Monday was the beginning of what is certain to be a rough stretch for Rep. Charles Rangel. Once the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and a sought-after power broker, Harlem’s political potentate has been laid low by 13 counts stemming from allegations of improper financial dealings, ethical lapses and fundraising chicanery.
Epitomizing just how capricious a sprite fortune truly is, Rangel attempted to have his hearing delayed. The congressman claimed that he had run out of money to pay his high-priced legal team, only to walk out of the hearing altogether when the committee refused to heed his request. The spectacle before the ethics panel was augmented by a new report that Rangel had funneled money from his political action committee to pay for his legal expenditures.
Yet any sympathy whatsoever for the embattled congressman would be woefully misplaced. Virtually every public remark Rangel has made about his ethics issues have exposed what lies at the root of his troubles: a grandiose sense of entitlement. An emotional Rangel lent further credence to this idea on Monday, when he told Congressional panelists and Beltway reporters: “I fought in wars, I love this Congress, I love this country…I think I’m entitled” to more time to make new legal arrangements. Never mind that he’s had months to prepare for the case– leaving aside the obvious question of how a representative of an inner-city district and a self-described ‘man of the people’ comes up with millions to pay white-shoe lawyers.
Rangel exhibits a shamelessness that defies explanation, and his behavior typifies the sort that led voters to turf-out the Republican-controlled Congress in 2006 and the Democratic-led one just two short weeks ago. Rangel’s allegations come at an awkward time for Democrats in general and the Congressional Black Caucus in particular, which has been beset by several instances of ethical wrongdoing in their ranks.
Facility with soundbites has earned him a reputation for having a tongue that matches his silvery-mane…but his most defining characteristic is proving to be his recalcitrant self-righteousness that makes him unable to see the writing on the wall. It’s a trait the gravelly-voiced congressman shares with his erstwhile Speaker, Nancy Pelosi — an elected official who led her party to a defeat of historic proportions yet still insists on being the Democrats standard-bearer in opposition.
In truth, the Democratic party should have prevailed upon Rangel to step aside earlier this year when the pall of scandal first enveloped the congressman, or at least stripped him of his committee assignments. Granted that such a move would likely have been futile, the Democratic establishment could also have backed a primary challenger that may have had a respectable shot at doing what Rangel himself has thus far refused to do: retire with some semblance of his dignity intact. Yet at every turn, senior Democrats nurtured the congressman’s overweening ego, allowing him to persist in the delusion that he’d emerge unscathed.
The circling of the wagons by national Democrats around certain party members should not go unremarked. The reluctance to challenge or depose senior party figures is a logical inconsistency given the Democrats wont to influence internal party contests and primaries. Much hay was made when former president Bill Clinton tried to convince Kendrick Meek — a quality black candidate and loyal Democrat — to back out of the three-way Senate race; and when the party concocted an 11th hour deal over the weekend to head off a leadership battle between South Carolina’s James Clyburn and Maryland’s Steny Hoyer. Both Clyburn and Meeks were strong contenders for their respective races, and were untainted by scandal. So the question is rightfully raised: why push out comparatively good candidates while not confronting politicians like Rangel and Maxine Waters?
Rangel’s fate would have been best left to Harlem’s electorate, which was given a reasonable slate of primary challengers that could have represented the district well. Unfortunately, those viable alternatives were mistakenly bypassed on their way to handing the raspy-voiced raconteur his 21st term in Congress with an overwhelming victory of more than 80 percent of the vote.
Dysfunctional party leadership and being the product of an absurdly gerrymandered district have allowed Rangel to call all the shots. This does a disservice to voters who have soured on the political elite and their overwhelming condescension toward the political process. Most of all, it will rebound on Harlem voters, who suffer from a host of problems and deserve better representation.
Heady times indeed, but voters should shed no tears for the beleaguered Congressman. Rangel now lays uneasily in a bed entirely of his own making, and should be forced to suffer the consequences of his delusional behavior.