LANCASTER, S.C. — On a sweltering afternoon, the Rev. Al Sharpton takes a swig of iced tea and rises to address the crowd at Etta's Kitchen. Hooking his thumbs in the vest of a three-piece suit, the Harlem Democrat explains why he's running for president — and blisters the Bush administration for a multitude of sins.
"They tell us you're unpatriotic not to stand up for the war in Iraq, but no," he says, his voice booming. "I think that you're unpatriotic to put our American soldiers at risk if they didn't have to be there in the first place."
As the mostly African American crowd cheers, Sharpton reminds attendees of problems in their own backyard: A nearby county has not recognized Martin Luther King Day as a holiday, he says, and people should organize demonstrations to change that."I may look all presidential these days," he says with a delighted grin. "But I'll be coming back here to raise sand with y'all. I mean, I still do that other stuff too."
But only if time permits. Sharpton is a busy man, crisscrossing the country with a populist campaign that could redefine his public image and mobilize large numbers of minority voters.
Since he burst onto the New York scene in 1985, angrily protesting police brutality and cases of white violence against blacks, Sharpton has been known primarily as a street activist and civil rights leader — an outspoken man who manipulates the media and can turn out large crowds on a few hours' notice.
"Rev," as he's called, has had stellar moments, such as the massive protests he organized against the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man killed outside his Bronx apartment as he reached for his wallet.
He's also had setbacks, none greater than his support for Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who claimed she had been gang-raped by white men. A grand jury declared the case a hoax, and Sharpton — who has never expressed regret — was ordered to pay $65,000 for defaming an assistant district attorney he had accused of being involved in the attack.
Now, Sharpton is promoting himself as a thoughtful presidential candidate, a leader of minorities and other disaffected voices who wants to influence Democratic Party policy. His rhetoric has been toned down, and some observers are startled to see him play the role of a healer during debates.
Like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who failed to win the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, Sharpton says that for him, winning is a relative term. "Of course I'm running to win," he says, hurrying from Etta's Kitchen to the airport for a trip to Chicago. "But it's also about putting together a progressive coalition that will take back the Democratic Party and register a million new voters. It's about electing people to the House, the Senate and other offices."
Few observers believe Sharpton will capture the nomination, let alone beat President Bush. He runs distantly in most polls and has reported raising about $114,000 in a campaign where other Democrats expect to raise millions. Still, Sharpton leads among black voters (24% in a recent Gallup poll), and that's the key to his game plan.
As he campaigned in South Carolina on a recent Sunday — reaching out to blacks, who make up 40% of Democratic primary voters here — Sharpton's new persona was on display. He preached at New Hope Baptist Church, bringing the crowd to its feet as he talked about black self-empowerment.
Shouting in sing-song rhythm, Sharpton unveiled his own version of Saul on the road to Damascus: "When Jesus told him to change his ways, he said: 'I want you to go back to your old crowd! Go to your hangouts! Go to your drug dealers! Go to your hoochie-coochie girls! I want you to be the doctor and raise them all up! I want you to bring them to the light of God!' "
The room exploded with cheers, and minutes later Sharpton was engulfed by well-wishers. This scene will be repeated in churches all over the country, because "no one else in this presidential race can speak as well as Sharpton about drug abuse, the criminal justice system and welfare policy," said Cornel West, a Princeton University professor and prominent black essayist who backs Sharpton's campaign.
To many critics, however, the idea of Sharpton as a candidate, let alone president, is a joke. They dismiss him as a demagogue, and they say his participation will cast a cloud over the Democratic Party, bringing ugly racial issues to the fore and dooming efforts at unity.
Some Bush supporters have gleefully launched a "Republicans for Sharpton" Web site, and conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson on CNN's "Crossfire" have said, with tongue in cheek, that Sharpton is a "great Democrat."
As with other candidates, he has his share of political baggage.
A Newsday investigation revealed that Sharpton played a shadowy role as an FBI informant in drug investigations during the 1980s. He caught heat in 1995 after blasting "white interlopers" in Harlem for evicting a black-owned record store; as anger grew, a man who had participated in Sharpton's protests firebombed the store, causing seven deaths. During the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when black-Jewish tensions erupted in Brooklyn, he offended many by referring derisively to "diamond merchants."
Sharpton, who preaches before many church groups but does not have a permanent congregation, says these controversies pale in comparison with the personal problems facing former President Clinton or Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). And he insists that his political career is a work in progress that cannot be easily defined.
From an early age, Sharpton was drawn to the spotlight. He astonished parents and religious leaders by demonstrating a talent for preaching in Brooklyn churches when he was 4, and he was ordained a Pentecostal minister six years later. He also showed a flair for politics, getting involved in community volunteer projects, most notably Jackson's Operation Breadbasket.
Sharpton's personal life was disrupted, however, when his father abandoned the family. Soon after, Sharpton's family gave up its comfortable home and moved into a large Brooklyn housing project.
As he grew, Sharpton gravitated toward a series of male mentors; besides Jackson they included Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a handful of Brooklyn religious leaders and, perhaps most important, soul singer James Brown.
Brown met Sharpton backstage after a 1973 New York concert and took him under his wing. He taught him about the music business, and the star-struck teenager went so far as to imitate Brown's hairstyle. Sharpton met his future wife, Kathy Jordan, when she was one of Brown's backup singers.
In his 1996 autobiography "Go and Tell Pharaoh," Sharpton said the music world tempted him, but he was drawn to the anger that had begun erupting in New York's black neighborhoods.
Most New Yorkers got their first glimpse of him in 1985, when he organized street protests against Bernard Goetz, the subway gunman who shot four black teenagers on a train, claiming they were getting ready to rob and assault him.
Sharpton also launched protests in Howard Beach, Queens, where white youths had chased three black men from a diner, causing one to die on an expressway; in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where black teenager Yusuf Hawkins was chased and shot to death by white teenagers; and in Crown Heights, where blacks attacked Jews after a Hasidic rabbi's motorcade accidentally killed a 7-year-old black boy.
Many white New Yorkers were alarmed by Sharpton's often polarizing rhetoric during these controversies, and former Mayor Ed Koch called him "Al Charlatan." But then a funny thing happened to the Reverend in Reeboks: He stopped wearing jogging suits and acquired a taste for expensive dress suits. He began moderating his tone.
The change was sparked when a deranged bystander at a 1991 protest march stabbed Sharpton in the chest. He was lucky to survive, and as he recuperated in a hospital bed, he began rethinking his goals.
"I was like anybody else — you grow," he said in an interview last month at a midtown Manhattan office. "Early in the 1980s, starting with Goetz, I was just dealing with individual cases. Then I started saying we need to reform the criminal justice system. Finally, I felt we need to put people in power."
A brush with death had sobered him. "I realized, all of a sudden, I could die doing the work I was doing. I began to question how I wanted to be remembered," he wrote in his autobiography, noting that he now was a father with two daughters. "What was I doing with my life?"
Sharpton ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1992 primary, finishing third in a field of four and drawing 15% of the vote, mostly from blacks. Two years later, he drew 25% in a primary fight against Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He stunned many by garnering 38% of the vote in the 1997 Democratic mayoral primary, nearly forcing a runoff.
In recent years, former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and other Democratic candidates have made a pilgrimage on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network, a group formed by Sharpton. Although a host of officials continue to differ with him on many issues, experts acknowledge his potential effect on Campaign 2004.
"His rhetoric is going to be very poetic, very clever and it will be appealing," said political consultant Joel Benenson. "Some say he won't stand up to scrutiny, but Ross Perot couldn't withstand much scrutiny either — and he got 19% of the vote."
Still, Sharpton's goal of being a power broker may prove elusive. The fact that he is one of America's most visible black political figures guarantees him nothing, says veteran U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem.
"The old Al would not have been seen as a candidate," he said. "But no one is entitled to a seat at the big table. You have to earn your right to play a national role. And it won't happen because of your color. It's because of the votes you bring in."
ABOUT THIS SERIES: This is the seventh installment in a weekly series profiling the candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. For the Q&A, the candidates are responding in writing to an identical set of questions, and their responses have been edited for space.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times