Rangel Now Fighting Battles on Two Fronts

Posted July 24, 2010 at 10:14am

Rep. Charlie Rangel could spend his August recess preparing not only for his September primary contest but also for a looming ethics trial. The timing might benefit the New York Democrat.

The House ethics committee announced Thursday that an investigative subcommittee found substantial reason to believe that Rangel broke House rules and possibly ran afoul of the law.

The panel did not detail the allegations against Rangel, but the subcommittee has been investigating questions involving Rangel’s personal finances, fundraising efforts and other issues for nearly two years.

The investigation will now be turned over to an adjudicatory subcommittee, which will effectively conduct a trial on the allegations.

The new panel, led by ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), is set to organize at a meeting Thursday.

But because the House is scheduled to begin its August recess the following day, observers believe the hearings are unlikely to get under way until Sept. 14, when the House returns. That date coincides with New York’s primary election.

Rangel, who refused to detail the allegations at a news conference Friday in New York, indicated in an earlier interview that he is anticipating the start of the hearing.

“There is no better preparation … than the truth. Fortunately in this country and in the ethics committee, whatever they have to say, they have to prove. I look forward to the facts and the evidence being exposed before my primary election and before the November election,” Rangel said in an interview Friday on XM Radio’s “The Joe Madison Show.” “You can’t prepare any better than the truth and the truth is on my side.”

Democratic observers suggest the schedule — which would create a six-week lapse between any public announcement of the specific charges Rangel faces and his primary — may actually be a boon to Rangel’s campaign, even though it gives his challengers ammunition and national Republicans a chance to hammer Democrats on ethics.

Evan Stavisky, a New York Democratic consultant and lobbyist said that with the filing deadline for candidates passed (Independent candidates for the general election may still file before Aug. 17), the Democratic primary contest is limited to Rangel, state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, banker Vince Morgan, labor activist Jonathan Tasini and former Seagram’s employee Joyce Johnson.

Although Rangel’s fundraising has nosedived since he stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in March — after the House ethics panel admonished him for taking part in two trips to the Caribbean that violated rules on corporate funding of travel — he still outpaces his competition.

“Through it all, despite what you might read here and there, Charlie Rangel still has support in the district,” Stavisky said.

A test of that support may come Aug. 11 when Rangel is slated to hold a fundraiser marking his 80th birthday at the Plaza Hotel, an event that will cost attendees $200 to $5,000 to get in the door. Aretha Franklin is scheduled to perform.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Rangel’s re-election campaign has raised nearly $1.7 million this cycle and retained $517,000 in cash on hand as of the end of June.

But Rangel’s campaign also faces significant legal bills: He has paid more than $2 million for attorneys’ fees since the ethics investigation started nearly two years ago.

Powell, the son and namesake of former Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.), whom Rangel defeated in a 1970 primary, reported raising more than $82,000 this cycle and maintained nearly $49,000 in cash on hand at the end of June.

In the same period, Johnson reported raising $27,000 and retaining more than $17,000 at the end of June. Tasini, who began the cycle running for Senate, reported raising nearly $146,000 in the cycle but retained only about $18,000 at the end of June.

In the wake of the ethics committee’s announcement Thursday, both Powell and Tasini called for Rangel to retire.

“The time has come to turn the page,” Powell said in a statement. “The Ethics Committee findings, which are tantamount to an indictment, are a reflection of Rangel’s improper use of his power as an elected official. He should spare his constituents who greatly respect his legacy the trauma of a public trial. There are too many important issues in the district that require the full attention of the incumbent and the successor to be elected later this year. It is time for our congressman to retire with honor.”

During his news conference Friday, however, Rangel gave no indication he plans to leave the House or quit the election.

“Hey, I’m in the kitchen and I’m not walking out,” he said.

Limited Options

Even if the ethics panel ultimately finds Rangel guilty and seeks sanctions — a second ethics subcommittee would vote on any punishment, and depending on the severity, would also seek the approval of the House — Democratic observers believe it is unlikely he would withdraw from the November election.

“I don’t think anyone expects him to go through the primary and pull out of the general,” said former New York Democratic consultant Basil Smikle, a Rangel ally. He later added: “I think that it’s testament that people still like him, still embrace him, still want to work hard for him and that’s important. If they had any doubt that he wasn’t going to complete another term, none of that would have happened and you would have seen his opponents gain a little more traction, but that hasn’t happened either.”

Even if Rangel were to entertain thoughts of stepping down after the primary, however, it would be all-but-impossible for him to get off the general election ballot.

Under New York election law, candidates can be removed from a general election ballot only under limited circumstances, including death, nomination to other office or disqualification — such as loss of citizenship.

If Rangel were to resign after winning re-election, it would ensure that Manhattan Democratic leaders — many of them loyal to the Congressman — would select the Democratic nominee for a special election to succeed him. State Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Rangel ally, doubles as chairman of the Manhattan Democratic committee, and he would likely go into any succession fight as one the frontrunners.

Rangel is also very close to New York City Councilwoman Inez Dickens (D), another potential Congressional contender if Rangel were to move on. The two serve as Democratic district leaders together in the same legislative district.

Outgoing Gov. David Paterson (D), another Rangel ally, could also be a contender, even though his political star has diminished dramatically.

A race to succeed Rangel “would be a free-for-all, because so many people would want to come out of the woodwork to run,” said an Upper Manhattan Democratic leader.

Rangel’s Congressional district is no longer centered just in Harlem, and according to 2007 Census figures, African-Americans make up just 28 percent of the district population. Hispanics make up 46 percent of the district, and whites are 21 percent of the district. In other words, in any race to succeed Rangel, the winner could be black, white or Latino.

Fordham University political science professor Bruce Berg suggested that even if Rangel remains electable, he may be in “less and less of a position to pick his successor.”

But even if national Democrats fret that Rangel’s troubles could hurt them politically, state Democrats may not be eager to see Rangel leave, Berg said.

“I think the important part is the Democratic Party in New York state and locally is in such disarray — obviously the state Senate has its own problems and the governor isn’t running for re-election — that the last thing that the Democratic Party in the state needs is a fight over who’s going to replace Charles Rangel,” he said. “So I suspect there is some hope he can hang on at least until the rest of the party can get its act together.”

GOP Readies Attacks

House Republicans acknowledged Friday that they hope Rangel’s ethics woes shadow other Democrats in the midterm elections.

Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats who have received money from Rangel would again be pressured to relinquish the funds if they had not already done so.

“Despite Speaker Pelosi’s promise to run the ‘most ethical congress in history,’ a Rangel trial will undoubtedly dredge up a host of Democrat ethics issues to be debated in the court of public opinion,” he said in a an e-mail. “Democrats will not only be held accountable for their empty campaign promises to clean up Washington, they’ll be hearing from voters who see this as yet another example of the arrogance of power that has been a characteristic of this Congress.”

Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who is seeking a Senate seat, announced Friday his campaign committee will disgorge $12,000 in contributions Rangel made to his House account between 2005 and 2007. His Senate campaign has not reported any donations from Rangel.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Rangel’s issues were a symptom of a larger problem for Democrats.

“When they got the power what’s the first thing Rangel did? He created a monument to me. Unheard of. It’s going to be equal to a presidential library,” he said, referring to the Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. Rangel faces scrutiny over his fundraising efforts for the college, including allegations he may have engaged in a legislative quid pro quo for a donation to the college.

“It’s just that attitude, that arrogance of Washington that doesn’t listen to the public,” McCarthy said.

Smikle, now a Democratic candidate for state Senate in Harlem, suggested that within Rangel’s district voters might dismiss the ethics allegations as adversarial politics.

“A lot of what we’re seeing in Rangel, the way the community views that, is an attack by Republicans in the media, and [constituents] will be more than happy to give the Congressman his day, they want to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Smikle said.

A Democratic source, who asked not to be identified, dismissed comparisons to the 2006 election cycle, when Democrats pushed Republicans out of the majority on a platform that emphasized ethics lapses, including the influence-peddling scandal tied to ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and allegations involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and House pages.

“2006 was much bigger than what you’re seeing right now,” the Democrat said. “You had a whole lot of things that were happening that showed the American public there was a Republican culture of corruption. … I don’t think you can compare the two.”

The upcoming Rangel trial marks the first time, however, that the ethics committee has held an adjudicatory hearing since 2002, which ultimately resulted in former Democratic Ohio Rep. James Traficant’s expulsion from the House.

Jackie Kucinich and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.