Rangel may hurt fellow Dems with ethics trial yet keep his own seat

A prominent congressional Democrat having to stand trial before the House ethics committee less than two months before November's election could compound the party's electoral woes in 2010.

Yet if Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) does end up making the campaign trail tougher for House Democrats this fall, the irony is that short of him being expelled from the House, observers say he's unlikely to lose his own congressional seat.

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Democrats have resigned themselves to losing seats in Congress this fall and have been test-driving a midterm message strategists think can help minimize those losses, but news that the House ethics committee is charging Rangel with multiple violations is certain to knock Democratic candidates off message.

Rangel reacted to the charges with trademark defiance, saying at a Friday afternoon news conference that he was "pleased" the full evidence against him would be aired Thursday, giving him the chance to defend himself.

"I am so pleased that they have and reported this to the ethics committee," Rangel said. "This is going to be done before my primary election, before my general election."

In a potential sign of what's to come, Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) on Friday night called on the beleaguered Rangel to resign. Sutton's statement came one day after the House ethics committee charged the 80-year-old Democrat with multiple violations.

"It is regrettable, but Charlie Rangel needs to resign from his seat in Congress," Sutton said in a statement. "This isn’t about being a Democrat or Republican, this is about preserving the public trust. Our nation is facing extraordinary challenges and we must be focused on building a sustainable economy that will allow our workers and businesses to flourish."

Rangel has been electorally untouchable for decades in New York's 15th Congressional District, which includes Harlem and all of northern Manhattan.

Rangel first won the seat in 1970, narrowly defeating the most powerful man in Harlem politics at the time, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

It was the start of an era of political dominance for Rangel, who became one of the state's most powerful political figures.

He, along with three other black lawmakers — including former Mayor David Dinkins and Basil Paterson, the father of New York's current governor — became known as Harlem's "gang of four."

The lawmakers commanded a political power base that has eroded in recent years, and back in March after Rangel stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, longtime New York political journalist Gabe Pressman observed that it signaled the "twilight" of the group's political clout.

"The Gang of Four made Harlem into a bastion of black power — but the city's black population has largely dispersed to Queens, the Bronx and the outer suburbs, and Harlem is no longer the center of African-American political leadership or electoral power," Pressman wrote.

For Rangel's Democratic primary opponents, the shifting nature of the 15th District coupled with the hit on Rangel's power in Washington offers hope that the district might finally be ready to move on.

"We all have great respect for him," said New York State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV. He's the son of the man Rangel defeated in 1970 and is challenging Rangel in September's primary. "But he doesn't have the power and prestige he used to have, and it's time to turn the page," Powell said.

He's one of several Democrats who have jumped in the race against Rangel and are trying to walk a thin line between not offending Rangel's longtime backers while at the same time convincing them the 80-year-old congressman can no longer effectively represent the district.

"I don't want to see his reputation tarnished any further, and his constituents don't want that either," said banker and former Rangel aide Vincent Morgan, who is also waging a primary campaign against him.

"He needs to put his ego aside and start investing in the future of the district," said Morgan. "We have this tendency to wait for the retirement ceremony or the memorial service before we start planning for the future, and I fear that's what will happen here, too."

New York political consultant Michael Olivo says any hope of defeating Rangel lies in the district's turnout dynamics. He notes the 15th District contains both the highest and lowest turnout areas in the entire city — the upper West Side of Manhattan on the one hand and East Harlem on the other.

"He has a base that will stick with him and that's undeniable," said Olivo, who's serving as a spokesman for Joyce Johnson, another of Rangel's primary challengers.

"Short of him killing someone in public, they're going to be with him," Olivo said.

Still, he isn't convinced that base will turn out in enough force for Rangel to win his September primary if things get too much worse for the embattled congressman.

In recent days, Rangel has received words of support from some of the city's political leaders, including former Mayor Dinkins and state Assemblyman Keith Wright, who represents Harlem.

"Of course I expect him to fight," said Morgan. "But just because you're fighting doesn't mean you're right."

A fourth Rangel challenger, Jonathan Tasini, is calling on the congressman to end his reelection bid and, in a statement, echoed the fears many Democrats are expressing privately.

"Rep. Rangel will be, as I argued when I announced my candidacy for the 15th Congressional District, the face of Washington corruption in Republican advertising and campaigns across the nation," Tasini said. "Rep. Rangel will, without a doubt, cost the Democratic Party seats in the November election, if he is the nominee of the party."