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Winning friends, losing influence
Rep. Rangel copes with smaller role
On Capitol Hill, just about everyone likes Charlie Rangel.
Republicans pump his hand, Democrats put their arms around his shoulders and women of all political persuasions give him pecks on the cheek.
Spend some time with the 80-year-old congressman from New York City who’s been striding the Capitol’s halls for four decades on behalf of his Harlem constituents, and there’s little evidence Mr. Rangel has become someone to avoid because of an ethics cloud that’s more likely than not only going to darken in days to come.
Colleagues in both parties still gravitate to the gravelly voiced, outgoing, backslapping Mr. Rangel four months after fellow Democrats persuaded - and Republicans hounded - him to relinquish one of the most powerful jobs in Washington: chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
“Amiga,” he shouts in the Capitol subway to Cuban-born, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, using the Spanish word for female friend.
“Amigo,” she belts out in return.
Behind the scenes, it’s a different story. A few fellow Democrats have returned money that Mr. Rangel raised for them. His influence is sapped.
His wife, Alma, warns him not to be naive about the glad-handing.
“You know,” she tells him, “they’re putting you on.”
Mr. Rangel follows in a tradition of past Ways and Means chairmen such as Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, Illinois Democrat, and Wilbur Mills, Arkansas Democrat, who waited decades to become congressional titans, then lost their lofty perch through ethical lapses.
“Some members are old-school,” said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel and a defense attorney for many politicians in trouble. “As they rise in seniority … they think less about [rules] changes that occur under their nose.”
Mr. Rangel lost his post because his conduct gave Republicans an ethics issue that’s ripe for exploitation, just as Democrats in 2006 and 2008 successfully seized on GOP ethical lapses to reclaim control of Congress and the White House.
Nervous about losing House seats this year, Democrats persuaded Mr. Rangel to step down after the House ethics committee concluded in February in a relatively minor case that the New Yorker violated the chamber’s rules on gifts. The committee said Mr. Rangel should have known that corporate money paid for two trips to Caribbean conferences. Mr. Rangel insists he didn’t know. There was no punishment.
Far more ominous is an ongoing investigation into activities far more likely to touch the nerves of voters: Mr. Rangel’s failure to pay taxes on income from a Dominican Republic vacation villa, his rent-subsidized apartments in New York, using official stationery to raise money for a college center bearing his name, and his belated disclosure of assets revealing that he was far richer than people thought.
Mr. Rangel joined the Ways and Means Committee in 1974 and ascended to the chairman’s post more than three decades later. He said the pain of having his integrity questioned is terrible, but he tries hard not to show it.
By Brahma Chellaney
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