Rangel’s Future Is Stuck in Neutral

Former Ways and Means Chairman Says Everything Rests on Ethics Findings

Posted May 14, 2010 at 5:31pm

Rep. Charlie Rangel lives in limbo.

The veteran New York Democrat still wants his Ways and Means chairmanship back, but he doesn’t want reporters to write that he’s planning to fight for it. He wants and needs the ethics committee to clear his name, but he feels it already sandbagged him with an unjustified admonishment that appears nowhere in House rules and gave him no chance to challenge the finding.

Under the Dome, few expect Rangel to reclaim the gavel, given the array of ethics issues pending against him and the nervousness of many Democratic lawmakers heading into a difficult midterm election. And a full-blown shadow race is already on for helm of the committee between current Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who have stepped up their fundraising for Members in the two months since Rangel stepped aside.

In Rangel’s mind, he should never have had to relinquish the chairmanship in the first place, and he’s peeved at how the ethics panel handled the investigation of a corporate-sponsored trip to the Caribbean. Rangel was the only Member to be admonished among those who went on the trip, even though the panel said it had no evidence that Rangel knew corporations helped pay for the excursion.

Rangel, in an interview last week, also complained that ethics punished him without giving him the right to dispute its findings before they were made public.

“I just found out I was not disciplined,” Rangel said. “I’ve been making inquiries as to why didn’t I get the notice and the ability to discuss it. It’s only when you are disciplined when you are entitled to those rights, and since they didn’t discipline me, there is nothing. You can read this thing backwards and forwards and you are not going to find out anything that says admonishment is to be included as a possible sanction.”

Rangel used to have a passel of tax reporters and fellow lawmakers in his wake, hanging on his every word, but now he often walks through the halls alone, his power a shell of what it was. And after usually coasting to re-election without serious challenge, Rangel, 79, is gearing up for what could be a crowded primary as he eyes a 21st term.

Asked about his future in Congress last week, Rangel said it is somewhat out of his hands.

“The answer to your question is what’s in the ethics committee report,” he said. “That’s the whole thing. I could have 10 different answers for you depending on what they say.”

“They’ve spent a lot of time verifying the allegations, going all over the country where there are witnesses, and so I’m anxious. It’s been 18 months. … Whatever comes out of that committee will severely impact my political career,” Rangel said.

And with that ethics inquiry hanging over him, Rangel doesn’t want to stir up trouble by talking about taking back the gavel.

“I stepped aside pending the report of the ethics committee. What else can I say, you know? I don’t want to start a fight with members of the committee who would like to be the chairman of the committee, so it speaks for itself,” Rangel said. “I didn’t quit. I know you might want a quote. I’m not going to give a quote. … I don’t want to read, ‘Rangel intends to fight the committee for the chairmanship.'”

Asked again about his desire to return as chairman if he is exonerated, however, Rangel said, “You don’t have to be a scholar to figure that out.”

But the Harlem Democrat’s path back to the powerful perch is also complicated by Levin’s incumbency. People close to Ways and Means said the Michigan Democrat has authoritatively seized the panel’s reins, moving quickly to demonstrate he is an effective executive.

A technocrat who revels in detail, Levin is handing out assignments to committee members and expecting them to do their homework. That marks a departure — welcome, for most — from the slower pace that characterized Rangel’s tenure last year as he tangled with the distraction of the ethics charges. And observers said Levin has distinguished himself particularly by proving himself a tough foil for Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in cross-Dome negotiations over a package of tax extenders.

Rangel’s disappointment at losing his chairmanship, meanwhile, was readily apparent in an interview the night of the final House health care reform vote in March. It was something he had worked for his entire career, only to have someone else going to the post-victory press conference. Rangel, typically, put a happy face on the bittersweet moment.

“The ugliness has not been able to derail what I came down here to do,” Rangel said. “Being the chairman at the close would have been a great honor, but I was able to continue to be involved, I wasn’t derailed. … If you want to wish, of course I wish it didn’t happen. [But] I’m OK by a long shot.”

Rangel also said last week that he is preparing to run hard for re-election, with several candidates expressing interest in challenging him, including New York state assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, whom Rangel defeated 61 percent to 33 percent in 1994. Powell is a son of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whom Rangel defeated in 1970.

Rangel said he’s not doing much differently than what he’s always done.

“Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m always out there, so it’s kind of hard for me to think about what I’m doing now that I don’t always do,” Rangel said.

Rangel raised just $108,000 in the most recent quarter, and his cash on hand shrank to $635,000 after having spent more than $1.5 million on legal expenses.

Rangel’s fundraising haul this cycle represents a fraction of what he gathered, and dispersed, in recent years. Last cycle, for example, as he wielded the gavel for the first time, he was a nearly unrivaled rainmaker for his Democratic colleagues, doling out more than $3.6 million in contributions from his re-election and leadership political action committees combined. That support has slowed to a trickle, with Rangel giving out just about $110,000 through the first quarter of 2010.

Now, Rangel needs the money to start flowing in the other direction, and that will likely mean traveling outside of the Amtrak corridor to attract contributions from major Democratic donors — trips he had neither the time nor inclination to make while he held the Ways and Means gavel. “Mr. Rangel has a reason to reach out to national donors, and they respond,” said David Jones, a former fundraiser for Rangel who now is a partner at Capitol Counsel, a lobbying firm. “He has a vast national donor network that he hasn’t tapped into in years. But he’s incredibly well known and seen as a national spokesman.”

Rangel said he has been gratified by the support he is getting back home.

“My community is extremely supportive and I’ve never seen such an outpouring of support openly, and a lot of it has to do because of a feeling that I’m being treated unfairly,” Rangel said.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.