is something that I think needs to be questioned. I was the first candidate to come out against this war, spoke at every anti-war march. The trouble wasn't our protest. The trouble was going into Iraq for weapons we still can't find. I've championed causes against police brutality. The trouble is not response. The trouble is police that step out of line. So who defines trouble? If you can get the proper definition of trouble, then we can find out who the real troublemakers are.
EDWARDS: You have a foreign policy?
Rev. SHARPTON: Oh, absolutely. I think, first of all, the United States has got to adopt a policy of befriending and creating allies around the world with our positives. According to government studies, there are 1.7 billion people in the world today that need clean water, almost three billion that need sanitation systems that work. I would train engineers with incentives to young people to go to schools to become these engineers that would export people that could help with these things. That would give us allies in the war against terrorism. I would not just deal with one side of the world. I've been to the Congo to deal with the question of the tribal wars there. I've been to Cuba to deal with the question of the embargo. I've been to the Middle East and met firsthand with the Palestinian and the Israeli side. There's nobody in this race that has, in my judgment, dealt more around the world on these global issues. We need to develop a balanced strategy of creating allies around the world, supporting democratic movements around the world and not have an inconsistent pattern of saying we're going to be with the most cruel reactionary dictators if they serve our interests and then make them the pariahs when we decide they do not.
EDWARDS: What am I missing from the Sharpton platform?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think that one of the things that is of grave concern to me is education. I think that the various schemes of privatizing education, whether it's charter schools or vouchers, is the direction that we must turn away from. The United States government has an obligation to educate all young people in this country, not have schemes of how we're going to find ways of just doing it for some. Now whether it be charter schools, whether it be vouchers, you're only talking about, at best, some young people getting a quality education. We need to guarantee it to all and we have to have a federal budget that supports that.
EDWARDS: What would be a victory for you?
Rev. SHARPTON: Moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January of 2005.
EDWARDS: And nothing short of that?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, there are always gradual victories at various levels. I'm the only candidate in this race, I feel, that can help energize a movement of voter registration and voter participation that could help change the United States Senate, so victory for me starts at local progressive people being elected; statewide elections all the way to winning at the top. Let's remember, Mr. Bush was not elected by the majority of Americans and he certainly can be defeated in re-election if the majority feels that there's a clear-cut alternative that's running against him.
EDWARDS: Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton. A longer version of our conversation and previously broadcast interviews with other Democratic candidates are at npr.org.
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