Rev. Al Sharpton
Press Conference Announcing Presidential Exploratory Committee
National Press Club
Washington, DC
August 20, 2001

[Rev. Sharpton held this press conference shortly after his release from the Brooklyn Detention Center, where he spent 90 days for trespassing while protesting military exercises in Vieques.  The first part of the press conference concerned an August 25 march on the United Nations; Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez also spoke.  In the second part of the press conference, transcribed below, Sharpton announced the exploratory committee; he was joined by Harvard Professor Cornel West, activist Dick Gregory and two of his attorneys].

Rev. Al Sharpton: ...There's been a lot of talk about my fasting in jail and I'm obviously smaller, and my fasting guru just walked in -- Brother Dick Gregory -- to make sure that I survive this press conference.  Sometimes it is better to do a morning with inmates inside than with the Washington press corps on the outside. [laughter from audience].

Secondly, on the Monday before our May 23 incarceration, Time magazine reported that we were considering forming an exploratory committee to look at the 2004 elections.  It is my, it was my contention then that there ought to be a real mobilization and galvanizing of voters, particularly given what happened in the 2000 election.

When the vote count[s?] started in Florida -- and I went to Florida, National Action Network filed a voter rights lawsuit -- it was appalling to me that members of the leadership of both parties would not deal with the rights that had been violated, of voters in Duval County and other places.  It is a debate going on now in Washington, around soft money and campaign finance and little given around election reform -- to protecting hard votes that were ignored and disenfranchised.  This has been in my judgment the tip of the iceberg, where unfortunately there are those in the Democratic party that have driven the party further and further to the right in the name of a winning strategy.  And it seems that it is their presumption that the only way to be electable is that progressive forces and people of color must voluntarily turn into invisible people and provide the votes and then go and hide until the elections are over.  It is like when we were forced in the African American community to be maids, to cook the meal for everyone else to enjoy while we hide in the kitchen while they eat what we prepare.  That type of politic[s?] cannot go forward in 2004.

But I would not be presumptuous enough to run without a careful analysis and study of the feasibility and the durability of such a race.  I'm committed to making sure there is a candidate; I'm committed to being that candidate if it is feasible.  And I've asked Dr. Cornel West of Harvard University to convene an exploratory committee by November's election that will represent different regions, different stations of this country, to study the feasibility of such a race.  But let it be clear that I feel there is a necessary strategy that must come into play nationally to challenge the Democratic party to not abandon its base voters, not abandon those issues that are of major concern to those voters and to stop this continual drift to the right -- when it has not proven not only to be a winning strategy, but even a fair and ethical and moral strategy.

After Dr. West has convened that group by November, they will determine whether or not a run is feasible for me and/or any other candidate.  But in any way, shape or form that we can find a feasible and durable way we intend to challenge the drift of the Democratic party toward abandoning the base that has been loyal to it, but in some policies they have not shown a reciprocal loyalty -- the issues that we deal with in the march Saturday, of Vieques, the issues of the criminal justice system, the issue of what is going on in terms of worker's rights, have not been adequately addressed in my judgment by some of the leadership of the party.  And without a challenge, I don't think that they will voluntarily deal with them.  So we intend to convene and seriously look at this, and seriously look at a strategy that would lead toward making sure the unheard and the unnoticed are both heard and paid attention to.  I would like Dr. West to address that at this point.

Cornel West: I'm delighted to accept the invitation of Rev. Al Sharpton to play a fundamental role in convening the exploratory committee.  It looks in a very serious and substantive way to the possibility of Rev. Al Sharpton running for presidency of the United States.

There's three central points I want to make.

First this exploration raises the question of how do we take seriously the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Fannie Lou Hamer, of Miles Horton, of Delores Huerta, of those who were willing to bring moral and political protest into public life.  But what is the relation of that legacy to electoral politics?  Many of you know that Rev. Al Sharpton has already run for office as a U.S. Senator in '94, mayor in '96, and we should note in the primary 86% of the black vote went his way; 26% of the white vote went his way.  But this issue of linking the legacy of Brother Martin to electoral politics is one that our committee will be wrestling with as we convene, after names are picked.

Secondly is the issue of progressive leadership in general and black leadership in particular.  This is very important because the press tends to ghettoize black leaders and somehow confine them to black issues, black community.  We're talking about progressive leadership.  And progressive leadership is in deep crisis at the moment within the Democratic party and outside, and Rev. Al Sharpton has proven to be a visionary, courageous and sacrificial progressive leader.

Third, last but not least, what Rev. Al Sharpton noted, the centrist and right-wing drift of the Democratic party, and to ensure that there is a voice at the highest level that focuses on the issues of working people and poor people, especially as it has to do with housing, health care, education, quality jobs, ecological abuse, and of course the legacies of racism and sexism and heterosexism.

These are going to be the three points that constitute a kind of framework as we reflect on who will constitute the exploratory committee and then move thereafter.

Rev. Al Sharpton:  It is ironic probably to some, providential to me that Dick Gregory joins us this morning,  because when I was graduating high school, the first election that I engaged in that a black, African American talked about running for president was when Dick Gregory ran in '68, and I still have the book he wrote Write Me In.  The real thing we're saying today to the Democratic party is after his stating write me in, we're saying over two decades later, "Don't write us off and don't take us for granted."  That we are not going to continue an engagement that does not address the concerns of a broad and progressive-based coalition.

Any questions.

Question:  Rev. Sharpton does feasibility and durability mean your ability to win or to make your point to the Democratic party on behalf of black people?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well, first of all we're not only talking black people.  Second of all, we would not run if we were not going to run to win.  And we're going to define winning as we run.  Winning is defined many different ways.  Winning is, of course at best, is to win the nomination; at worst is to raise issues that would have not been in the debates, that would not have been in the national discussion.  And accepting a sort of invisible man.  You know Ralph Ellison wrote the book The Invisible Man, and that has almost become the accepted politics of far too many of us of late.  And I think that we will define what that will be in this exploratory committee.

Follow Up Question:  And you are talking about running for the Democratic nomination?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  At this point yes.  There are certainly those that have opted to go independent.  We are not taking that off the table, but that is not my goal at this point.  Every time I've run for office, I've run within the confines of the Democratic primary.  I also might say that many of them and I might add millions that voted independent, that a lot of people say had they voted Democratic, Bush wouldn't have been in.  And I can argue a lot of reasons I think Bush was there.  But if any of them are going to come back, it's going to have to be by progressive leadership that can attract them and that addresses their issues.  So where some would say, "Sharpton,...if you decide will you hurt the party; we may help the party by bringing people back that left."  You know I grew up in a broken home.  Sometimes children don't go home when they don't feel loved, wanted or part of the family.

Question: Will you explain a little bit more about the timetable?  Are you saying that the committee will convene in November or they will decide in November?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  They will convene by November and they will set the timetable by then of when they will make their recommendations and go forward.

Follow Up Question:  So nothing will happen -- they will not meet or get together...?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Oh, they will meet between now and November.  They have to meet and decide what they're going to deal with and how they're going to deal with it.  What are the issues that we're going to resolve and who they are.

Follow Up Question:  Okay who's deciding who's on that committee?  Are you deciding that?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well if I'm going to be the candidate, I'm going to have a major input.  [laughter from audience].

Follow Up Question:  So then that begs the question, why appoint this committee if you're going to pick your own people; why not just say you're a candidate today?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well you know there's a little habit -- I don't mean to break new news - but the president chooses his cabinet.  I know that's news.  So therefore presidential people ought to choose who are going to help counsel them on whether or not to run.  So if we assume I may run, I might as well start acting presidential now, and choose my own exploratory committee.

Follow Up Question:  So should we assume you're running then?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  No, I just said again, this committee will advise whether it is feasible or not.  I would not want to hurt the cause that I profess so I want to study its feasibility.  Either way we're going to be raising those issues.  I'm going on a tour next month of ten states; I'm going to take what I call a freedom bus ride through New Hampshire in early October.  We're going to be out there raising these issues, and we're going to be out here arguing about the direction of the party.  But at the same time we're going to be careful enough that wen we decide what we're going to do, we can back up with reasoning why we thing this is the best strategy.

Question:  And when will the decision be made?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well they will announce that in November.  Probably early next year.

Question:  Can you address the tactics that might arrest the rightward drift that you referred to and Dr. West referred to?  If in fact this is true and it has been since the Nixon strategy, the Southern strategy of Nixon, if Americans seem to prefer conservative policies and candidates, how can this drift be arrested just by standing an raising a set of issues?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well I don't know.  I think you suggest something I didn't say.  I'm not saying that Americans tend or seem to want this.  I'm saying that it seems to be a concession more than it is a choice.  When you have Democrats that clearly show no difference in policy than the Republicans, you can't say America chose the conservative, if they're choosing between two conservatives.  I think that what we are saying is we need to give them a choice.  And most Americans don't vote at all unfortunately.  So I think that the reality is that we need to have a real clarification of policy and the differences between the parties.  I don't concede that most Americans want conservative.  Nor do I concede that we should continue even if that were true, supporting folks that will not support the policies that are best for us.

Question:  Rev. Sharpton, with former president Bill Clinton in Harlem now, would you be looking to his support or have you reached out, has he reached out to you with regard to your effort?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well no.  Clearly there are a lot of people that'll be out there.  The fact that Clinton is in Harlem doesn't mean that he ought to be profiled as a Sharpton supporter [laughter in audience].  You know I don't believe in profiling.  [laughter in audience].

Question:  Rev. Sharpton, if you're going to look into this, you're going to have to deal with a lot of people out in the so-called heartland, who don't know very much about you, and who you're going to be needing to introduce yourself to.  As you do that, how will you explain to them things like the Tawana Brawley episode?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  I would explain to anyone in America, both that are familiar with me and not, why I have taken positions that I have taken.  For example, the Brawley case that you raise.  There's a young lady 13 years old, whose parents and lawyers reached out.  I responded as others did; Bill Cosby and others.  I believed her, continue to say that I have not seen evidence that was proven against her.  Yes the press is going to use Brawley case, they're going to use cases and situations with anyone that chooses to run.  Any candidate that runs in 2004 will have baggage.  Some afford bellmen to carry their baggage.  I will carry my own [laughter in audience], and I will explain my positions.  Just as I will explain, I did the same thing in the Brawley case I did in the Louima case -- six police were convicted there.  I did the same thing in many other cases.  Out of 25 years of activism, I have done many cases.  Some a jury agreed; some a jury didn't agree.  I will be willing to deal with it squarely.

Secondly, there are many Americans that believe the jury was wrong on O.J. Simpson.  If they feel they have a right to question a jury, certainly they should allow me the same right, since I have more primary information on that case -- and even now as it is being argued by attorney Alton Maddox in the courts -- than they do.

And lastly, I think that if the thing that someone hold against me is my standing up for a woman, a young woman at that, and not a lot of the indiscretion that we've seen raised about political figures right here in Washington that have a lot more to do with their own conduct, rather than beliefs in other people, then I'm willing to take that chance.

Question:  Rev. Sharpton can you give us a sense of the [inaud.] array of progressive policies that you will advocate if you make this run?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well I clearly would be dealing with the question of fairness of the criminal justice system.  There are two million people in jail.  There's been a drift of pro-death penalty by the party which I think is wrong and immoral.  There has been in my judgment not the vigilance on judicial appointments t o the federal courts.  There's a federal judge that gave us time in jail.  That is politics.  Those people are being appointed.  We need to deal with the whole analysis of the criminal justice system -- how it works and doesn't work.  And let me be clear.  We fight police brutality; we do not fight police.  We do not want to see crime rise in our communities, but we do not want to see police become criminals.  I do not accept the fact that the only way you keep crime down is for police to be able to do whatever they want to do to citizens.  I think that -- and you have communities like San Diego that have established it -- where you can have good policing and good community relations.

We would want to deal with electoral reform, the protecting of the enfranchisement of voters, how we would deal with uniform voting machines and uniform voting policies.  When I toured Florida late last year in preparation for the National Action Network suit, what was striking to me was how some counties voted with some types of machines and others with other types of machines.  We need national standards on that.

We need to deal with national health policies and national education policies.  So there are many areas that we would raise the progressive point of view, in our judgment progressive.  But that does not mean that we agree with this whole question that it's right versus left.  To me it's more right versus wrong.

Question:  Should your committee decide that it is feasible for you to run, how do you go about reaching the scores of white Americans in this country, as Dr. West said you are a ghettoized black leader?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well I think that would be a challenge, but I think that it's also a challenge that we have to face, the same way white candidates have to deal with how do they appeal to people of color in this country.  So people will say, and I'm sure we'll read it tomorrow, how will Sharpton deal with whites?  But if Sen. Edwards from North Carolina's talking about running.  Nobody asks how he going to reach out to blacks.  I'm certainly more well know nationwide than he is.  I don't know anyone outside of North Carolina that even heard of him.  And I've talked to three people this morning from North Carolina and they hadn't heard of him.  [laughter in audience].  So I mean the challenge is for every candidate on how you going to get your message out.  I've shown in the times I've run that I've been able to get my message out twice.  When I ran for U.S. Senate statewide, I got votes in every county of the state of New York.  Some of those counties have no blacks or no sizable portion of blacks.  So again, let people underestimate me at their own peril if we choose to make this race.

Question:  Rev. Sharpton if you decide it's feasible, what do you do for money?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well first of all, the committee would decide how we would engage in that, in terms of campaign finance and what the strategies would be.  And there are laws, there are regulations.  When I ran for U.S. Senate you could only get donations to a certain point.  We would deal with that in the exploratory committee.  I've never needed the kind of money others needed to run.  When I ran for mayor four years ago, I was outspent 20 to 1 and came within a breath of a runoff for mayor.  The person that I ran against spent 20 to 1 to me and they found 700 votes five days later to stop a runoff.  So sometimes certain people don't need the same amount of money as others.  I think one of the things that really makes me serious about looking at this, is we've almost drifted to accepting that all you have to be in America is wealthy to hold office.  Edwards in North Carolina never held office before the Senate.  All he was was rich and a lawyer.  Corzine in New Jersey.  So I mean it is absolutely amazing to me how commentators can sit on national television with their parents watching and act like its intelligent to ask what is my background, when I've been a public policy activist for 25 years, but you've got a wrestler as the governor of Minnesota, who never fought nothing but fights -- alleged some of 'em fixed fights - that he can run Minnesota, but I who've been in public policy all my life, you'd ask my qualifications.  Certainly Jesse Ventura and others don't have the background that I have in terms of even dealing with public policy questions.  And that's one of the things that I think we need to deal with.  Are we going back to an America where only white male landowners need engage in the electoral process?

Question:  Rev. Sharpton, do you think that Al Gore lost the last election because he moved to far to the right?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well again if I choose to run and Mr. Gore choose to run I think we'll discuss that at that time.  I think that there's an interesting transition going on with Mr. Gore.  I noticed when I got out of jail, I shaved and had lost weight; he grew a beard and he gained weight.  So maybe we're passing in the night.

Follow Up Question:  Do you have any plans to talk to him though about your ideas?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  I don't think he would join my exploratory committee.

Follow Up Question:  But I mean just talking...?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  I talk to everybody.  I have an open talk policy.  I even talk to Clarence Page.  He'll tell you that.

Question:  Can you talk about your travel plans?  You said you're going to New Hampshire in October.  What over the next few months are your plans?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  I'm going to be dealing with traveling around in September in ten key cities from Los Angeles back to the northeast, and that will be released by Ms. Nordlinger [press secretary] right after the march.  I don't want to release that before the march.

Question:  Reverend, to bring about the policy shift that you're talking about you need the rhetorical skills on the one hand and you also need the backroom diplomatic skills.  You're known, Reverend, I think it's fair to say, as a pretty blunt and straightforward kind of guy.  Do you think that you have the diplomatic skills to pull this off?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Absolutely.  If you look at the fact that in the last decade the issues that we've raised are now before the country.  I don't think my worst critic could deny that we helped to dramatically bring racial profiling to the front burner, where there's a Senate bill on that.  Name another civil rights issue that is being argued in the Congress today.  And we did that not only with marching on the outside and going to jail, we did that meeting with members of the Senate and the Congress.  So just because some of the press is one-dimensional on how they cover us, doesn't mean we don't have the skills to also lobby and deal with these issues.  Which is why right now, in my home state, many of the people that seek office, seek to have our working with them and support them.  Because they understand we know how to talk in the room and we know how to talk on the platform.  The difference is, I don't say anything different in the room than the platform.  I may lower my volume, but I don't change my message, because we're trying to deal with the fact that in my real honest opinion that I felt betrayed when I know the blood and sacrifice made to give us the right to vote, and it was so discarded and so tossed away by some people last year, which is wy we had the Shadow Inauguration march when Mr. Bush was inaugurated here in January.

Question:  Rev. Sharpton, was Al Gore one of those people who disregarded you?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Again, we'll discuss that as we go down the line.  I'm not here to discuss any particular person's politics.

Question:  inaud.--questioner asked if he had made any efforts on endorsements of civil rights leaders or groups.

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Well most major civil rights groups can't make endorsements because it's against the law.  That again will be determined by the exploratory committee Dr. West puts together on whom they think is necessary to get support.

Question:  What criteria will you use to decide whether to make this a go or not.  Is it polling numbers, is it your ability to fund raise...?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  It will be a combination of all of that.  Again the committee would represent every region and discipline, people from the ability to raise money to policy thinkers such as Dr. West, to people that know how to mobilize like Dick Gregory.  And all of that together would make determination.  But there definitely needs to be a new strategy.  We can't go again into another national election with a strategy: "Silence of the Lambs."

Question:  Have you talked to Rev. Jackson about your plans?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  I've not talked to Rev. Jackson about my plans.  Let me say this.  I'm surprised you all waited so long to ask me that.  [laughter in audience].  It's interesting to me how when this was introduced that people said that I'm trying to replace Rev. Jackson.  No on accused Doug Wilder of trying to replace Rev. Jackson; he ran for president in '92.  No one accused Alan Keyes -- who would have loved to have my vote in New York by the way -- of trying to replace Rev. Jackson.  I'm not going to allow people to desecrate this to personalities rather than policies, but I have not discussed it with Rev. Jackson as of yet.

Question:  But Reverend haven't you done that yourself?  Wasn't there an interview not too long ago where you said some things about Rev. Jackson?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  What I said I use an example of how Rev. Jackson was demonized in his first run, and I expect people will try to demonize me.  And I used an example of what they used at that time.  But I stated very clearly and repeat that I do not believe the allegations they made then, which is why I supported him and I think that they will use untrue and unfounded allegations against me and probably anyone else that represents progressive politics.  But clearly I could give you clippings two years old that try to have this whole battle with Rev. Jackson and I.  Rev. Jackson to my knowledge is not running for president, so if I run, I would not be running against him, I'd be running against the contenders in the race.

Question:  Are you going to have to resist the urge to reinvent yourself in order to win votes and draw [inaud.] support?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  You know every time I show broader support, the press say I reinvented myself which means really that they just rewrote their bad stories.  Give you an example.  '92 when I ran for U.S. Senate the first time.  The day before they said nobody going to vote for Al Sharpton; this is the end of that buffoon.  That night I came in ahead of the sitting city controller of the State  of New York.  Next day, magic: "The New Al Sharpton."  It wasn't a new Al Sharpton; it was a new view of the same Al Sharpton.  '94 26 % of the vote against Moynihan.  "Oh, he reinvented himself again."  Well, if I reinvented myself after I got the vote, then who were the people voting for.  So it's amazing how...[missing several sentences]...something tricky rather than they were to lazy to go out there and really see the fervor of the people.  So I'm sure if we run and we do badly, they'll say, "Past caught up with him."  If we do good: "He reinvented himself again.  A chameleon -- he can just do it in midair."  I'm already prepared for that.  In fact, I write you the story for you; if you call me I'll [inaud.]... [laughter in audience].

Question:  Rev. Sharpton, you talk about your interest in selection the members of this committee... and the fact that you're looking to have your people on the committee.  Are these people who are also going to be able to say no?

Rev. Al Sharpton:  Oh absolutely.  First of all when I say your people in it, none of them are employed by me, influenced by me.  Cornel West certainly can't be intimidated by anybody.  He works at Harvard and they can't even handle him.  [laughter in audience].  So, no, I 'm absolutely talking about people on the committee that will say no and that will say no with good reason.

I take one more.

Question:  Rev. Sharpton, much has been reported about the black-latino burgeoning coalition in New York with regard to the mayoral race.  Do you see this happening across the country?  There's an inference in the USA Today with regard to latino and blacks and...the black congressional people losing their positions.

Rev. Al Sharpton:  I think that it is important to have alliances and coalitions, certainly black and latino coalition is extremely important on a national level.  There is the situation that was raised in today's USA Today on certain congressional seats.  And I would hope whatever I do helps to heal that.

I found blacks and latinos and whites marching together in Vieques, in the 90 days I was in jail -- they march every day across racial lines.  Maybe movements around policy can bring people together more quickly that the political leadership who have narrow agendas than the broader concerns of the people, and in some areas you have visionaries like [Bronx Democratic district leader Roberto] Ramirez, and [New York City councilman and candidate for Bronx board president Adolfo] Carrion and [Assemblyman Jose] Rivera, and in other areas you're going to have the leaders run to catch up with their own people.  And I think that in this case that may happen, which is why we're going to be policy driven, which is why I went to Vieques.  When we went it wasn't much of a story; when we got 90 days it became a big story and my critics said I plotted it.  So I guess I told the judge to give me 90 days, because it gave me a lot of publicity.  "Don't spare the rod.  Sock it to me, because it will be good for my career."  I mean that's how sick some of the columnists wrote.  Then one columnist, it was so funny that it was sad, when I announced I was going on a hunger strike, he said that real people that go on hunger strikes suffer; and one guy fasted 'til he died.  Let's see how serious Sharpton is.  So I guess I wasn't serious, 'cause I'm still here.

Thank you very much.

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Copyright © 2001 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action