07/29/2010 05:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rangel Ethics Trial A Distraction, Say House Dems

Frontline Democratic lawmakers Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, who is in an uphill battle for reelection, and Rep. Gerry Connolly of Northern Virginia, president of the Democrats' 2008 freshman class, insisted on Wednesday that New York Democrat Charlie Rangel's impending ethics hearing will not have much of an effect on the prospects for House Democrats as they head into midterm elections.

Rangel's ethics trial, which is slated to take place a few weeks before the November elections, comes at a bad time for House Democrats. Rangel has been charged with 13 counts of ethics violations, including failing to pay federal taxes on vacation property in the Dominican Republic and failing to report more than half a million dollars in income on congressional financial disclosure forms. He was also accused of using rent-stabilized property in Manhattan as his campaign office headquarters.

But lawmakers such as Perriello say the issue isn't of much concern to constituents and probably won't have much of an effect on the national narrative come November.

"I was at several festivals this weekend in conservative-leaning counties and I didn't get asked a single time about it," said Rep. Perriello. "That's not to say it couldn't escalate up in the fall, but again I think Republicans who would be most likely to gin this up have so many of their own ethics problems going on that I don't think they're really that eager to have that be the battle."

Voters in Connolly's district, the wealthiest congressional district in the nation as measured by median household income, probably are paying attention to Rangel's ethics charges -- the largest employer in his district is the federal government. But Connolly, for his part, doesn't think it will hurt Democrats in November, calling the trial a "distraction."

"Unless you found a pattern of corruption in the Congress, which I think was present in the '94 campaign with the House banking scandal, I think it's a sad and isolated case that will have a limited impact," said Connolly. "It adds to the narrative that [politicians are] all corrupt sadly, but I don't think it's going to be a dispositive issue in the election."

Reps. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) have called for Rangel's resignation, but most lawmakers are withholding public judgment. When asked Wednesday if they think Rangel should resign, Perriello and Connolly dodged the question, telling reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the progressive Third Way think tank that they still were waiting for the findings of the ethics investigation.

Rangel's lawyers have reportedly reached a plea deal, but members of the ethics committee have not yet agreed to the settlement.

At-risk Democrats like Perriello (who won his district by a scant 727 votes in 2008), have tried to incubate themselves from potential criticism by returning campaign contributions from Rangel. Despite these precautionary measures, Perriello insists that Rangel is beside the point in this election season.

"People want jobs," said Perriello. "People want to be able to feed their families and pay their bills right now."

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