No one likes being scolded. It’s worse when it happens in front of your colleagues, and on C-SPAN, and when the event appears in the papers the next day. The House voted to censure Rep. Charlie Rangel yesterday, which meant he had to stand in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sounded quite sad, and have a statement of his wrongdoing read out. It was like he had been called into the principal’s office, magnified by about a million.
So it’s not so surprising that Rangel spent a good chunk of the day yesterday trying to convince his colleagues to spare him. He did have some supporters. At yesterday’s House debate, a series of his colleagues argued that he deserved a lesser penalty, a reprimand. It felt like a group of kids protesting an unfair punishment of their fellow. His New York colleague Rep. Peter King said that if expulsion was like the death penalty, censure was like a life sentence. (A reprimand would be the same scolding as a censure, but in writing.)
To review, the main charges against Rangel focused on his misuse of House resources, mistakes on his financial disclosure forms, and failure to pay a portion of his taxes. Censure is used very rarely as a punishment in Congress; members who pledged loyalty to the Confederacy, in the 1800s, were censured, for instance.
The debate focused on precedent, and whether Mr. Rangel’s actions did or did not merit censure, the second-worst punishment the House imposes on one of its own, when he or she engages in “disorderly behavior.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who led the argument against Mr. Rangel, pointed out that the House had promised to reach new heights of ethical standards. Mr. King, and others, argued that using censure as Mr. Rangel’s punishment were going overboard. The protests in support of Rangel had a sense of “there but the grace of god” about them.
The vote yesterday marks the end of a process that has dragged on for years. For a long time, the chatter about the investigations centered on the political gains Republicans could make from attention focused on misbehavior by Rangel and his colleague Maxine Waters (who ended up getting off scot-free). But it turns out, Republicans didn’t really need Rangel to make major gains in 2010; the political and economic climate were hurting the Democrats worse than the “overzealousness and sloppiness,” as it was put during the ethics process, of one of their longest tenured members.
The real referendum on Rangel happened already, anyway. His constituents voted him back into office. If he had stepped down or had not run for reelection, as many urged, this unseemly smear would be one of his last appearances in the Congressional Record. Instead, he has another two years — maybe more, if he wants! — to pile on new legacy-making work. As he said yesterday, “I’m going to be judged by my life, my activities, and my contributions to society.”
He certainly counts as an elder statesman. With the Democrats in the minority in the House, he has little to lose, too. The best thing he could do, at this point, is to draw on his experience and his panache to zing the Republicans every chance he gets, drawing himself as a liberal truth-teller, unmotivated by power or personal gain.
Charlie Rangel sounded almost sad yesterday, as he lamented the miscarriage of justice in the ethics case against him. “How can anyone have confidence in the decision of the ethics subcommittee when I was deprived of due process rights, right to counsel and was not even in the room?” he said in a statement.
That the ethics committee would find him guilty of something was never really in doubt. But it’s part of Rangel’s infuriating charm that he managed to distract attention from his question ethics with his theatrical behavior.
On Monday, he walked out of the hearing room, after pleading penury and asking for more time to hire himself a lawyer. Inevitably, Monday’s media coverage was taken up with reaction and analysis to that bit of stagecraft. And now that his colleagues have, in his absence, found him guilty of 11 counts of ethics violations, Rangel’s indignation is overshadowing the news of his actual misdeeds.
On the scale of Congressional misbehavior, the Harlem rep’s offenses are relatively minor. He has misused his congressional mail privileges, broken House rules about reporting income and assets, failed to pay taxes on a vacation villa, and flouted New York City rules by using a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office. In other words, he cut corners and eschewed full transparency. Perhaps his actions even, as the ethics committee decided, reflected “discredibility on the House.”
The problem with Rangel’s behavior, officially, is not just that he broke the rules, but that he used his public office for personal benefit. While Rangel was running his campaign out of his rent-stabilized apartment, for instance, other tenants in the building faced eviction for similar violations. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Rangel got away with it because of the power he wields in Harlem.
The one count that the ethics committee was split on, however, honed in on the question of whether Rangel personally benefited when he raised money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. Although donations to the center clearly contribute in some way to Rangel’s legacy, the ethics committee wouldn’t go so far as to say they constituted a gift to the congressman himself.
None of this looks good, of course, and that’s part of the problem. Ethics rules are premised on the idea that lawmakers should work to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. And when a lawmaker solicits donations for a pet project (one named after himself to boot!) from people with business before his committee, he’s definitely crossing that line.
But ultimately, no one has been able to show these sorts of transactions affected Rangel’s official behavior. Rather than contributing to the political fortunes of the donors, the donations contributed only to the greater glory of Charlie Rangel.
The same flair and apparent self-regard that drove Rangel to desert his own trial act as a ethical buffer of sorts. It’s hard to imagine him crossing over into a more sordid realm of quid pro quos or of the types of ethics violations that the FBI, as opposed to a toothless House subcommittee, tends to uncover. To promise a legislative favor in exchange for a measly donation of $100,000 or so would mean Rangel would have to accommodate his actions to another’s will and desires. And as he’s made abundantly clear, that’s just not what Charlie Rangel does.
When Charlie Rangel said he wouldn’t back down from ethics violations charges and calls to step down from his seat in Congress, he really meant it.
At a debate on Monday night with his primary opponents, all of them a couple decades younger than him, he mocked President Obama for saying that the 20-term Democrat from Harlem should “retire with dignity.”
“Frankly, he has not been around long enough to determine what my dignity is,” Rangel said about the president. “For the next two years, I will be more likely to protect his dignity.”
The fall of a leader may be a tragedy for Harlem, but national (and local) Democrats have reduced Charlie to a footnote — at open, empty war with the president, he does not sound like a threat to any Democrats’ electoral hopes except for his opponents. Despite the pro forma celebration of his birthday a few weeks back — attended by Senator Schumer, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson — his decision to fight for his political life seems more of a nuisance than an obstacle in the way of national Democratic hopes. (For obstacles, turn to Fox News and wait five minutes or less for the next mention of the words “Ground Zero Mosque.”)
But oh, what a nuisance. His strongest opponent, Adam Clayton Powell IV, has now taken off whatever gloves he was wearing beforehand, last week holding a big press conference on the street named after his father (who was himself an aging congressman stumbling in a fog of corruption when Rangel defeated him in 1971). He was supported by Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and drove home the point that Rangel was too corrupt to do well by Harlem.
However, Powell IV may not be the best man to call for a restoration of dignity, given his drunk driving record and other legal troubles. He’s aware of that problem now. “My mistake was one night of having maybe one too many, if you will, so to speak. His mistake has been a pattern of years and years and years of abuse of disrespect for the laws, of thinking that he’s above it all,” he said at the press conference. It’s a sign of the absurdity of this race that the reformist candidate’s strongest card is the one where he points out that his crime was less problematic.
Powell has added in a wrinkle to his attacks in recent days, saying that Rangel intends to actually step down upon re-election, which would open up the race to a hand-picked heir apparent like Assemblyman Keith Wright. While Rangel dismisses these accusations as crazy-talk, it also is becoming clear that Harlem voters might really need it to be true. Despite what Powell says, the only way they can really have a choice, after all, is if Charlie gives them one.
But he probably won’t. And the slow march until the September 14 continues, sounding like a circus, feeling like a tragedy. The morning after the election, no matter what happens, there is little chance it will feel any different.
David Paterson is back! Kind of.
As Governor-in-waiting Andrew Cuomo enters what must be the middle stretch of his endless inauguration, the current governor has been trying to stay relevant, in his own way. But, with Paterson, it seems like steps forward must always be matched with a step or two backward.
The state legislature finally passed a budget early last week, just in time for State Senators and Assemblymen to hit the campaign trail and brag about their productivity. It was only 125 days too late.
Then, on Wednesday, Paterson made a bid to solidify his legacy, at least in his backyard of Harlem, by playing MC at Charlie Rangel’s birthday party. This was good for the governor; compared to the embattled Congressman, he’s getting relatively good press these days.
But Paterson’s main stake to the news these days has been his attempt at playing peacemaker, floating a plan to move the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” (which is not exactly a mosque, and not exactly at Ground Zero) to unspecified state land nearby. The compromising— some would say compromised — tone drew a distinction with Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to stand by the plan, but then again, it doesn’t seem as if Paterson has any legal ability to change anything, nor would he be able to loosen up state land for use.
Now, Paterson is on the defensive. In an interview with WOR, he said the opponents of the mosque are merely neighbors, tired of being “badgered.” He added, “How much more foresighted would it be if you were promoting cultural and ethnic understanding if you don’t wait until you build the building to do it and do it right now?”
Paterson, like most of the other participants in the great mosque gabfest, doesn’t live downtown; the badgering seems to exist on a two-way street. However, the content of Paterson’s argument doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re talking about his views on something, and not the fact that his former top aide David Johnston was formally charged with assault in the case that basically ended Paterson’s bid for re-election. (Paterson will not be facing charges.)
At least he’s still the governor. For a few more months.