I spent many days in junior high school sweeping floors and emptying coin machines around my stepfather's family's laundromat, apartment building and grocery store on Lenox Avenue and 120th Street in Harlem. A popular pastime for many of the people who frequented the businesses was "playing the numbers," the illegal gambling precursor to the Lotto, based on the racing results from the horse track. I don't know if Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel ever played the numbers, but he has certainly decided to gamble with his legacy and the fate of the Democratic majority recently.
First, by many accounts Rangel had an opportunity to settle his ethics charges in the committee before being formally charged by accepting some blame and apologizing to his colleagues in the House of Representatives. Sadly, that deal was never put together and Mr. Rangel was formally charged, all but ensuring an ethics trial leading up to the hotly contested Congressional midterm elections unless Mr. Rangel can strike a deal or resigns from Congress. Gambling on vulnerable Democrats to acquit him after promising to "drain the swamp" on an unethical Congress during a treacherous electoral season does not seem like a good bet.
Secondly, Mr. Rangel blew up on-camera at MSNBC's Luke Russert who was asking reasonable questions about the Congressman's future. "Well, you're young," the elder Rangel said, "I guess you need to make a name for yourself." Russert -- ahem -- who arguably has inherited one of the best names in political journalism, comported himself fabulously in the condescending exchange with Rangel that was reminiscent of an earlier slight Rangel reportedly felt in a conversation in Bimini with Adam Clayton Powell, the man he beat 40 years ago. As I referred to in a piece written for the New York Times recently, Wil Haygood wrote in his book King of the Cats that when Rangel told Powell he was considering running against him, Powell patted him on the check condescendingly and said "do what you have to do, baby." Rangel went home and beat the ethically challenged Powell in the next election. Cockiness before judgment is not a good bet either.
Finally yesterday Mr. Rangel probably alienated even more of the members who have been his allies with a self-pleasing speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. On the one day Democrats should have been able to turn the national conversation toward their efforts to keep teachers employed in classrooms by passing a $26 billion aid package for states, he decided to tie up the chamber in a preening effort to defend himself.
I hope Congressman Rangel is proven innocent. He deserves an end to his career that is as honorable as the breadth of his service. However, his recent risky and reckless behavior decreases the chance that voters and his colleagues will be interested in salvaging his reputation. Sometimes, as Kenny Rogers' famous Gambler would sing, "you have to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em; know when to walk away and know when to run."