What Now for Charlie Rangel?

One argument for his re-election was allowing him to retire with dignity. Now that's he's been found guilty of violating House rules, any exit will be messy.

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The New York Times has said that, by storming out of his House ethics trial Monday, Rep. Charles Rangel chose to avoid a public airing of the embarrassing charges against him and to instead make his case "in the court of public opinion." But as Al Sharpton and others point out, Rangel has already done that. The result was a resounding re-election earlier this month with 80 percent of votes cast in the Harlem-based, overwhelmingly Democratic 15th Congressional District in New York.

On Tuesday, the ethics panel found that the evidence before it proved Rangel had violated House rules in 11 of 12 instances; he was found not culpable on one charge. About half the charges related to efforts to raise money for a proposed Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Policy at the City College of New York; others involved financial irregularities that the committee's own counsel said did not constitute corruption. As on Monday, Rangel did not contest the charges and did not even bother to show up for Tuesday's phase of the contorted adjudication process. Instead, he posted a blistering statement on his congressional website.

Sharpton said that Rangel should get "beyond the theatrics" -- perhaps ironic, coming from this reverend -- and that even if the harshest sanction the congressman realistically faces is a reprimand, he should turn this into a challenge to House rules that restrict his access to lawyers of his choice. This could become a battle about due process, something that might rehabilitate his tarnished image. "I would tell him to make an issue of the House rules," Sharpton says. "Rather than go into the mud, he should go above the storm and make this about reforming House rules. As long as he stays in the mud, I think everybody gets muddied."

But in the meantime, the district that Rangel has represented for 40 years is deprived of his leadership when all hands are needed on deck, with Republicans back in control in the House. In recent years, the major rationale for re-electing Rangel time and again when Democrats were a minority in the House was that he could eventually become chairman of the most powerful committee there: Ways and Means. When Democrats did regain control in 2008 and he became chairman, it was for a proverbial New York minute. Amid press-driven charges of wrongdoing, he was forced to relinquish the chairman's seat. 

A primary reason put forth to justify electing Rangel to a 21st term this month was so he could end his congressional career with dignity. But the "theatrics," as Sharpton put it, have lessened the chances of that. Even after the subcommittee vote, Rangel grumbled to reporters about the unfairness of a process that allows those prosecuting him to present mounds of evidence without giving him a chance to respond.

Walking out on the hearing was, according to political consultant Walter Fields, "a shrewd strategic move on the part of this congressman to sort of limit damage on public perception. … This is gamesmanship on his part."

But perhaps in an act of defiance -- or even denial -- Rangel refused to set up a legal defense fund, though urged by the ethics panel to do so months ago. When he came before the panel for the start of the hearing Monday, he claimed to be broke. By all accounts, Rangel has spent about $2 million on his defense so far and may need still another $1 million going forward. "At some point common sense has to prevail, and so far I don't think it has," Fields said.

Ultimately, nostalgia and malaise need to be set aside in the district. But Rangel has faced no viable challenge to his incumbency. A little-known New York gubernatorial candidate running under the banner of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party garnered far more media attention than Rangel's opposition in the congressional race -- both in the primary and the general elections.

The Rangel case should be taken up by the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct by Thursday, then go before the entire House for a final decision on punishment.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a Southerner based in New York.

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