Whenever he's asked about the myriad of ethics charges he is facing, charges that could potentially end his 40-year career in Congress, Rep. Charles Rangel always is the picture of confidence, and defiance.
Somebody should probably tell him that his self-confidence may not be warranted.
First elected to Congress in 1970, Rangel, a key ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has long been an influential player in Washington, and indeed played a significant role in the recently-passed health care debate. He was also a strong chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee ... a chairmanship he was forced to give up earlier this year because of allegations he violated House rules.
The public phase of the ethics trial of Charlie Rangel began today, and while the 80-year old New York Democrat did not show up, the charges — 13 of them — were spelled out.
Many Democrats have not disguised the fact that they wish this whole thing would just go away. Many were also convinced that Rangel was going to reach some sort of agreement with the committee before the public phase of it began. That hasn't happened. One of the reasons Democrats won control of the House in 2006 was the Republican "culture of corruption," as Pelosi liked to say over and over. And the list was indeed significant: Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff. Pelosi promised to "drain the swamp" of the corruption, and voters around the country gave the Dems the majority in the House for the first time in 12 years. The last thing they wanted was for Rangel to be the poster boy for Democratic corruption in the 2010 midterms.
And so, many Democrats who were elected from Republican-leaning districts in '06 and '08 want nothing to do with Rangel. Although only two — Betty Sutton of Ohio and Walt Minnick of Idaho — have called on him to resign, there are plenty more who would love to see it happen. Or, at the least, have him cop a plea and end the public trial.
At the same time, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have warned House Democrats that there should be no rush to judgment about Rangel, reminding them of the Shirley Sherrod affair in which the Agriculture Department employee was forced to resign because of a doctored videotape of a speech she gave to a local branch of the NAACP.
The last lawmaker to find himself faced with a public ethics hearing was James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat who was knee-deep in corruption and expelled from the House in 2002. He later went to prison for seven years.
If no deal is reached between the Rangel team and the lawmakers on the ethics committee, and if he is found guilty on some or all of the charges, the punishment could be anything from a reprimand to a censure to the ultimate punishment, expulsion.
Meanwhile, Rangel's prowess as a top fundraiser for his party is coming back to bite him. Republicans are pressuring Democrats who took money from Rangel — such as Pennsylvania Senate nominee Joe Sestak; other Keystone State House members, Kathy Dahlkemper, Paul Kanjorski and Patrick Murphy; plus New Hampshire Senate candidate Paul Hodes, among others — to return it. Most have subsequently donated the money to charity.
Rangel is also facing a Sept. 14 Democratic primary challenge back in his Harlem district from three opponents. As of this writing, none — including state Rep. Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the man Rangel unseated in 1970 — seem to be especially competitive. But a guilty plea or conviction could change that.
Today Roll Call reported that the deadline has passed for Rangel to drop off the primary ballot. But there has never been any hint by the congressman that that's what he wanted to do. In fact, at the very least, Rangel wants to make sure he wins the primary. Then, in the event he is forced to resign or gets expelled, his allies back home can install a new nominee.
But at this point that remains extremely unlikely.