After electoral drubbing, Democrats must now deal with ethics trials

Fresh from a stinging midterm election defeat, House Democrats must quickly face another embarrassing spectacle: public trials for two of their most prominent members.

Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), two senior House veterans, have opted to fight the separate ethics charges in public ethics trials set to take place later this month and extend into the first week of December.

Drawing criticism from Republicans, House ethics chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) last month announced the trials would occur after the elections. Rangel’s will commence Nov. 15 and the Waters trial will start Nov. 29.

To make matters worse for a party still reeling from their losses, Rangel, who is known for his colorful and rambling speeches, could decide to represent himself at the hearing. The Rangel’s trial would undoubtedly attract a lot of attention from the cable news shows.

“It’s like we’re kicking ourselves in the stomach when we’re already down,” one House Democratic staffer griped. “I’m not looking forward to it.”

Rangel and his attorney, Leslie Berger Kiernan, and her legal team parted ways in October, leaving little time before the Nov. 15 trial for another lawyer to take the case and prepare.

There’s an outside chance that the ethics committee could decide to postpone Rangel’s hearing because he no longer has legal representation, a delay some ethics experts say would be fair.

“I don't see how Rangel’s [trial] can happen since he does not have counsel and any new lawyer will need time to prepare,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It seems nearly certain Rangel’s trial will have to be postponed --- due process concerns.”

Waters is more eager to get her trial done so Sloan anticipates it will go forward as planned.

“I can't imagine how delaying would help the Ds,” she said. “I imagine they will want to get this behind them as quickly as possible.”

Rangel did not return a request for comment and a Waters spokesman declined to comment. The ethics committee does not discuss internal decisions about ongoing ethics cases and did not return a request for comment.

Under committee rules, Lofgren has the sole authority to schedule or delay the hearings as long as she wants, but other watchdogs said the ethics committee cannot afford any more bad press related to its handling of the Rangel and Waters matters.

“[Lofgren] is not at all likely to delay the hearings further,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “Additional delays would reflect poorly on the committee itself and provide no benefit to either congressional caucus.”

Republicans have no sympathy for Democrat’s plight, because, they argue, their leaders had a choice of whether to move forward with the trials in July but decided to push them off until after the election for public relations purposes.

They also remember how Democrats capitalized on the 2006 October scandal involving then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and inappropriate electronic messages to former pages. At the time, Democrats said it proved that Republicans had lost their way on ethics.

“There is no purer symbol of the arrogance of power than Democrats holding these hearings after the elections,” said Doug Heye, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “It perfectly encapsulated why voters are tired of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s [D-Calif.] rule.”

Democrats fired back, arguing that the Rangel and Waters ethics issues hardly compare to scandals during Republican control of the House, including the Foley scandal, and the wide-ranging corruption probe of Jack Abramoff that landed the lobbyist and one GOP member (Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio)) in jail and implicated several former aides.

“There is not one shred of evidence that voters are in any way motivated by these allegations,” said Brandi Hoffine, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “…There’s no comparison whatsoever between these allegations and the scandal-racked Republican Congress of 2006.”

Some Democrats contacted for this article who declined to speak on the record lashed out at Republicans for their ethics record.

“It takes a lot of chutzpah coming from the same party that impeached President Clinton during [a] lame duck [session] and the same GOP leaders who proudly presided over a non-existent ethics process....Democrats strengthened the house ethics process, Republicans subverted it," remarked one Democratic aide.

It’s difficult to quantify just what kind of impact the Rangel and Waters scandals had on Tuesday’s disappointing Democratic losses, but longtime political observers argue that ethics scandals are packing more of a punch in recent years then they had some 10 or 15 years ago.

“We’ve seen in the past when the Democrats took over they found that the ethics issues were more salient than many believed previously,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “…To some degree the Republicans have used the Rangel and Waters matters effectively to paint a picture that the Democrats are not the change they sold us on.”

McGehee believes that younger voters in their 40s and 50s grew up watching the Watergate scandal and its fallout and take ethics issues more seriously than the previous generation.

“As politics has become cleaner – you don’t see the bags of cash being handed over anymore – there’s still a recognition that politics still seem to be doing backroom deals even when you pass new rules and laws [to crack down on it],” she said.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill strongly reject any notion that the Rangel and Waters matters had anything to do with individual Democratic defeats, citing jobs and the difficulty of maintaining a majority in Congress in a midterm election after controlling all three branches of government. One aide specifically noted that most of the ads featured Pelosi, not Rangel and Waters.

“It’s ridiculous to say that,” one Democratic aide shot back. “If that were the case, there would be ads running all over the country [highlighting the investigations]. House Republicans made the conscious decision not to make this a big deal because they have their own skeletons in their closet…people are concerned about one thing: jobs.”