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Politics

Ethics Woes for Democrats

Two liberal legends facing ethics troubles add to Democratic angst ahead of the November elections.

Ethics storm clouds surrounding Reps. Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters, whose combined careers represent 60 years of service in Congress, come at precisely the wrong time for Democrats. Looming ethics trials for the two next months make the November election scenario even darker for the party. Barring their resignations, the trials -- in public view -- will help to validate much of the anti-Washington, anti-incumbent mood that’s sure to define the midterm elections, likely sparking a Republican congressional resurgence.

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Of course, charges of financial improprieties won’t be the only reason the party loses seats in the Senate and possibly even control of the House. Races are won and lost district by district. Still, the probes of Rangel, an icon of New York and Washington politics, and Waters, a rousing and often vituperative voice for south central Los Angeles and one who’s quick to raise the race card, don’t present the best face for a party that’s struggling to prove it can tackle big problems, manage crises and govern ably and transparently.

Even if they beat back charges -- that Rangel openly sought corporate donors to finance an educational center bearing his name and also vastly underreported rental investment income and that Waters intervened with federal bank regulators on her husband’s behalf – the political damage is already looking heavy. The attention being given the two makes it hard for Democrats to stay on message about jobs, economic recovery, alternative energy and other important topics.

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Both Rangel and Waters represent overwhelmingly safe Democratic districts. There’s no chance that their largely urban and minority districts will flip Republican. But there are plenty of close congressional races across the country in which the widespread publicity surrounding the ethics charges could persuade many independents and moderates to vote Republican, tipping the election to the GOP candidate.

The odds are 3-to-1 that the ethics scandal is a career-ender for Rangel, who had to relinquish the powerful chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee as the charges surfaced. At 80 years old and after 20 terms, the gravelly voiced liberal icon is a political legend. His influence stretches into nearly every policy area, especially taxes.

But he also evokes an earlier time when ethics enforcement was almost laughably lax. Lawmakers are now more apt to step carefully, knowing that ethics panels and party leaders are less willing to issue slaps on the wrist for gaps in judgment. Moreover, scrutiny of lawmakers is more intense these days in light of around-the-clock coverage by political news shows, bloggers, Twitterers and Web sites.

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Ironically, Rangel first came to Congress as an ethics reform champion, having ousted a scandal-tarred and longtime Harlem representative, Adam Clayton Powell, in 1970. Rangel was central in post-Watergate congressional reforms. (Powell’s son is running close against Rangel in the Sept. 14 primary.)

Waters, one of the House’s most visible and vocal liberals, is a better bet to survive politically. Even if she is reprimanded, censured or stripped of plum assignments, including her seat on the Financial Services Committee and her housing subcommittee chairmanship, she can count on plenty of hometown support. After 20 years in Congress, the often irascible Waters wins elections with more than 80% support.

The best possible outcome for the Democrats? Rangel’s retirement or loss in the Democratic primary next month, an early plea to the charges as well as an early plea deal, and a pledge from Waters to pipe down her defiant tone. But it’s doubtful that the two powerful and self-righteous members of the House will exit the stage quietly.

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