New York Congressman Charles Rangel now faces 13 charges of breaking House rules as well as federal statutes.
The charges, which were formally issued Thursday by the House Ethics Panel, do not come as a surprise. As had been expected, Rangel stands accused, among other things, of improperly using "his letterhead, staff and franking privilege to solicit donations to the Charles B. Center for Public Policy at the City College of New York; of using a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem for his campaign office; of failing to report more than $600,000 on his financial disclosure report; and of failing to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic."
Needless to say, Rangel is in trouble — the kind of trouble that ends political career.
The word on Capitol Hill is that the senior congressman’s lawyers are close to a deal with the Ethics Committee.
If not, then there can no longer be much doubt that the consequences will be serious — for the congressman and for the Democratic Party, which can ill afford a major ethics scandal involving one of its highest-profile members in an already volatile election year.
In a Congress where Rangel’s party is in control, and where Rangel remains a reasonably well-liked member on both sides of the partisan aisle, the Ethics Committee has set the wheels in motion to publicly try the New York Democrat for ethics violations that—if proven—could lead to a recommendation that he be expelled from the House.
Absent an agreement with the Ethics Committee — and arguably even a deal is reached — the 80-year-old former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee is looking at the prospect of a very ugly close to a remarkable career.
There is irony in Rangel’s circumstance, as he was elected to Congress in 1970 after beating Adam Clayton Powell Jr.— who experienced his own very ugly close to a remarkable career—in a sad and bitter Democratic primary. Rangel won that race by just 150 votes out of more than 25,000 cast, upsetting expectations and arriving in the House with a both a reputation as a giant slayer and an expectation that he would quickly climb the ladder of leadership.
Like Powell before him, Rangel came to Congress as an exceptionally able representative from a solidly-Democratic district in the country’s largest city and most important media center. Unlike Powell, he was a very loyal Democrat who had come up within the ranks of the party organization led by the late Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton.
Rangel has always operated on several levels politically. Brilliant, funny and ideologically agile, he has been as solid a spokesman as the House has had on a host of national and international issues, earning high regard for his abilities as a legislator and a counselor of presidents in both parties. Yet, he has always been and remains a product of the rough-and-tumble political scene in his native New York City. He has always enjoyed wielding power and influence at every level of government and he has never been particularly circumspect when it comes to rewarding friends and punishing enemies.
That has frustrated some of us who would like to like him more. I will always respect Rangel made the march from Selma to Montgomery in the 1960s. I will always respect the Korean War soldier and Purple Heart winner’s fierce opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, an opposition that has extended into the Obama era, as the former Ways and Means Committee chair recently scored Obama for maintaining policies there that are "consistent with Bush and Cheney." won’t forget the number of times that he went to bat, using all of his considerable influence on Capitol Hill, to protect education, housing and community programs that might well have gone on the chopping block without his intervention. And I certainly won’t fault him for declaring at a particularly appropriate point during the previous administration’s reign of error that Vice President Cheney was "a real son of bitch."
At the same time, Rangel’s compromises on trade policy have been ghastly. He has not just voted for free-trade pacts that were favored by Wall Street and generously-contributing corporations, he has frequently "whipped" the votes to pass legislation guaranteed to wreck U.S. industries and communities. Most egregiously, he was the prime mover on behalf of the horrific "African Growth and Opportunity Act"—the "NAFTA for Africa" trade bill that Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. correctly referred to as the "African Recolonization Act." Rangel’s positioning as "a front-line general in the war against drugs" during the Reagan years was as embarrassing as it was wrongheaded. And, unfortunately, a review of Rangel’s clip file reveals that, while the current investigations may be the most serious, they are not the first blemishes on the congressman’s record.
So Rangel is a mixed bag politically. He is not just another hack; his record has often been that of a true and caring progressive. Yet, at this point it is hard to imagine how he comes out of the current controversy as anything more than a shell of his former self.
Rangel is not inclined to resign. Indeed, he appears to be determined to see his reelection campaign through, despite the charges against him.
It is possible that Rangel could be beat in a September 14 Democratic primary when he will face several credible, if dramatically under-financed opponents. The clouds created by the ethics inquiry—and the scandals leading up to it—will hang over the vote.
Right now, it appears, in another ironic twist, that the most viable challenger to Rangel is Adam Clayton Powell IV, a state legislator who won 42 percent of the vote against Rangel in a 1994 Democratic primary. Powell’s name is potent, especially with older voters in a Harlem-based district that regards tradition highly. But the most aggressive challenger is veteran labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who is cutting the incumbent no slack.
Tasini’s calling on Rangel to quit the race, and he is speaking a painful truth for Rangel and Democratic leaders in Washington: that the congressman’s continued candidacy creates a serious “threat to the future of the Democratic Party."
Tasini is blunt – as blunt as Rangel often has been in the past:
"For the first time in eight years, the House ethics committee has taken a very serious step forward in ethics investigations, calling for the appointment of a special subcommittee to rule on the findings – a step last taken when former Rep. James Traficant was convicted of taking bribes.
"While Rep. Rangel still should be accorded the right to defend himself before a trial of a special subcommittee, the threat to the future of the Democratic Party is today. Rep. Rangel will be, as I argued when I announced my candidacy for the 15th Congressional District, the face of Washington corruption in Republican advertising and campaigns across the nation. Rep. Rangel will, without a doubt, cost the Democratic Party seats in the November election, if he is the nominee of the party.
"By announcing that he will not stand for re-election, Rep. Rangel will allow the people of the 15th Congressional District to choose a new Congressman who will be able to spend 100 percent of his or her time defending the interests of the people, not his own political career.
"Our party must be clear – we must not allow even the hint of impropriety to be part of our ranks. The people, the voters, are sick and tired of dysfunction. They are fed up with corruption – real and moral. They want leaders who they can trust."
Senior members of the House do not usually consider calls from junior challengers.
But Rangel is smart enough to recognize at least a measure of the truth in what Tasini is saying: The congressman’s troubles are not his alone.
Ultimately, that is the issue Rangel will have to wrestle with in coming weeks and months. Unless he is certain that he will be quickly and completely cleared, the congressman has to face the fact that he has become a serious burden to his party. The Republicans, who will pull no punches this year, are never going to beat Charlie Rangel on a November ballot in New York City. If the congressman wins his primary, he will be reelected. But the Republicans might well beat Democrats in other, less hospitable parts of the country by associating them with Rangel.
Already, the GOP and its candidates are incorporating Rangel-related messages into their campaign rhetoric. For the better part of two years, they have been pushing resolutions designed to force Democrats – especially Democrats in tough reelection fights – to cast embarrassing votes with regard to Rangel. And the tactics will get a whole lot uglier as the 2010 campaign proceeds.
But Charlie Rangel is nothing if not a politician. And he will have to think long and hard as the full extent of his troubles becomes clear about not just his own future but that of a party to which he had been exceptionally loyal—and for which he could become an exceptional burden.