F.A.Q.: What just happened to Charlie Rangel, actually?
A conversation with WNYC political reporter Azi Paybarah about Charlie Rangel.
Josh Benson: Impressions of the Rangel proceedings, please?
Azi Paybarah: Bad lawyering.
Josh: Well, no lawyering.
Azi: Almost compelling people to ask him to resign. But after all that it'll be a wrist slap. The subcommittee finds him very guilty, but it's all cosmetic at this point. He won't admit to any guilt and will say it's all contrived and a miscarriage of justice. Most of these counts have to do with the Rangel Center, anyway. So when he says it's all technicalities it won't seem far off to anyone who's inclined to believe him anyway.
Azi: The official language in the congressional paperwork even says that the goal here isn't to punish the wrongdoer so much as to protect the credibility of the institution. So they're all going through necessary motions right now. And assuming the punishment here is a formal censure or less, its effect on House business—considering Rangel's reduced role in the soon-to-be minority—is just about nothing at all.
Josh: We have to assume he knew what was going to happen here, certainly. His plan since well before the election has probably been to win, get through the trial and then plan an exit, one way or another, that is plausibly on his own terms.
Josh: The way he stood up and walked out of the hearing isn't inconsistent with this. He knew what the panel was going to find, and he didn't want to legitimize it any more than he had to. I also don't think it would have gone too great if he stayed and winged it, anyway. The optics could have been considerably worse than they were.
Azi: He might have fallen asleep.
Josh: I wasn't even thinking of that.
Azi: It was amazing, though. He ignored the microphone while he was there (one brave journalist tried to slide it closer to him). The chairperson seemed unable to reign him in. Wherever Rangel sat, there was the head of the table. Or wherever he stood.
Josh: Was the local reaction to his resignation about what you expected?
Azi: Kind of. Ed Koch told me he should retire, not because of shame or dishonor but from the point of view of dude, you're old, the job sucks now, go have fun and get rid of this headache. And he knows something about the misery of overstaying a public welcome. Of course there may be some (old!) grudges there.
Azi: On the other hand local officials who are still in office, by and large, supported him. Keith Wright actually laughed at me when I asked whether there was anything Congress could really do to Rangel.
Azi: And Rangel and his allies have made it clear that they feel, now as before, that he has been treated differently than other members of Congress. And that it bears examination, the question of why Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr., other African-American members, are also in the ethics panel's cross- hairs.
Josh: Can you tell me more about your conversation with Keith Wright? He sort of figures into this saga in what might turn out to be a significant way, right?
Azi: Yep. He's the lion-in-waiting. Rangel, I believe, helped engineer Wright's rise to Democratic county leader in Manhattan. And if an elected resigns from office and there's a special election to fill his vacancy, the party's designee is chosen not in a primary (by voters) but rather by a vote among committee members in the county organization. Which means, assuming the county leader has some influence over the votes, that the county leader effectively picks the successor. So if Rangel steps down, his friend, Keith Wright, could make himself an officially endorsed candidate in a nonpartisan election that he would be well-positioned to win.
Azi: Mildly relevant piece of contextual trivia here: Wright comes from a political family. His father was Judge Bruce Wright, whose nickname from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Wright notes happily, was "Turn 'Em Loose Bruce." Wright told me that his father was admonished by a panel, similar to the one that just conducted the Rangel hearing, that oversaw judges. And he said that it only made his dad more of a legend back home, in Harlem. Somewhat instructive, to whatever extent it's not an exaggeration, about the very real rallying around Rangel by his supporters in the district, both in the primary and, from what I can see, now.
Azi: Let me ask you a question.
Azi: Knowing what actually happened here, and how unspectacular the charges actually were—he was guilty, maybe knowingly, of bad accounting and (repeatedly) improper use of stationery—how do you think the coverage has been? Breathless and overwrought? Understated?
Josh: Hm. Neither, particularly? It's a pretty extraordinary event, so it's not surprising to me that everyone covered it, even if the end result was kind of predictable.
Josh: But you're trying to get at something here.
Azi: These charges are kind of a yawn. Wasn't there another congressman accused of hiding piles of money in his freezer? Didn't another say (in his defense!) that he had a naked confrontation with Rahm Emanuel in the showers at a Congressional gym? How many state lawmakers have been accused of stealing money or services?
Josh: Ah. But this isn't William Jefferson, let alone Eric Massa. This is Charles B. Rangel, dean of the New York delegation, former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, drafter of Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senate, Harlem lion. The charges against him are not particularly spectacular, but I don't think they had to be. He's important! No?
Azi: He is. I'm just saying this isn't so exciting to me, somehow.
Azi: May I run a theory by you?
Josh: Of course.
Azi: It is that the Democrats are doing this in order to set a benchmark. So next year when there's a whole bunch of Tea Party freshman walking around the building the Democrats will be able to point to Rangel as an example of their willingness to punish their own and demand that the Republicans do the same the second one steps out of line. Or is that just a side effect of the Dems having to clean up their own mess?
Josh: I think it's a side effect, not their primary motivation. They can't have assumed they were going to lose more than 60 seats back when this stuff all started picking up momentum. (They may have had an inkling, but it wasn't nearly as clear as it became right before the election.) I think it just became a big liability for Pelosi and the Dem leadership to be seen not to be doing anything in the face of regular revelations from David Kocieniewski, and the New York Post, about how lax Rangel was about the rules that were supposed to apply to him.
Josh: So what happens next? Obviously we still have to find out what the punishment is going to be, but presumably it will be something of the cosmetic, slappy variety you describe. According to what seems to be the consensus theory among the sorts of people you spend your days talking to, Rangel will now stick around just long enough to demonstrate that he is not leaving because of the ethics charges, and then resign, maybe even before the end of the year, triggering the Wright scenario. Does that sound right?
Azi: Right sequence, but who knows how long it will take to play out.
Josh: Rangel told Reid Pillifant that he intends to stick around and defend the president's agenda. So I guess we're obliged to presume that that will be his intention until it isn't.
Josh: And is it going to be Wright, do you think?
Azi: There will be other names in the mix. Maybe Bill Perkins, maybe Robert Jackson or Inez Dickens. And maybe also one or more of the people who ran and lost against Rangel in September.
Josh: What's the kicker going to be for the Rangel-legacy story you write, eventually?
Azi: "A tour of the newly opened Rangel Center ends in a room dominated by a single flat-screen television, on which the congressman's floor speech on ethics plays all day, on a loop."