Say Good Night, Charlie

Say Good Night, Charlie

Cutting Charlie Rangel loose would prove just how serious Obama is about transforming Washington’s toxic culture of self-enrichment.


Harlem Representative and House Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel has lived a blessed political life. Raised tough and poor by various members of his extended family, almost killed in Korea, he bounced around as a small-time hustler before finding his calling as a Harlem clubhouse pol with extraordinary good luck. In 1968, for instance, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, seized on the then-young first-term Democratic Assemblyman as a potential ally. When, in their first meeting, Rangel expressed concern over his GOP opponent, the governor waved him off and made a quick phone call. “You just got the Republican endorsement,” Rocky explained after hanging up. “You don’t have to worry now.”

But if Rangel has not been corrupted absolutely by his thirty-seven years in Congress, he has come pretty damn close. Thanks to the energetic reporting of the New York Times–which has been teaching its tabloid competitors a thing or two about how to uncover and milk a local scandal–we now know:

§ Rangel has enjoyed the use of four rent-stabilized luxury apartments for which he pays a powerful local developer barely half their market value. (Almost no one in New York occupies more than one such apartment–which is a good thing, given the scarcity of affordable housing);

§ Despite the above, Rangel, as reported by the New York Post, also enjoys a “homestead” tax exemption for the four-bedroom home he owns in Washington, DC.

§ Rangel earmarked $1.9 million for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, and solicited donors on official stationery and in person–including at least one million-dollar donation from an oil-drilling executive that was followed by Rangel’s immediate reversal on protecting a key offshore tax loophole;

§ Rangel managed to… um… forget to declare more than $75,000 in rental income from a $1,100-per-night villa in the Dominican Republic he has owned since 1988. His district is nearly half Hispanic, but Rangel claims “cultural and language barriers” have made it impossible to file the proper returns. (The willful filing of a false tax return is a state and federal felony.)

§ According to Politico, Rangel recently funneled nearly $80,000 in campaign funds to a company run by his son Steven Rangel for a couple of “slapped together” websites that “should have cost no more than $900.” (Remember, owing to the magic of a friendly gerrymandered district, Rangel has not faced any real competition for his seat in decades. His election campaigns are largely exercises in self-gratification.)

One could go on, but sheee-it, as Clay Davis would put it, our point ought to be clear by now. By some standards–even by some New York standards–the corruption of Charlie Rangel is a minor league affair. After all, New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, bears a significant responsibility for the onset of the financial crisis on Wall Street, owing to his eagerness to demand weaker and weaker regulation for the people writing the checks to fund his political ambitions. Again thanks to excellent Times reporting, we know that Schumer, as a member of the Banking and Finance Committees, took steps to “protect industry players from government oversight and tougher rules…. Over the years, he has also helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes or fees.” These included weakening bank regulations, undercutting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies and interfering with efforts to force corporations to increase the transparency of their balance sheets. Perhaps most egregiously, this putative champion of his state’s middle class successfully scuttled his party’s efforts to demand that hedge fund billionaires pay an equivalent share of their earnings in taxes as do janitors, schoolteachers and the rest of us.

But while Schumer’s bequests to billionaires may be morally objectionable and politically poisonous, nobody has so far questioned their legality. Rangel, by contrast, has demonstrated a clear contempt for the law as well as his constituents. What’s more, he has all too effectively played the part in which conservatives have typically cast big-city liberals for decades: corrupt, hypocritical, concerned only for their own comfort and providing for their families at the expense of a gullible and exploited public. Need I repeat that this is the man who sits atop the most powerful tax-writing committee in Congress? It is almost as if the Republican Party had commissioned a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein to create a monster designed to undermine Barack Obama’s claim of “change.”

In short, Charlie Rangel, no less than Rod Blagojevich, is exactly the kind of politician–regardless of ethnicity–from whom Obama and Company need to disassociate themselves if the Democratic Party is to have any hope of earning the long-term trust of those middle-class Americans who believed Obama’s promises. In Rangel’s case, taking care of business ought not to carry any emotional baggage. During the Democratic primaries, Rangel not only strongly supported Obama’s opponent Hillary Clinton in opposition to the views of his Harlem constituency; he consistently played fast and loose with the truth in order to make it appear that Obama–not Clinton–was raising the “race” issue. Making an accusation that was as self-evidently idiotic as it was false, Rangel complained that “for [Obama] to suggest that Dr. King could have signed [the Voting Rights Act] is absolutely stupid. It’s absolutely dumb to infer that Dr. King, alone, passed the legislation and signed it into law.” Of course, Obama did no such thing, and no one else associated with the Clinton campaign was slimy enough to imply differently.

Cutting Rangel loose would show the country just how serious the Obama administration is about transforming Washington’s toxic culture of self-enrichment and teach his party a Chicago-style lesson in loyalty. Where I come from, we call that “God and profits.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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