Charlie Rangel, inviolate

Charlie Rangel with fellow congressman Jerrold Nadler. ()
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He has been charged with 13 serious ethical violations, with a formal reprimand (or worse) on the way. He’s facing explicit calls for his resignation from his fellow House Democrats, and the world's most unsubtle hint from the president of the United States. But there's still reason to believe that all choices having to do with how and when Charlie Rangel ends his career will be made by Charlie Rangel.

To understand how and why, you need to consider how the Rangel saga will probably play out both in the near-term and the longer-term.

In the near-term, the 80-year-old Democrat faces three threats to his continued service in Congress, and he's well positioned to survive them all.

The first comes from the House ethics committee, which could—theoretically—recommend that he be expelled from the chamber. But that’s not going to happen. Right up until the final moments before it publicly leveled the 13 ethics charges against him last Thursday, the committee was in settlement talks with Rangel—and expulsion wasn’t on the table. Plus, the ethics sub-panel that’s investigated Rangel since 2008 recommended to the full committee that Rangel only be reprimanded for his transgressions—not expelled, or even censured.

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Right now, the ethics committee’s trial of Rangel is slated to start sometime in September. A settlement might still be reached before then, but even if the trial proceeds and even if Rangel is found guilty of every infraction, his punishment isn’t going to include the loss of his seat.

The next threat comes from the voters in Rangel’s Harlem-based 15th District, who will pass judgment on him in the September 14 Democratic primary and, if he survives that, the November 2 general election. In another district, a congressman confronting such an intense political and media firestorm would face automatic rejection at the polls. But Rangel’s situation is far less precarious.

In the Democratic primary, he is blessed with remarkably weak opposition, thanks to a clubby Harlem political culture that respects and fears entrenched power. His most prominent challenger, Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, carries a famous name into the race, but also personal and professional baggage that makes Rangel’s look quaint. The three other entrants aren’t as well known and figure to mainly pick off anti-Rangel votes that would otherwise go to Powell. With such a crowded field, Rangel may not need more than 40 percent to survive—and with his money, machine allies and still considerable personal popularity, he should be able to get there.

The general election is barely worth mentioning, given the district’s overwhelming Democratic bent. Rangel is not a potential William Jefferson, the scandalized New Orleans Democrat who was unseated by a Republican in a deeply Democratic district in 2008. Jefferson’s transgressions were more severe: he was under indictment for bribery ($90,000 in cash had been found in his freezer) and was ultimately convicted and sent to prison. Rangel is merely looking at a slap on the wrist from his colleagues. And for all of his woes, Jefferson came within three points of surviving in ’08. And his district, with a Cook PVI of D+25 (meaning that the two most Democratic presidential candidates performed an average of 25 points better in the district than they did nationally), is not as strongly Democratic as Rangel’s, which has a Cook PVI of D+41. In other words, there’s no way a Republican will win here, no matter how bad things get for Rangel.

That leaves one more immediate threat to Rangel: the growing number of calls for his resignation. In theory, this should translate into mounting pressure of some sort. But it’s hard to see any of it swaying Rangel, since he knows exactly what’s motivating the resignation demands and exactly how long they’ll last. Democrats, after all, are scrambling to retain control of the House and facing a hostile political climate, which they fear will only get worse if it looks like they’re protecting a crooked colleague. The fear is especially pronounced among members from competitive districts.

So it was no surprise to anyone—Rangel included—that the five House Democrats who quickly called for Rangel’s ouster after Thursday’s events were all from potential battleground districts: Betty Sutton (whose Ohio district has a PVI of D+5), Walter Minnick (R+18), Mary Jo Kilroy (D+1), John Yarmuth (D+2), and Zack Space (R+7). Rangel himself, according to Politico, actually encouraged his colleagues to express indignation as needed. “I know you love me, but love yourself more,” he reportedly told one fellow Democrat last week.

The handful of resignation calls we've heard so far will surely be just the start—there have already been more. But so what? To Rangel, it’s just politicians doing what they need to do to survive. He can shrug it off, knowing that, for all their fighting words, his colleagues won’t boot him out of the House, and that if he does return to Congress next January, the matter will be resolved and the resignation demands will stop.

Yes, it’s possible that Rangel might decide between now and November that he’s sick of being a punching bag and simply decide to walk away. But for anyone who’s watched him closely, that’s very hard to imagine. Rangel is a proud man who sincerely believes he didn’t intentionally break any rules. But he also knows that the ethics committee isn’t about to agree with that contention and that a reprimand or censure is coming. In that context, this fall’s election—in which his prospects for victory are strong—offers him the perfect opportunity to claim vindication. The ethics committee didn’t believe me, he could say in victory, but the people who know me best do.

So the most likely short-term chain of events looks like this: The ethics case will either be settled or resolved through a trial—with Rangel being reprimanded (most likely) or censured (less likely), but not expelled; Rangel will prevail in the September 14 Democratic primary and coast in the November election; and Democratic calls for Rangel’s resignation will continue through the general election—but stop when the case is closed and the election is over.

If this all plays out, then it would bring us to the long-term scenario, which is where the chance for Rangel to enjoy the last laugh comes in. Bear with me, because this will take some explaining.

The idea is that Rangel, after winning the September primary and November general election and declaring himself vindicated, won’t really have any reason to stick around the Capitol. He’ll essentially be a glorified backbencher, having “temporarily” surrendered the Ways and Means gavel that made him a giant in Washington these past few years. (There’s no circumstance under which he’ll get it back ever again.)

We already know what Rangel thinks of life without his Ways and Means perch. From 1994 to 2006, Rangel turned into an old man waiting for his party to win back the House, aware that the seniority system guaranteed him the plum chairmanship. But by ’06, when he turned 76, he all but announced that he’d retire from the House if Democrats didn’t re-take the chamber that fall. He didn’t like being a nobody on Capitol Hill then, and he’ll probably like it even less next year, since the prospect of a major chairmanship (and serious relevance) will be gone for good.

So if he wins this November, chances are that Rangel won’t run again in 2012. But he’ll also be in position to exploit New York’s archaic, clubhouse-friendly elections laws to anoint his own successor—and to stifle the political ambitions of many of his Harlem enemies.

There is a modern precedent for this kind of maneuvering. It was back in 1998 that Rep. Tom Manton, who doubled as the Queens Democratic chairman, abruptly withdrew from the Democratic primary in the dead of the night, and then immediately gaveled through the selection of his protégé, Joe Crowley, to replace him on the ballot. The other would-be candidates were blindsided and didn’t find out until it was too late. Thus, Crowley won the primary without opposition and breezed through November and into Congress, where he serves today.

Rangel probably won’t be able to engineer that exact maneuver. But he could achieve a similar result by resigning his seat early in the next Congress, which would trigger a special election. In most other states, the candidates would be selected by each party’s voters in primaries. But not in New York, where party chiefs would make the call—meaning that Democratic leaders, and not voters, would select Rangel’s successor if he were to leave midterm. Which is quite convenient for Rangel, since the man widely assumed to be his preferred successor, Assemblyman Keith Wright, just so happens to be the Manhattan County Democratic chairman.

In other words, Rangel could win reelection this year, return to Congress with his head held high, then hand his seat off to a handpicked successor, who would then have nearly two years to use the powers of incumbency to fortify himself from a primary challenge.

It would infuriate all of the other Democrats who aspire to succeed Rangel (like, say, state Senator Bill Perkins and current Rangel challengers Powell and Vincent Morgan) just as Manton’s ’98 move enraged Walter McCaffrey, Catherine Nolan and John Sabini. (McCaffrey ended up challenging Crowley in the 2000 primary, with the support of Nolan and Sabini, but dropped out a month before the vote.)

But if, after all that's happened, Rangel ends up winning re-election and being sworn-in to the 112th Congress next January, then leaves on his own terms and finds a way to pick his own successor, does anyone really think he'll care?