Why Charlie Rangel Might Have an Obligation to Stay in Office

The Harlem Democrat might be current shorthand for "congressional corruption," but an abrupt departure could just make matters worse.
Avi Zenilman | August 3rd, 2010

Rep. Charlie Rangel

The case of Rep. Charlie Rangel seems pretty cut and dry: A Congressional Panel has hit him with 13 ethics violations (mainly for finding new, recreational ways to use taxpayer money), he lost his beloved seat as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee months ago, and even the President has suggested that he “end his career with dignity.”

There is an undertone of fear as the Democrats limp into midterms and “Rangel” becomes shorthand for “congressional corruption.” Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Minority Leader, has used the charges to launch a broader attack, telling NewsHour last week, “This is about Speaker Pelosi’s most glaring promise that she’s broken, when she said in ’06 that it’s time to drain the swamp.”

The eighty-year-old lion of Harlem faces a primary on September 14, leaving him more then enough time to step down and “pass the torch,” as his four opponents like to say, and take some of the midterm heat off of the Democrats.

But what would his resignation accomplish?

As much as Rangel’s refusal to step down from the seat he has held since 1970 resembles the futile lunge of a fading boxer, the national party has slowly and steadily distanced themselves from him, calling for investigations and stripping him of his power. And Weekly Standard editor and conservative strategist William Kristol pointed out that the corruption charge is distraction — Republican congressmen are held in similarly low regard and their own problems still linger in voters’ minds. He suggested they target their attacks at Democratic policies, where there is more space to draw distinctions. “The idea that Republicans should go around throwing stones at Charlie Rangel is foolish on their part,” he recently told Fox News.

On top of this, it’s not entirely clear that Harlem would be better off if he left now. (One year ago, before he swallowed up campaign support and the available donor money, would have been a different story.) His top challenger, former Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, also has a reputation with some chinks, due to a recent drunk driving charge and a 2004 sex scandal, and, in an interview last week, he demonstrated that he has more passion than policy knowledge.  Top Harlem heavyweights such State Senator Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Keith Wright all chose not to challenge Rangel, out of either respect or strategic prudence, and they all have stronger political operations than Powell.

Vincent Scott Morgan, a former Rangel staffer who is a long-shot primary challenger (and short on cash, this time around), told me, “We should have a choice as to who best represents the values of the district in Washington, D.C.” Some might argue that Charlie Rangel denied voters that choice when he chose to run for re-election, but abruptly leaving a void might make a bad situation worse.