A Risky Time for Rep. Rangel?

Times, Politico differ on whether longtime pol is in peril

There’s a pair of dueling articles out today about the political fortunes of Charlie Rangel, one in Politico and the other in The New York Times. Rangel, of course, is the veteran Democratic congressman from Harlem who’s been buffeted over the past year and a half by a series of ethical scandals, many of them exposed by the Times. Both of today’s stories explore whether these scandals will be enough to dislodge him from the seat he’s held for four decades. But they point to very different conclusions.

Here’s the opening to the Politico story, which is headlined, “Timing of probe is crucial for Charlie Rangel”:

With the investigation of Rep. Charles Rangel nearing its second anniversary, the New York Democrat and the House ethics committee face a new challenge — the political calendar.

Rangel, a member of Congress since 1971, filed for reelection Sunday, and the Democratic primary in New York is Sept. 14.

If the ethics committee releases a damaging report on Rangel before the Sept. 14 primary, it could be a death blow to the Harlem congressman’s storied career and open the door to a serious Democratic challenge, Democratic colleagues and party strategists said.

But if the ethics committee’s findings come out after the primary, Rangel will very likely survive and win a 21st term in the House. Still, that timing would raise questions about the ethics committee’s process and whether the investigative panel was too aware of the political calendar.

And here’s the opening of the Times piece, headlined “The End for Rangel Appears Greatly Exaggerated”:

The 40-year Congressional career of Representative Charles B. Rangel seemed to come apart over the last year and a half, amid an unrelenting swirl of accusations that he dodged taxes, hoarded rent-stabilized apartments and accepted corporate-sponsored junkets to the Caribbean.

Suddenly, the genial, gravelly voiced prince of Harlem became a symbol of malfeasance and self-dealing Washington insiderism. Republicans talked of building their midterm election strategy around him. Democrats returned his campaign contributions. And Mr. Rangel, 79, relinquished the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

But back in his Congressional district, a very different attitude has emerged: a fierce determination that Mr. Rangel, whatever his transgressions, should end his public life on his own terms and be given one last term.

That sentiment is frustrating his Democratic challengers and propelling Mr. Rangel, who formally announced his candidacy on Sunday, into a surprisingly strong position just months after predictions of his demise.
Later on, the Times does take passing note of the pending ethics investigation that forms the core of the Politico story, referring to the timing of its release as a “big unknown” that could yet undo Rangel. Still, there’s a marked discrepancy in tone, and in the perception of the risk Rangel faces, between the two pieces.

So what accounts for the difference? The key is the phrase “back in his Congressional district.” Times reporter Michael Barbaro has quotes from a couple influential local folks—a union leader, a real estate developer—who back Rangel, at least for one more term. More significantly, he notes that while national Democrats are keeping their distance from Rangel, influential local Dems—like Keith Wright, the party’s chairman in Manhattan, and Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker—have rallied to his side.

Christine Quinn’s endorsement probably doesn’t move a ton of votes on its own. But if those people are backing Rangel, it means they’re not backing any of the at least four aspiring politicians who’ve lined up to unseat him, which means the challengers won’t have access to the name recognition, activist networks, perceived legitimacy, and, crucially, fundraising channels that establishment support can provide. (Barbaro reports that while Rangel’s fundraising has dipped and his legal costs have spiked, the $635,000 he has on hand still “dwarfs anything raised by his challengers.”) It’s possible that all these local eminences are missing anti-Rangel rumblings afoot, and it’s possible that they’ll all abandon ship and coalesce beyond a single challenger if a damning ethics report comes out before the primary. But as long as the local leadership is lined up behind Rangel, it’s a good bet that his seat is safe.

To be fair to the Politico story, that article is also occupied with a couple national and Beltway-oriented storylines: the likelihood that Republicans across the country will use Rangel as an example of Democratic corruption, for one, and the sense that the timing of ethics committee proceedings are manipulated for political advantage, for another. Given that focus, it’s not surprising that reporter John Bresnahan relies more on the words and deeds of D.C.-based strategists, staffers, and lawmakers than of NYC pols. And again, it’s possible that Rangel really is facing the end of his career. It’s more likely, though, that emphasizing the ethics report rather than Rangel’s local support creates an exaggerated sense of his political peril—and a distorted view of the factors that will shape the race.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.