Al Sharpton for President    National Action Network     Profile
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Beginnings of a Journey
Sharpton, founder of the Harlem-based National Action Network, started to think about the possibility of running for president in the wake of the November 2000 presidential election; he was troubled by voter disenfranchisement.  The first public mention of the idea appeared in Time magazine in May 2001, several weeks after he returned from a six-day fact-finding trip to Sudan.  Rev. Sharpton was arrested in Vieques, Puerto Rico on May 1, 2001 for trespassing while protesting the Navy bombing exercises that are conducted there.  He received a 90-day sentence.  During his incarceration at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Rev. Sharpton engaged in a hunger strike under the guidance of Dick Gregory.  He received a steady stream of visitors.

Sharpton announced in an August 20, 2001 press conference that he would establish by November 2001 a presidential exploratory committee headed by then Harvard professor Cornel West.  Sharpton continued in exploratory mode throughout 2002.

Meanwhile Sharpton continued to confront various injustices through the National Action Network (NAN).  For example, NAN's Madison Avenue Initiative sought to challenge racial bias in advertising.  NAN chapters were active in a number of states.  NAN set a goal of registering one million women by 2004.  Sharpton himself appeared in the news from time to time.  He appeared in a cameo role in the poorly reviewed Adam Sandler movie "Mr. Deeds," which came out in late June 2002. On July 24, 2002, Sharpton filed a lawsuit against HBO charging the network was engaging in a "smear campaign" for airing an edited version of a 1983 FBI surveillance tape on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."  On August 25, 2002, Sharpton, making his first appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," engaged in 28 minutes of discussion with Tim Russert. 

Sharpton's manifesto "Al on America" (Kensington Books), co-written with journalist Karen Hunter, came out in October 2002.  He stated, "It's a policy book to talk about my vision of America to fight against the pro-big business, anti-labor, pro-death penalty matrix I think has crippled America, and to talk about where I think we ought to be going in the 21st century."  The publisher's publicity stated that the book was "sure to ignite a firestorm of debate."

Sharpton finally filed papers establishing a presidential exploratory committee with the FEC on January 21, 2003.  He appeared in major candidate forums during the first quarter of 2003, often drawing enthusiastic responses from audiences, but his "campaign," such as it was, remained extremely disorganized.  For example, he initially declined to fill a first quarter financial report with the FEC, but finally did submit a report on April 29.  On April 15, 2003 Frank E. Watkins, a long-time aide to Rev. Jesse Jackson, took the reins as campaign manager, bringing much needed organizational skills to Sharpton's effort.  Watkins also added a new element to Sharpton's message, a call for amendments to the Constitution to include the right to vote, to quality public education, to quality health care, and to equal rights for women.

Strengths and Weaknesses
+ Sharpton could attract people who have not participated in the process in past elections, and he could raise issues that would otherwise not be discussed.

- Media and voters could pigeonhole Sharpton as a black candidate and his campaign as a racial campaign.
- Sharpton is so controversial that the mere mention of his candidacy causes many mainstream Democrats to simply chuckle or roll their eyes.
- In the words of a cab driver, "He don't have nothing to say, he just want the publicity."
- In terms of experience, leading marches and protest actions may not form a sound basis for managing a government.

Readings and Resources
Josh Getlin.  "Al Sharpton: The outspoken activist, given little chance of winning, softens his rhetoric as he redefines his image in his run for the presidency."  Los Angeles Times.  July 6, 2003. [Seventh of weekly series].

Michael Powell.  "Outspoken Activist Takes National Stage."  Washington Post.  June 29, 2003.  [Fifth of weekly series].

Bob Edwards.  "The Candidates: The Rev. Al Sharpton."  NPR Morning Edition interview.  June 13, 2003.  >

Michelle Cottle.  "Black Power."  The New Republic.  February 17, 2003.

Garance Franke-Ruta.  "Let's Get Ready to Rumble!  Al Sharpton gears up to take on the Dems." The American Prospect.  February 1, 2003. >

Adam Nagourney.  "A Wily Contender, But Unlikely Winner, Eyes the Presidency."  The New York Times.  January 13, 2002.  [Sixth of weekly series on presidential prospects]. 
At the National Press Club on Aug. 20, 2001, Rev. Al Sharpton announces he will establish a presidential exploratory committee.

Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action