Charles Rangel ethics mess: another thing Democrats don't need before election

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York says he won't resign his seat or drop out of his reelection race. A House trial on ethics violations may remind voters that Democrats haven't ended the 'culture of corruption' in Washington.

By , Staff writer

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    Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel speaks to reporters during a news conference, Friday. Rangel, once among the most powerful members of Congress, will face a hearing on charges of violating House ethics rules after a panel of his peers formally accused him of wrongdoing Thursday.
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Just when the Democrats thought they had dodged one potentially explosive situation well before Election Day – the shorter-than-expected trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich – another irascible Democrat has reared his head, Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York.

The 20-term Congressman Rangel faces allegations by the House ethics committee, with specifics to be laid out next Thursday. But Democrats are already fearing the worst: that the prospect of a public trial right in the heat of midterms gives their brand the whiff of scandal, on top of the struggling economy and lack of public confidence in both the White House and Democratic-led Congress to solve the nation’s problems. Democratic control of the House, in particular, is seen as being in jeopardy.

“The timing couldn’t be worse for Democrats,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications strategist. “I think [House GOP leader] John Boehner would just love to see this go on for about 12 weeks.”

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At a press conference Friday in New York's Harlem, Rangel said he would not resign his House seat or drop out of his reelection race. Rangel also declined to respond to the allegations he faces, saying he will do so when the charges are made public next week. But in the past two years, a variety of ethics allegations have surfaced in the media, including use of a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office (a violation of campaign finance laws), failure to report on his taxes the income from a villa in the Dominican Republic, and a pledge from an oil executive to make a donation to a foundation Rangel ran.

Some Democrats have expressed hope that the bipartisan ethics committee’s process will demonstrate that the House’s system of self-policing is working. Rangel himself said Thursday in a statement that “at long last, sunshine will pierce the clouds of serious allegations that have been raised against me in the media.” But more likely, the trial will serve as a stark reminder that Democrats have failed to crack the “culture of corruption” in Washington they decried in their successful 2006 effort to take control of the House.

Rangel is one of the longest-serving members of Congress – with nearly 40 years in office – and served as chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee until last March, when was pressured by Democrats to step down over ethics questions. His highly recognizable face and voice will make it hard for campaigning Democrats to avoid questions on the matter, as the trial proceeds. Rangel appears to be a fixture in his heavily Democratic district, and it is not at all clear that his ethics problems will doom his reelection. He faces a crowded field of primary opponents, including state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the man he defeated in 1970.

The Associated Press has reported that Rangel’s attorney and the committee were working on a settlement, which would have required an admission of guilt by Rangel, but those talks broke down and now he faces a trial of his peers. If found guilty, Rangel could be expelled from office, censured, or reprimanded, the least severe punishment.

In the meantime, not all Democrats are fleeing Rangel’s side. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York is scheduled to host a fundraiser for Rangel in August.

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