There was a time, I’m sure, when it would have been at least somewhat startling to read a news item with the name Charles Rangel and the phrase “ethics problems” in the title. Now, at least from the perspective of the columnist, dredging up yet another paragraph on the subject has grown to be an exercise in tedium. But this week provided a fresh page to the story when the House of Representatives concluded that Charlie would be facing a hearing in front of the House Ethics Committee.
Specific details aren’t being released yet, but most sources seem to agree that the charges will focus on some deeply discounted, rent stabilized apartments the congressman controls, along with his tireless efforts to preserve a massive tax code loophole benefiting an oil executive who is funneling large sums of money into some of Charlie’s pet projects.
These are only the latest tales of alleged malfeasance, though. The hearings will doubtless raise older questions about the congressman’s poor memory when it comes to paying taxes on his various properties and vacation junkets to the islands funded by high-dollar donors. In the face of all this, the Democrats must be raising the roof to get this albatross off their collective necks, right?
Not so much. Rangel still holds a lot of cards inside the Democratic Party and political graveyards are chock-full of the bones of people who tried to cross him. There is one Democrat — Jonathan Tasini — loudly calling for Charlie to step down, but at the risk of sounding cynical I should probably point out that he’s running for Rangel’s seat in the Sept. 14 primary.
But even if the party won’t clean house on their own, this is an election year. Surely his constituents won’t sit still for this, will they?
Don’t count on any significant backlash from the voters. Rangel’s various ethical problems have been well known for a long time now, but he continues to win reelection with astronomical margins. Take a look at the map of New York’s 15th District some time. Unlike many vast, rural districts around the nation, the 15th is one of the most compact you will find. It runs along a roughly seven mile stretch of the Hudson River, taking in Fort George, Harlem, and Marcus Garvey, as well as grabbing a few plots of land out near LaGuardia Airport.
Most people could comfortably walk the length and breadth of this district in a single sunny afternoon, and Charlie has walked it many, many times over the last forty years. He knows residents and business owners on a first name basis. He has followed the tried and true New York political playbook, making sure that every resident is made aware of each bit of federal pork money he brings home. He gets his name plastered all over everything from buildings at City College to bus stops along Broadway. He ensures that the correct wheels — and palms — are greased and that the right people get free tickets to see the Knicks and the Giants. In short, he’s been playing this game a long time and he’s a master of it.
Absent a chance at being voted out of office, the only other risk Rangel would seem to face would be expulsion by the Ethics Committee. But would that happen in time for the midterm elections? The last time we saw a spectacle like this was when Jim Traficant was hounded off the Hill back in 2002. But it took the length of an entire trial — resulting in a conviction for Traficant in April — until the middle of the summer before he was finally shown the door. This particular dog and pony show won’t even get out of the gates until August, so color me skeptical about any swift resolution.
And will Congress actually move to expel him? It took Traficant getting sentenced to seven years in the crowbar hotel followed by three years of probation to get the boot. It’s still possible that Rangel could wind up getting a censure, a slap on the wrist, and a media circus back home in the Big Apple where he gets to decry the “vicious media conspiracy” trying to bring him down.
In short, none of this should be taken as an indication that the Republicans are about to pick off an extra House seat in NY-15. But that doesn’t mean the news is entirely bad, providing we look at the larger, national picture. Minority Leader John Boehner has already set the wheels of the bandwagon in motion, reminding voters of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s calls to “drain the swamp” of Washington, D.C., and juxtaposing that pledge with Rangel’s continued presence in Congress.
It’s going to be a very busy election season, so expect this story to quickly sink back below the surface for while, at least until the hearings get underway. Will Rangel survive? I’ve been living in New York for a long time. For what it’s worth, you never count Charlie Rangel out of a fight until well after the final bell.