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Rangel and the Ghosts of Censure

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Throughout 40 years of public service, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) never thought it would come down to this: finding himself in the well of the House floor, publicly chewed by his peers in a humiliating 333-79 censure vote. Rangel, a vaunted legislator deeply steeped in the workings of the House, knows very well what that means. Even though his job and nearly $175,000 salary are very much intact, the dark mark of censure will haunt the Rangel name for near eternity.

Rangel is now the first member of Congress in 30 years to receive the embarrassing public rebuke of censure. It's not a good look or legacy for the Korean War hero. Ironically, he finds himself in a situation eerily reminiscent of his legendary and controversial predecessor Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY). In 1970, then a young rising star New York State Assemblyman, Rangel made an ambitious bid for Powell's seat, arguing the longtime Congressman was frequently absent from the district, but also challenged by the dark cloud of ethics, as well. Congress censured Powell and stripped him of his seat in 1967 due to a brewing ethics scandal, but he regained it in 1969 after winning a case before the Supreme Court.

It's an ugly, historical repeat that falls heavy on Rangel. Powell's ghost appears to re-emerge in Rangel's troubles.

But, many longtime observers are left wondering how it got this far. Questions are left hanging about the conduct of the House Ethics Committee and many, along with Rangel, found the censure recommendation unnecessary and outright unfair. Charges of double standards and tougher application of the rules when it involves African American members of the Congress are persistent. Rangel is among an uncomfortably long list of black lawmakers being probed by the Committee, and many wonder out loud about the motivations.

There are numerous problems with Rangel's case. There are too many holes with respect to the Committee's investigation and conduct. Observers, and a defiant Rangel, point to the reluctant response of Committee lead counsel Blake Chisam during the Congressman's two-day ethics violation hearing: "I see no evidence of corruption in this case." This later evolved into the defining moment of not just the hearing, but the entire case. If there was no corruption, why even go the distance? And whether or not it diminishes the authority or legitimacy of the Committee in the aftermath remains to be seen.

Still, despite the Committee's role in the Congressman's downfall, Rangel's culpability in his own demise is indisputable -- with the Harlem political king even acknowledging "sloppiness" on his part. Rangel's story is, by all accounts, a politician's cautionary tale where influence and inner-demons intersect, a sordid docu-drama of sorts in which the lawmaker relied too heavily on family, friends and staffers to handle sensitive work. Caught up in both the glory and intense day-to-day minutiae of bringing his political "A-Game," Rangel may have unwittingly sacrificed himself. His deal with the devil, so to speak. And as longtime ranking member and chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, it was a given that Rangel would draw the ire of enemies.

In many ways, the argument could be made that his ethics trial and subsequent censure were the final culmination of a perfect political vendetta, from Republicans and conservatives who despised the progressive-leaning Congressman to political machine hacks in New York who wanted their turn -- just like Rangel wanted his turn in 1971.

There were already lingering rumors of a longtime strained marriage peppered with periods of separation. And the many close advisers whom Rangel delegated tasks to ultimately let the Congressman down. In the end, however, the Congressman took personal responsibility for everything. The strain was too much. The violations seem more like a dirty laundry list of a public figure's own emotional and financial unraveling than a criminal rap sheet of illegitimate dealings. The Congressman ended up paying his back taxes on the Dominican villa in full last week -- all near $15,000 of it; but, Secretary Treasury Tim Geithner still got Senate confirmation even after the dime dropped on his $45,000 of unpaid taxes. He acknowledged the rent controlled apartments and unintended usage of the office letterhead for solicitations. Politicians are human beings, too, and some either forget or avoid paying taxes depending on where their intentions are.

Rangel appeared to have no intentions beyond his own clumsiness and absent-minded lapses. That shouldn't excuse it, but the business can take that toll. Voters assume elected officials have both house and front yard clean. And, it's a reasonable expectation that figures preserving the public trust should receive punishments similar to those they represent. But, black politicians get the raw end of the deal when compared to their white counterparts. Some of it is double standard and the amplified scrutiny black politicians expect - even these days. Yet, students of history find that modern black political power is a very recent occurrence in American history, recalling that very long stretch after Reconstruction when there were little to one African American Member of Congress until the Voting Rights Act triggered a growth spurt in black political activity. The routine balance between personal life and political ladder-climbing is a fairly new phenomenon for modern black politicos, stretched thin as the middle-class foundation supporting traditionally disadvantaged families and having little access to the kinds of resources their white colleagues enjoy.

In the case of Rangel, this did not seem like the buck private who saved half an American battalion in the dead of a Korean winter while running from Chinese soldiers. It was Rangel who approached the Ethics Committee at first, pleading to look into his disheveled affairs after a series of newspaper reports hinted at missteps. But, corruption? Like Chisam and Rangel, most are convinced that was never the case. But, as the days after the censure vote pass into time, the record will remain foggy on that count. And that's what has Charlie Rangel up at night.

This post originally appeared in Politic365.com. See my personal website here.