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Al Sharpton 

by Pia K. Hansen

He has defeated Howard Dean, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman (when Lieberman was still in the race), but so far, only once. In the South Carolina caucuses, Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. -- better known as the Reverend Al Sharpton -- came in a strong third behind John Edwards and John Kerry.

"Our platform is not about the horse race," Sharpton told CNN on the day of his strong showing. "Our campaign is about the makeup of the Democratic platform and guaranteeing that our needs are not forgotten after the election. We will continue to run a grassroots campaign to keep pressure on the Democratic Party to ensure all Americans have their shot at the American dream."

Born on Oct. 3, 1954, in New York City, Sharpton grew up in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, where his dad worked as a carpenter and his mom as a cleaning lady. He dropped out of high school in 1972, having already been ordained as a minister eight years before. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1992 and '94, and for New York City mayor in '97 -- but never made it. He's married to Kathy Lee Jordan and has two daughters.

If Wesley Clark is defined by his military career and John Kerry by his commitment to environmental causes, Sharpton is defined by faith. Anyone who becomes a Pentecostal minister by the age of 10 -- he started preaching at the age of 4 -- clearly has a deep understanding of the Bible, but that doesn't mean Sharpton has stayed on the straight and narrow path.

In the 1970s and '80s, he made the transformation from preacher to political and civil rights activist. During the '80s, Sharpton took on many causes and cases, including leading protests after the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins -- who was only 16 at the time -- by a white mob in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood.

Sharpton's engagement in civil rights cases have cost him a few brushes with the law. In 1987, he had to pay a $65,000 fine for defaming an assistant district attorney he accused of being involved in the attack on Tawana Brawley -- a 15-year-old black girl who claimed that six police officers had abducted and raped her. The story was later deemed a hoax.

In 1987, Sharpton was charged with 67 counts of fraud, larceny and felony tax evasion in connection with the National Youth Movement, a group he had founded in the '70s. He was acquitted on all counts.

Sharpton formed the National Action Network in 1991, an organization that raises money for inner-city youth and for prevention of drug abuse. NAN is widely considered Sharpton's biggest achievement.

In his own words -- "I am a candidate that understands the problems of America's cities, poverty, drugs, crime, schools and guns. We must show the Democratic Party that those in our inner cities, predominately African-Americans and Latinos, must not have their agenda forgotten after the election. My campaign for justice and equality will continue, and I will not waver until we have a seat at the table of the Democratic Party and our piece of the American dream."

Bush-bashing -- "Since his election, Bush's policies and practices have eroded civil rights and civil liberties. It began with the recount in Florida, continued with the redistricting in Texas and continued with the recall of [Gov.] Gray Davis in California. All to reject the will of the American people. Remember, President Bush did not win the popular vote in 2000. People ask 'Can he be beat?' I say he already lost."

Position/Strategy -- Sharpton is colorful and engaging, coming across as a mix of boxing promoter Don King and Rev. Jesse Jackson (who's a personal friend). Many Democrats have commented that he would make a great speechwriter. He has a reputation for telling it like it is, but throughout his campaign he's made it clear he's not narrowly focused on black issues.

Regardless of Sharpton's claim that he's not running a black campaign, his civil rights roots clearly show through in his campaign speeches. Now, with no real prospects for becoming the Democratic nominee, Sharpton is staying in the race to keep his message about racial inclusion at the forefront of the party's consciousness.

Sharpton is the poorest of the candidates, having raised less than $500,000 by the end of last year.

Publication date: 02/12/04
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