As if the Democrats didn't have enough headwind going into the November elections, now two of the most prominent and longest-serving black Democrats in the country – Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York and Rep. Maxine Waters of California – are now reportedly both set to fight ethics charges at open House trials before Election Day.
Congressman Rangel faces 13 ethics charges, including allegations of improper fundraising and tax evasion, which were released this week.
Congresswoman Waters, a House ethics subcommittee is reportedly about to allege, broke ethics rules by lobbying Treasury officials for a $25 million bailout of OneUnited Bank in Boston, in which her husband, former NFL player Sidney Williams, has a financial stake.
Both House members have reportedly turned down plea offers for relatively light reprimands in order to fight the charges. Both ordeals promise to be showcase trials in the critical days before an election that Republicans are painting as a referendum on the agenda of the Democrat-controlled Congress and White House.
If they come to fruition, the trial-like ethics hearings could also drive a dispiriting wedge between Democrats, including the Obama White House, and
African-American supporters who, so far, have been the only voting bloc not to waver in their support for the first black president.
But the risk of black voters staying away from the polls, some analysts say, pales in comparison to Democrats appearing to whitewash a key tenet of the party's success in 2006 and 2008, what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called "draining the swamp" of the kind of Washington backroom dealings that she said hounded Republicans in the George W. Bush era.
"Of course, the spectacle of a public trial will not be good for Democrats who are already battling some extremely challenging macro dynamics in this election cycle," writes Democratic political consultant Christopher Lehane in The New York Times. "However, had the Democrats tried to quash the issue to keep it out of the fall election season over the objection of Republicans, that would have resulted in even greater political damage," because it could be perceived as a coverup.
The race factor
Political commentators say that the hearings are likely to be divisive and could fuel more debate about race. In the past, Waters, for one, has in the past pointed to alleged cabals by whites to target black politicians for prosecution.
She says her dealings regarding OneUnited were part an effort to lobby Treasury officials on behalf of the National Bankers Association, which represents dozens of banks owned by minorities and women. OneUnited won $12 million in bailout money from the Treasury, though officials there have reportedly said Waters was not the reason.
Rangel, for his part, has said there was nothing illegal about his fundraising activities.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, a new watchdog group set up by Ms. Pelosi in 2009, has eyed at least eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members have complained that some of those investigations are racially motivated.
Another prosecutorial factor, however, could be that ethics investigations often end up focusing on long-serving members – Waters and Rangel have served nearly six decades between them – who face little or no opposition at election time. Both devoted liberals have been regularly reelected with between 70 and 90 percent of the vote.
Democratic leadership vs. congressional blacks?
Waters herself has come to epitomize what many see as a growing divide between the White House and black America. In a speech at the National Urban League last week, the 10-term lawmaker took umbrage with the White House's treatment of Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced to resign for an allegedly racist statement made at an NAACP awards luncheon, a charge which later turned out to be false.
"We have to say to folks in leadership, whether it is the White House or anybody else: 'Don't be so afraid of white folks that you treat black people bad,' " she said. "Whether it is the White House or the NAACP, you cannot live in the moment of responding to the right-wing press, who is using that platform to literally do their organizing, to intimidate you and basically run this country."
The Rangel case, especially, threatens to demoralize a critical base for Democrats come November, strategists say. Rangel is one of the most legendary black politicians in US history and one whose venerable career contributed to the success of generations of black politicians. Obama said last week that the charges against Rangel are "troubling."
"Rangel's alleged misdeeds stem from exactly the kinds of abuses of power that cost the Republicans their majority in 2006, and which have sent the Tea Party movement into the streets demanding change," writes US News & World Report's Peter Roff.
"The way the congressional schedule is currently set, if the Rangel case goes to trial it will be in the midst of the fall campaign season at a time when Republican and Independent-leaning likely voters are enthusiastic about making changes in Washington. And Democrats, according to the latest polls, are looking more and more like they'll be staying home." Mr. Roff adds.