The Rev. Al Sharpton
Morning Edition: June 13, 2003
Listen to an extended version of the interview.
BOB EDWARDS, host: First of all, why are you in the race?
The Rev. AL SHARPTON: Well, I'm in the race because I believe that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the direction of the country. The 2004 election is not just about a new director, it's about a new direction. And the whole direction of this country 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 has unfortunately been accommodated even by some forces within the Democratic Party. I feel that we must have a president that a), sees it as his duty to protect the rights of the citizens and open the doors equally toward opportunity and to have a balance in terms of the dissemination of the criminal justice system. Secondly, I'm running on a platform to give Americans for the first time their constitutional rights to things that we have in the past just had as programs. For example in 2000, Bush won the election at the Supreme Court, not in the electorate. But the reason he was able to do that is because there is no constitutional right to vote. If there had been in the Constitution a right to vote, and part of our platform in the Sharpton campaign is to have that amendment put in, there would have been a different argument had it been there, in the Supreme Court.
EDWARDS: What do you mean no constitutional right to vote?
SHARPTON: The Constitution says that you cannot discriminate against voters. It doesn't say every citizen has a right to vote and therefore protected by the government in that right. So that when Gore vs. Bush went before the Supreme Court, the Bush people argued that the states have the right to enact, enforce, supervise elections. The Supreme Court, based on that argument, kicked it back to Florida. Katherine Harris said, 'You've got two hours to count the vote. Oops, vote count over.' And on a state's rights decision, that's how we lost the election. We need an amendment that gives us the right to vote protected by the federal government and the Constitution, the right to quality education, the right to quality health care. And I think that if we begin by doing that, then the programs and the way we pay for these things, all of that emanates from the fact there's a basic right to these things. Now, the right wing always mobilizes around constitutional amendments: the right to bear arms, school prayer. We never in the moral center raise the constitutional questions. And the right is correct. Unless you really deal with constitutional questions, you're just going to go from program to program. I'm also in the race because I feel that 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? You've failed three times in local elections.
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 that has affiliates or chapters in every region of the country. So if the prerequisite is experience, someone that held a local office certainly has no national experience. We're talking about president of the United States. Everyone else in the race holds a local office in their state or in their congressional district.
EDWARDS: But they've won something.
SHARPTON: So... if that is the prerequisite, then a dogcatcher should be able to run... winning something, I won vice president of my student body in high school. That doesn't mean anything. I think the prerequisite is experience. I have more national experience than anyone in this race. I have a constituency in every region of the country that no one in this race can say that they have. I've fought for causes, stood on issues and dealt with policy in every region of the country. I think that that's a lot more important to bring into the White House than whether you won a local dogcatcher's race.
EDWARDS: The columnist Robert Novak calls you a professional troublemaker. You probably like that title...
SHARPTON: Well, I think first of all, we're going to hear a lot of names bantered back and forth. The question becomes 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 the 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: Do you have a foreign policy?
SHARPTON: Absolutely. I think first of all, the United States has got to adopt a policy of befriending and creating allies around the world... According to government studies, there are 1.7 billion people in the world today that need clean water, almost 3 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 would 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 first hand 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. The problem is that we have a very limited, narrow view of what are American interests so we deal with so-called NATO allies and dismiss Latin America and dismiss South America and dismiss Africa, the Caribbean and the Far East. I have a policy of saying that we need to develop a balanced strategy of creating allies around the world, supporting democratic movements around the world, and not having an inconsistent pattern of saying we're going to be with the most cruel reactionary dictators if they serve our interest and then make them the pariahs when we decide they do not.
EDWARDS: What about nationally outside of New York, where you're very well known.
SHARPTON: Well, if you look at any of the polls, I'm ahead of most who they call the front-runners are. So I think that the question of known is not an issue. But again, National Action Network, the group I founded, has affiliates or chapters in over 40 cities around the country. I think clearly they cannot make a case in terms of known, but the issue is not only known, known for what? Known for standing up for the causes that are correct. 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.
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 someone raises, they disagreed with me because a jury went against them, I think that that pales compared to questions that others may have seeking office. There are many people around the country that 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. I saw that case one way, the jury disagreed with that.
EDWARDS: What about an apology to the people who you slandered?
SHARPTON: First of all, I didn't slander anyone. Ms. Brawley accused the people of a crime and I believed Ms. Brawley... We've gone over that over and over again. I think that that speaks for itself. People have the right in this country to take positions on criminal cases. As on O.J., as any number of cases. I've taken positions on many and I'll tell you this. There isn't a case I've ever fought from Abner Louima, where those policemen are in jail today, to Howard Beach, that those that were accused didn't say, 'I'm going after Sharpton.' One case did, out of 35 years. I've never... been involved in a case you didn't have controversies because you're fighting against forces that you think are wrong and in some cases are very powerful.
EDWARDS: So no apology.
SHARPTON: Clearly, I'm not the one that would have to apologize. Apologize for believing in a young lady? I think that would be something that would be against the principles of anyone in this country with a conscience.
EDWARDS: What about the tax return you didn't file in 1986?
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. That's to me an issue that is a non-issue. What is more important to me is that you have those that are multinational corporations that are not paying taxes at all. When you find an Enron that has 3,000 offshore companies paying no taxes at all. So I think that when you look at the tax laws, it's kind of strange that when I'm in the middle of fighting Howard Beach, they want to say about a tax return that for years I had no income. But they don't see all these multinational super-billionaire companies that just go offshore and pay absolutely no tax. 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: You call President Bush's tax cut a tax shift.
EDWARDS: How do you come up with those?
SHARPTON: If you just look at what he has done. What he has done is, he has said we're going to give a tax cut on dividends, we're going to give a tax cut in certain areas so that it will trickle down to the people. Yet we have record state deficits all over the country. In California alone, $34 billion. Because his tax cuts on a national level force the states to increase state tax on property, sales tax, mass transit, which is just shifting the burden to working-class people who have to pay more, that is a working-class tax forced by his tax-cut policies on a national level.
EDWARDS: Where are you on health care?
SHARPTON: I think, first of all, again health care ought to be a constitutional right. If we start at the premise that we guarantee every American quality health care, then we can go from there into how we achieve universal health care. I'm for universal health care, but it starts on the premise that we should have a constitutional right. If Charlton Heston can have a constitutional right carry a rifle, why can't grandma have a constitutional right to health care and therefore the pharmaceutical industry and for that matter the medical services industry have to be governed by a constitutional commitment to give Americans those rights.
EDWARDS: Paid for how?
SHARPTON: It would have to be paid out of the United States government's budget, but again the premise must be because we guarantee that as a right. If we have the funds, and we do, to do any number of things that I feel should not be done, clearly in the United States government budget we have the funds to guarantee health care and to regulate health services and medicine. But the problem is that we always start at a conclusion without dealing with the premise. The premise is that if you give people the constitutional right to health care, then the industries that make money there [have] to be regulated based on the constitutional right. That's why I keep going back to the Sharpton platform on amendments. We keep arguing halfway down the road rather than getting at the beginning of the trip. The pharmaceutical industry, other health care industries, service industries, all of them ought to be governed around the fact that this country has a constitutional commitment that we give health care to every American citizen.
EDWARDS: You were ordained a Pentecostal minister by age nine?
SHARPTON: Yes, my ordination in the Church of God in Christ was at age nine and I later became a Baptist minister, which I am today.
EDWARDS: So is this your ministry now?
SHARPTON: My ministry's always been one of social activism and I think that out of social activism I became politically involved. I think that one that is a responsible minister must be at some levels involved in the social order.
EDWARDS: What am I missing from the Sharpton platform?
SHARPTON: I think one of the things that is of grave concern to me is education, which is part of the amendments that we're driving. 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 the obligation to education all young people in this country, not have schemes of how we're going to find ways of just doing it for some. Whether it be charter schools, whether it be vouchers, you're only talking about at best some young people getting 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?
SHARPTON: Moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. January of 2005.
EDWARDS: And nothing short of that?
SHARPTON: There are always gradual victories at various levels. I'm the only candidate in this case, I feel, that can help energize a movement of voter registration and voter participation that could help change the United States Senate and change the Congress because we are doing a grassroots campaign and come in with a constituency base that we can build upon. So a victory for me starts at local progressive people being elected. Statewide elections, all the way to winning at the top. So it is not just a Sharpton winning but it's talking about how do we change the political participation of most Americans. Most Americans are not voting at all. We need a candidate against George Bush that can attract the disaffected, those that feel that there is no reason to engage in the process at all, not just career politicians that are saying, 'It's my time to go for something bigger in my career.' No, it is our time to change the direction of the country.
EDWARDS: Well, there are eight others besides you. What's wrong with them? Are they not addressing these issues?
SHARPTON: I think all of us are. I think I address them best. Many of them support certain causes; I was involved in certain causes. They supported the civil rights movement; I was on the front lines of the movement. They supported the anti-war movement; I was there. They supported the fight against police abuse; I went to jail about it. They supported stopping the bombing in Vieques, I did 90 days about it. There's a difference between those that take a position late in their career and those of us that all of our lives have been paying the price so that people like them would have to take those positions.
EDWARDS: Why is the party unable to get its positions across to the public? The Republicans control the House, the Senate, the White House.
SHARPTON: Well I think that part of it that there has to be a defining moment and I think the 2004 elections will be that. What is the party's stance... what is the party's message? Secondly, I think it is a problem now with the consolidation of media, particularly with the latest FCC ruling, whether anyone other than right-wing reactionaries are going to be able to get their message out, which is why you're going to need grassroots movements now. Because of the ownership ruling by the FCC, it's going to be very difficult to get your message out mass media. You're going to have to go do it the way we've always had to do it in movements, house to house, door to door, church to church.
EDWARDS: I was just thinking, have you ever had a problem getting your message out?
SHARPTON: I've had a problem staying out there after my message was out as in the case of Vieques or something. But I think that clearly the challenge of the party is a coherent, clear message based on the moral center of this country where people are organizing and mobilizing people around that message. I think we've got to stop being imitators of the Republicans. The strategists have said, in effect, that we've got to be elephants in donkey jackets to win. I think that that is why we lost. Because people say, 'If you're an imitator, I might as well go with the real thing. If you're going to be reactionary, I'm going with the real reactionary.' And it makes those that want to be morally centered just stay home. I think if we stand up for workers' rights, stand up for a peace plan worldwide, stand up for the constitutional rights of every American, those people will come back and those people are the majority of Americans.
EDWARDS: But sixty-something percent of the country supports the president.
SHARPTON: Well according to polls, I think his father was higher than that at this time in his presidency and he was defeated. And I think George Bush Jr. will be defeated if we have a clear and coherent plan and program that we put [before] the majority of Americans. Let's remember, Mr. Bush was not elected by the majority of Americans and he certainly can be defeated in reelection if the majority feels that there's a clear-cut alternative that's running against him.
EDWARDS: But why does he have them now, according to the polls?
SHARPTON: A lot of it is media hype. A lot of it is that he has been able to beat the drums that is some kind of way of being synonymous with patriotism. And a lot of it is he's not facing an opponent yet. It's easy to get positive ratings when you're the only one on stage. When you're contrasted with a clear, coherent platform opposing you, raising the contradictions that are so glaring, I'm sure that those poll numbers will drop considerably. One needs to just ask: where are the weapons of mass destruction? You risked and lost American lives on weapons that you've not been able to find. You sent the Secretary of State to the United Nations showing tapes and audiotapes of things that you've not been able to produce. When you start raising that to the American public, I think the poll numbers will be dramatically different.
EDWARDS: Are you a patriot?
SHARPTON: Absolutely. I'm a patriot in the truest sense of the word. That's why I'm saying that we've got to deal with the expansion of the Constitution because that's what made this country great. It's constitutional rights. I'm the most patriotic candidate in this race because I'm addressing the very fabric of what makes America work.
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