Probe Clears Rep. Waters; Good for Obama?
Blogging the Beltway: We examine whether ethics probes of black lawmakers could affect the president's 2012 prospects.
(The Root) -- On Friday a special investigator commissioned by the House of Representatives announced that one of the most prominent African-American women in Congress, Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), did not violate House ethics rules. The investigation cast a three-year cloud over the California congresswoman, her family and congressional Democrats in general, coming on the heels of an even more high-profile investigation of fellow Congressional Black Caucus stalwart Charles Rangel. As the media scrutiny lingered, and the reputation of the members suffered accordingly, the inevitable question arose of whether investigations of two high-profile black elected officials could affect the Obama presidency or the 2012 election in any way.
Though the cases of Waters and Rangel are different, political watchers had noted similarities: two black legends of Congress, seemingly brought down to earth by financial scandals -- and in the age of the first black president, no less. Waters was investigated after contacting the Treasury Department to set up a meeting with various bank officials, among them officials from an institution in which her husband owned stock.
The investigation concluded that when Waters became aware of even the possibility of a conflict of interest, she dropped the matter. What is unclear, and remains a topic of investigation, is whether or not her chief of staff, Mikael Moore, continued to press the matter. Moore also happens to be the congresswoman's grandson.
In the case of Rangel, in 2010 he became the 23rd member in the history of the House of Representatives to face censure -- the most serious punishment, next to expulsion, for a member of Congress -- after being found guilty of 11 ethics violations. Among the most serious accusations he faced: failing to declare income tax for a rental property and underreporting approximately $500,000 in income in previous tax statements.
Rangel's downfall coincided with extensive Democratic losses in Congress, with Republicans winning control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections just days before Rangel's censure. According to experts we spoke to, however, it would not be fair or accurate to say that Rangel shoulders any blame for the Democrats' dismal outcome in 2010.
A Case of Politics Being Local?
Political consultant Michael Goldman, a veteran of both presidential and Senate campaigns, noted that for a congressional scandal to have national impact, there needs to be a national angle. Theoretically, two high-profile black leaders who are being accused of nefarious activity could draw unflattering comparisons in the minds of some voters to the one other high-profile black leader they know of -- President Obama. But Goldman said that in these two specific instances, this is unlikely, as long as the troubles of Waters and Rangel remain localized.
Of Waters, Goldman said, "She doesn't help or hurt Democrats or help or hurt Republicans. No one's casting a vote in Iowa or New York based on Maxine Waters, because most people in those states don't know who Maxine Waters is. Most people who aren't political junkies don't know who she is. For a scandal to taint a president, it needs a national angle and national implications. The Waters investigation didn't have that." The same is true of Rangel, he added.
Or a Generation Gap, Perhaps?
But while Basil Smikle, a consultant who has worked for Hillary Clinton and congressional candidates, agreed to a degree, his reasoning differed. "Rep. Waters may have been cleared, which will likely make her political future less sullied, but recent controversies surrounding her and Congressman Rangel have cast a pall over older generations of black political figures, who seem to be out of step with a younger, untarnished Obama."
To Smikle's point, this year Rangel faced his toughest primary challenge ever from a number of younger, upstart candidates. The final tally was so close, it was still being counted a week after the election. According to Smikle, “The president has already created distance between himself and any political figure with a hint of scandal, which in some ways mirrors a sentiment that was evident in the first campaign and subsequent years in the White House: Regarding older-generation gatekeepers, he would rather go around them to achieve his goals and talk to his supporters than go through [the gatekeepers]."
From his early campaigns -- in which he faced allegations of not being "black enough," and being called names by the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- to more recent years, when the Congressional Black Caucus has emerged as one of his most vocal progressive critics, President Obama has attempted a delicate balancing act in his relationships with older black leaders. This is in no small part because of the shadow they cast, in the eyes of some, on his own leadership. It remains to be seen if he will finally escape that shadow, should he earn a second term in office.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.