NEWS FORUM February 2, 2003 Sunday
Copyright 2003 WNBC-TV
SHOW: News Forum (7:30 AM ET) - LOCAL
HEADLINE: Reverend Al Sharpton discusses his run for president in 2004
ANCHORS: JAY DeDAPPER
JAY DeDAPPER, host: Is America ready? The Reverend Al Sharpton is running for president. He's set up an exploratory committee for now, but already, he's appeared on stage with five fellow Democrats at an early campaign event. And he stole the show. He promises to take positions and talk about issues no one else in the race will. But while he may win the battle for the best soundbite, will Democratic voters in Iowa or New Hampshire, for instance, take him seriously, and will his controversial path be a roadblock to his national political aspirations?
Announcer: From Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, this is a presentation from News Channel 4, Gabe Pressman's NEWS FORUM. Now your host, senior correspondent Gabe Pressman.
DeDAPPER: And good morning, everybody. I'm political reporter Jay DeDapper, in for Gabe Pressman. He is on assignment this week. Our guest, the Reverend Al Sharpton. Welcome.
Reverend AL SHARPTON (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Good morning.
DeDAPPER: You have formed an exploratory committee. That is something just short of running for president. What--is there something that would keep you from saying, 'Yes, I'm going to run'?
Rev. SHARPTON: I doubt it. I think that by spring, we'll probably make a formal announcement, but we've gone into the formal stages of an exploratory committee. We're moving around now, putting together an infrastructure that I think will end up being a national campaign.
DeDAPPER: Is there som--I mean, when you're saying you're exploring, though, is there something that might happen where you'd say, 'You know, I'm not going to do this'?
Rev. SHARPTON: I doubt it. I--I--I cannot see what that would be. But again, that's the steps that we're taking, but I don't see anything that I can foresee that would stop me from making the race.
DeDAPPER: The other Democratic contenders, many of them are in the Senate and were sitting there on--on Tuesday night watching the State of the Union. What was your reaction to the president?
Rev. SHARPTON: I was in Washington, and, in fact, I was with the Creative Coalition. They had a--a viewing party, the--the chairman of the party, Terry McAuliffe, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, all of us, were at. I felt that the president did a well-rehearsed speech that was high on drama and low on substance. First, I think he gave us things that people like--Democratic activists like me would be interested in, in terms of monies for AIDS research, in terms of trying to find alternative to gas or oil. I think those were good. But then he does the buildup to all but declare war. So in many ways, it was like giving you Kool-Aid with cyanide in it. It tastes good at the beginning, but it's going to kill you at the end because if, in fact, we go to war, you're going to see a--a--a ticket--a--a price tag to that of $100 billion to $1 trillion, which in many ways will make what he announced almost unachievable because where is the money going to come from?
I think what was eloquent was what he didn't mention. One, he never mentioned one time bin Laden. I think he owed American people an explanation on why we have not seen the capture of bin Laden, since he said on September 11th that's what he was going to do. Hasn't done it. He did mention the gapping state deficits, which in many ways, when he goes through this long speech about how he was going to have tax cuts, even in the speech call for permanent tax cuts, to not talk about state deficits means he knows he's going to cut taxes here for some. Because of the state deficits, sales tax and property taxes are going up. So in many words--in many ways, 'I'm going to cut your taxes, but I'm going to make it unavoidable for you to have to pay more taxes on another level,' which is disingenuous.
DeDAPPER: You--do you think you take out--the--the--stake out the most liberal position on the war of all the candidates in the Democratic primary field?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think I'm the only unequivocal anti-war candidate. I don't know whether one...
DeDAPPER: Under no circumstance should we go to into Iraq?
Rev. SHARPTON: Until we see there is no other way to deal with absolute evidence of weapons of mass destruction. First, we need to have evidence. We haven't seen that. The weapons inspectors have said they have not seen a smoking gun. They've asked for more time. One, we need to establish there is ar--arms of mass destruction. Then we need to establish that the only way to deal with disarming him is by war. It, to me, makes no sense. In the same speech, he can say, 'North Korea has lied to us, have the weapons. We're going to use allies and talk there.' He has not established the same with Iraq, yet we're going to build up and go to war there. That is a contradictory foreign policy at best.
DeDAPPER: You've been to Iowa and New Hampshire in the last month or so; New Hampshire, I know, just a couple weeks ago. Do you think that primary voters in those two states, caucus voters and primary voters, are going to take you seriously as a candidate, they're going to look at you...
Rev. SHARPTON: Oh...
DeDAPPER: ...and say, 'Here's a guy that we should consider seriously'?
Rev. SHARPTON: Ab--absolutely. You know, I remember 10 years ago, when I ran for US Senate. People would actually--people upstate take me seriously. They didn't ask that after the el--election came in. The difference this time is I intend to win it. I think that when I go to Iowa and talk about livestock, ownership of some of the product that they handle, when I talk about how the farm aid bill did not help many family farmers, just the big agri-industrialists, the question is: Can they take the other guys seriously who are not addressing those issues? I go to New Hampshire, and we rally students and--and in--everywhere I've spoken, gotten huge crowds around the war question. And most of the candidates running voted to give the president the authority to go to war. The question is: Can they take the others seriously? How can you say, 'Nominate me to be the opposition party, but I don't oppose the president'? So I think the problem is not Al Sharpton being taken seriously; the problem is those that want to oppose Bush without opposing him, why should anybody take them seriously?
DeDAPPER: Inevitably, there's the comparison between you and Jesse Jackson. One of the critical reasons is he ran for president, was the first--one of the first African-Americans to run for president, but also to gain the su--enough support to be able to go into the convention and say, 'I've got power.' He was enough--he was powerful enough to have won, you know, a lot of votes in primary states, more so than, for instance, Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president. Do you see yourself as the--the next guy after Reverend Jesse Jackson, the next African-American who's running for president, the next in line, that kind of thing?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, no. I see myself in his tradition. Both of us came out of the civil rights movement. In fact, he mentored me. But I--I don't see as the next guy, in terms of I don't intend to just gain delegates; I intend to try and win a nomination. The least that could happen is that we gain delegates and change the party in terms of its direction and in terms of the debate. And I think that there is something to continuing the tradition of those that come with a progressive agenda that will challenge those that have moved the party to the right. So in line with Reverend Jackson's tradition, I see myself there. But I don't know what this next guy matrix, I don't know exactly what that means. I think that we definitely should continue the progressive politics that he firmly established in the '80s that I think the Democratic Leadership Council has tried to bring the party away from in the last decade.
DeDAPPER: Is America ready to elact--to elect an African-American as president?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think the question has--has always been to me not whether America is ready, it's whether we're ready to get America prepared. I don't know if America was ready for us to come from the back of the bus. We were ready, and we changed America. And I think that the question is: Are we ready to change America? And I think enough Americans are ready.
DeDAPPER: How do you--how do you convince non-African-American voters, whether they be Hispanic or white or Asian or whatever, to vote for you? I mean, it--it--is it--is it simply because of the color of your skin that people look at you and go, 'Well, I gotta think about voting for him'?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I mean, you may have that, but I think that when you go to the public and you go to the voting public, you win votes by what you represent and what you stand for, which is why I got white votes when I ran in New York and Latino votes. In fact, there's no one that can go to the Latino community with more of a track record of working politically with them, whether it was Vigalarosa in Los Angeles or--or--or--who I supported, or Freddy Ferrer, who I supported here or the Vieques fight, where I did 90 days in jail. The question is: Why would they vote for people that have never stood for their interests? White community, anti-war, anti-death penalty. I'm the only candidate in this race that's opposed to the death penalty. We have a Republican governor in Illinois that showed, in my judgment, more moral courage than any Democratic governor--anti-tax cuts, at pro-building an infrastructure revival in this country. I think the same way I've gotten votes locally is how you vote and--appeal to voters nationally. And I think there are more of them. And I think the times have come where I think my message will resonate across racial lines.
DeDAPPER: All right. We'll come back in just a second and talk about your past, which I think some would say was controversial, and also about what you plan for the future in terms of--of this presidential race.
Rev. SHARPTON: Fine.
DeDAPPER: And we're back with Reverend Al Sharpton. Again, Gabe Pressman on assignment this week.
Your headquarters, the National Action Network up on 124th Street, burned down the day after you declared that you were going to run for president. Coincidence?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I don't know. There's an investigation. The preliminaries was that it was an electrical accident. We're waiting for the written report and we're looking into it independently. I don't want to fan flames of suspicion, but at the same time, I certainly don't want to say it's been concluded when the fire marshals have even said they haven't ruled out anything until a late--till their last report. I do think that those that laugh at those that are suspicious should look at the fact that given history people have a reason to look into things like this in more detail.
DeDAPPER: There--there--you know that there's on--on the streets, there is the--the conspiracy theorists are out saying, 'Hey, you know, he--he said he's going to run for president, and they burn down the hou--the headquarters.'
Rev. SHARPTON: Again, given the history and given when people step out and challenge things, there's reason for people to raise questions. I'm going to wait and see what our investigators come with and--and the final report from the fire department, but I'm not one to just laugh at people for being wary because of history.
DeDAPPER: An--any guy who runs for president, your entire life is dissected. You know, they come in with the--the microscope and they look over it. Obviously, your past has things that a lot of people would say are controversial and they're going to be asked about. The--the white interloper incident in Harlem, do you regret saying that white businessmen in Harlem is a white interloper?
Rev. SHARPTON: No, I said, 'He was an interloper.' I said at the time I shouldn't have referred to his race any more than when I come on this station. They call me a black activist. Is that racist? I think that what I said was this particular guy who people had worked there, getting paid off the books, a lot of allegations, had abused the community. Clearly we were not saying whites shouldn't be up there. The building that we went in, the building just burned, was owned by whites. We never tried to get that out.
What I think has--has--has been very encouraging to me is around the country people have said, 'Well, first of all, how does him say white interloper have any connection with the guy killing himself at the place four months later?' This is again the overreach critics do. And I--I've said the--to reporters, 'You say that the guy that ended up doing the fire four months later and killed himself was inspired by me calling him an interloper?' and reports, 'Oh, no, no. I'm not saying that.' Then why do you raise it in the same question? See, I think what a lot of people do...
DeDAPPER: I did--I didn't raise that in the same question.
Rev. SHARPTON: I know you didn't and I...
DeDAPPER: My question...
Rev. SHARPTON: I know you didn't.
DeDAPPER: OK. My question is only in--in--in calling someone a white interloper. Personally...
Rev. SHARPTON: I think...
DeDAPPER: ...wouldn't--wouldn't you be out there with--with pickets if somebody said of a black businessman in Chinatown, 'That's a black interloper'?
Rev. SHARPTON: I've heard the police commissioner here call people a black Nazi and we didn't picket him. I mean--or Arab terrorists and you don't picket. I mean, what are we talking about--the guy--the question is: Was the guy abusive to his workers? There's no question about it. Would I ha--if I said it again and not refer to his race, yeah, I probably wouldn't have, but there's no question this guy had abuses in the community, including was cited by the fire department. And if somebody said that there was a black guy in a certain neighborhood that had abused the neighborhood, I would not be out there picketing him at all.
DeDAPPER: Tawana Brawley's the other thing that probably people around the country, 'cause you're obviously going to be talking to voters that may not know mu--much about...
Rev. SHARPTON: Right.
DeDAPPER: ...what happened on--on 125th Street. But most of them are going to--at least have heard the name Tawana Brawley and reporters around the country in smaller places are going to be asking about this. I want to ask you only about the--the--the--the civil case. In that civil case, you were--you were found to have committed slander, and you--you paid a fine for that. In a way, you committed a crime by doing that...
Rev. SHARPTON: But, no...
DeDAPPER: ...or you committed...
Rev. SHARPTON: ...first of all...
DeDAPPER: ...a civil offense.
Rev. SHARPTON: No.
Rev. SHARPTON: Th--now let's--let's go through that slowly, Jay, 'cause I'm glad you said that. There was a criminal investigation that said that we conspired to tell a lie. They ended up with their witness having had blank tapes. There was no crime. The one thing that a lot of people around the country is saying is, 'Wait a minute. Why are you acting like there's a crime when there was no crime?' The reason it went civil is because they failed to make a criminal case. Even in the civil...
DeDAPPER: So in the civil...
Rev. SHARPTON: ...case, they put in the conspiracy clause. The jury voted it was no conspiracy, that we believe--the lawyers and Sharpton believe Tawana Brawley and that there wasn't evidence to support her allegation, end of verdict. In fact, if you remember when the verdict came down, the jury said, 'I hope he continues in his civil rights work.' I intend to ask one or two of the jurors to go around the country with me to make that very clear on what their position was. The conspiracy note that was put in or the charge that was put into the civil trial, they voted against that.
DeDAPPER: But they did say you slandered Steve Pagones.
Rev. SHARPTON: They said they did not feel the evidence was there. I think the evidence was there. I think we had a right to do that. One of the other things that I think has happened around the city...
DeDAPPER: So--so let me--let me say this...
Rev. SHARPTON: Go ahead.
DeDAPPER: So to this day you--you say...
Rev. SHARPTON: A--absolutely...
DeDAPPER: ...you didn't slander Steve Pagones.
Rev. SHARPTON: I feel that we had the right and, based on the evidence, that we had the outright obligation since we believed Tawana Brawley to represent her. She identified her assailants, which is why she also was cited in the suit. And we had the right to stand by what we believed. There are people to this day that believe O.J. Simpson was guilty, which is why Geraldo Rivera went to court to say, 'How can you say Sharpton shouldn't say something he believed based on his view of the evidence?' and I have the right to do that.
The other thing that I think is very important is around the same time period--and this has resonated nationally--I stood up for the Central Park jogger kids. Thirteen years later, they overturned those convictions. I was castigated, I was maligned, editorials against me for standing up there. And over a decade later I ended up being right. A lot of people around the country say, 'Well, how can he be right about all of these cases--Louima, jogger and all of that, and I'm supposed to hold one case against him that I may agree or disagree with?' I think, in light of Central Park, a lot of people see this in context a lot differently than a lot of New York media people, including people in New York.
DeDAPPER: Some of your critics would say that this presidential bid is one more case of Al Sharpton just trying to get attention.
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think that's--again, my critics will always be my critics. I mean...
DeDAPPER: Who would you be without your critics, right?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think, first of all, why don't they debate the issues and argue the point? And I think that everybody running wants to get attention on what it is they're offering. So to say that I'm getting attention, yeah, I'm getting attention on some of the issues that wouldn't have been raised. I'm getting attention on some of the policy shifts in the Democratic Party. Why would anyone run and not want to put focus on things that they believe in? I think that that's kind of absurd.
DeDAPPER: One of the issues you were asked about in Washington by some of the national reporters was reparations, slavery reparations. It's an issue that has kind of floated along and been in the background in presidential campaigns before. Do you expect this to become a major thing again, almost simply because you're African-American?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, first of all, I think that affirmative action is going to be the first point, and reparations, certainly, is something I support and am a--and able to deal with in any forum. But I remind you, when we were able to get Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley to debate at the Apollo Theater last time--the question of reparation was raised that night.
DeDAPPER: Yes, it was.
Rev. SHARPTON: So it won't be the first time it will be raised. I hate to disappoint my critics, but reparations won't be just raised for the first time because of my presence. It has been raised and it was raised in the Bradley-Gore primaries.
DeDAPPER: Wha--with what happened with Trent Lott and the--the issue of race being kind of in--injected again or coming up again in the national political scene, does this help you in some way?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think that it--it helps the whole cause of those of us that want to say the question of racial inequality and disparity is not over, because now people again have to look at the data. Blacks are still doubly unemployed to whites; Latinos are certainly more unemployed than whites. The data shows that in higher education we're still not there. So I think Lott made the issue of race become something front and center again. It helps in that sense, because people begin to say, 'Wait a minute. Yes, there's been progress, but yeah, there is a long way to go.' And the only way we're gonna get there is you're gonna have to have people out there that will push the envelope, and I've been one of those people for a long time.
DeDAPPER: In--in running a national campaign, it--i--it seems fairly clear that, to be successful, you need to focus on a fairly central theme; you can't be all over the map. What would be your central theme, other than 'I'm different from these guys, I got different ideas'? You know, w--is there a central theme of your camp...
Rev. SHARPTON: The central theme is that America must be for all Americans, inclusiveness. And--and out of that, the criminal justice system, the economy must be--we must have designs that include everyone. I'm the candidate that is saying that all Americans are not enjoying the same American type of life, American type of social order. That is the theme, that we must have America for Americans: farmers in Iowa, students in New Hampshire, minorities, women, everybody. And I think that the challenge of an exclusionary America will be the theme of my campaign. Make America work for all Americans, not just for some Americans.
DeDAPPER: And economically, I mean, ob--obviously the economy is going to be on Americans' minds, at least at this rate, unless things app--improve dramatically in the next nine months. Do you have a specific economic plan developed yet?
Rev. SHARPTON: Absolutely. First of all, we are pushing in our campaign Felix Worthley's plan to revive the infrastructure--infrastructure reinvestment, $250 billion, five-year plan, $50 billion a year added to the federal deficit for five years to rebuild re--tunnels, bridges, highways...
Rev. SHARPTON: ...as well as school buildings and, in line with that homeland security, rebuild ports. We're--keep talking about fighting terrorism. You have ports all over this country that have infrastructure deficiencies, that are not manned, that terrorists can pull right up to the ports in many cities and attack us because we're not equipped to handle them, and we have not taken care of the infrastructure. That provides jobs, that provides taxpayers; that's investing in job creation, not giving a tax break to dividend holders of large stock portfolios.
DeDAPPER: All right. Gotta take another break, and we'll be back in just a minute.
DeDAPPER: And we're back with the Reverend Al Sharpton.
The campaign on the Democratic side--obviously, there are issues that you gotta run on nationally, but on the Democratic side, you know, you--you gotta beat up your opponents a little bit, right?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, you have to debate the issues.
DeDAPPER: It can't be a love-in.
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think there's a lot that you have to debate. Certainly the--we differ on the war. Certainly we differ on big business deregulation. Certainly Senator Lieberman and I differ on the question of accounting reform. Certainly we differ on things like the death penalty. So I think healthy debate is good for the party. What I've said to the party leadership is that would they--and, you know, the initial reaction is 'Will this hurt the party--Sharpton if he's nominated or Sharpton gets a lot of votes?' What I say is the people that I speak to and for expands the party, maybe the margin of victory in '04 for the Congress as well as the White House. The three million that left--many of them left--some of them already had been gone. And what about Ralph Nader? Who's gonna speak to that? Who speaks to the disaffected young people? Who speaks to the blacks and Latinos who feel excluded from the party? So what you fear may be the best thing to happen if you start listening to people and s--quit dictating things that people already have rejected.
DeDAPPER: But in 1992 you ran against Bob Abrams and others in a--in a Democratic primary for the Senate. You ran against Moynihan in '96. I've got to get you to get...
Rev. SHARPTON: '94.
DeDAPPER: '94. Thank you. Got to get the years right. And then you ran for mayor against Ruth Messinger. In all three of those cases, you didn't immediately back the victor in the primary when you lost.
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, first of all...
DeDAPPER: Is--is that going to be a pattern in this case, too?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well...
DeDAPPER: If you were to not win?
Rev. SHARPTON: ...what--what do we call immediate? In--in--in '92 Mr. Abrams and I were in court with each other. I ended up doing a statewide tour for the whole part in '92, for the state party, and helped to get the vote out that helped Clinton and Gore and the entire state party. So that's not true.
DeDAPPER: But--but Bob Abrams--now he was in court--I understand there's a long history there. But you didn't back Bob Abrams in a pri--in a primary, in a runoff--in a run--excuse me--against Al D'Amato. Al D'Amato eventually won. A lot of state Democrats said, you know, if Sharpton had just turned around and supported Abrams, we wouldn't have had Al D'Amato.
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I--I don't think that the--a lot of Democrats could expect a man that was--had--had gone all over the state castigating me to--for me to just say, you know, the next morning, 'Let's forget about it.' We still had cases in court we were dealing with.
DeDAPPER: What--what about Pat Moynihan now? I mean, here's a guy, who won...
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, Pat Moynihan--when I lost the primary, I said that we supported Moynihan. There was no problem with Moynihan. Ruth Messinger--we ended up going into court on the runoff. When the court proceedings was over, I endorsed and campaigned for Ruth Messinger.
DeDAPPER: So you don't--I mean, the--the--that spoiler charge goes out a lot. 'Oh, he's a spoiler.'
Rev. SHARPTON: Spoil who?
DeDAPPER: And--and they name these--these kinds of cases. You don't see it like that?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, for--first of all--well, I campaigned for Messinger. Not only that, I campaigned for Chuck Schumer. I ca--came to my headquarters the Saturday after he was elected and thanked the African-American community. I campaigned for Hillary Clinton. I've campaigned for Eliot Spitzer. I mean, spoiler where? I mean, I don't think that all of the officials, they'd be coming to my headquarters and stand with me, that you and others have done a story on come to thank me for spoiling them. I think that my critics need to do a little more research. Why don't they ask the people when they come to our events, 'Why are you here if Sharpton's a spoiler?' Maybe because I haven't been a spoiler. Oh, that's right, Abrams doesn't count. I'm talking about all of those in power now.
DeDAPPER: We've got about a minute left. You are running for president, and a lot of people would say, 'He can't win.' They say that about some of your opponents, too. 'Howard Dean, he can't win.' Do you really, honestly believe that you could win this?
Rev. SHARPTON: I would not run if I didn't believe I could win, if this wasn't the time to take that step. And let me tell you this. You said it best. There are six people talking about running now. Five of them won't win. So at least five of us are wrong. I would rather take the chance of trying to redirect history and win than to sit back always wondering why I was silent when I feel the party and the nation is going the wrong way.
DeDAPPER: Will you support one of those guys who--if--if you don't win, will you support one of the other guys?
Rev. SHARPTON: I would--I would hope that I can if I don't win. I would hope that there is nothing that would transpire that would prevent that. And I would hope that they would do the same if I was the winner.
DeDAPPER: All right. Al Sharpton, thanks for coming in. Appreciate it. Good luck on your race for president.
Rev. SHARPTON: Thank you.
DeDAPPER: Official announcement later in the spring, right?
Rev. SHARPTON: Yes, sir.
DeDAPPER: OK. Very good. Gabe Pressman will be back next week for NEWS FORUM. He's on assignment again. Thanks for joining us. Have a great Sunday.