This past Valentine’s day, while most of you were shamefully hustling for last minute gift buys, Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) was busy filing re-election papers with the Federal Elections Commission (for the more politically challenged amongst you, Charlie Rangel has been a New York City Congressional district Rep for like 40 years- he’s the old dude who looks like he could have run with the *pre-Mecca* Malcolm, back in the day). Normally a routine formality in the re-election process, there had been nothing unusual about Rangel’s filings as distinct from any others. What was unique, however, was that Congressman Rangel’s filing would garner national media coverage. Usually, these types of re-election filings, particularly for incumbents, rarely get a look from the media outside of their respective district. Why would Rangel be the rare exception? For the sake of this assignment, and to confirm my suspicions of last year’s Rangel scandal receiving less than objective press coverage, I bravely dove into the deep, dark depths of Google to uncover the truth.
In an attempt to fully put this story in perspective, let’s imagine for a minute being in Charlie Rangel’s position. For starters, try wrapping your head around what it would mean to have the same job, with the same organization for 40 years. Once you’ve acknowledged the ridiculously long length of your tenure, you should begin to see the likelihood of breaking a few rules, if not intentionally, at least inadvertently at some point during your four decades of employment. Even you overachieving, triple-checking, micro-managing types would have to accept the likelihood of slipping at least a few times in a 40 year period. To further put the Congressman’s reality in context, picture your employment distinctively coming with a list of rules and procedures longer than the bible; a place where extreme need for oversight and a strict discipline for double-checking procedural rules would be both expected and necessary. Additionally, you’re also responsible for making sure your 18 staff members stay in check as there would be no distinction made between you & your employee(s) should one of them at some point commit a violation. Sounds breezy right? Not really. The sad reality is that given the laws of probability, either you or a member of your staff would indeed at some point either intentionally or inadvertently break a few rules amongst the many.
This was precisely the case for Congressman Rangel as the two-year investigation into ethic violations came to a close.
On a cold morning last December, the former civil rights activist and forty year congressional vet stood before a room of his colleagues getting formally blasted for his part in fundraising & tax violations. After a two year investigation, the House ethics panel found Rangel guilty on 11 counts of violating house ethic rules. To be clear, Rangel was essentially found guilty of messing up, on average, once every 3 & ½ years. Seeing that I drop the ball at my job on a bi-hourly basis, I’m thinking this wasn’t so bad. The House apparently holds a higher standard as a short while later, a 333-79 House vote insured the former Chair of the powerful House Ways and Means committee (Ironically, the chief tax-writing committee in the House) would be censured, the worst punishment a congressman can receive, save expulsion. A “censure” is basically just another term for getting publicly chastised and embarrassed by one of your co-workers, only when you work for the U.S. government, this happens on national television as opposed to happy hour. Oh, and as a bonus, the press gets to spend weeks embellishing about how much you suck. The last time a member of congress actually got censured was back in 1983 when Reps Dan Crane (R-IL) & Gerry Studds (D-MA) were found guilty of being creepy, dirty old men (more specifically, having engaged in sexual relationships with minors).
As expected, the press went in on old man Rangel before he had a chance to adjust his lapels. The New York Post, long known for leading the Rangel hate parade, would dramatically call it: “…a tale hubris, of arrogance drunk with power meeting its match.” The Daily News labeled the congressman (long known for his charm and old school swagger) an: “…especially grouchy…” man–and the national media, always quick to sensationalize a story, jumped at the chance to demonize another politician.
If judging solely by the media blitz and devastatingly harsh punishment Rangel would ultimately face, you could only assume his infractions were comparable to those found guilty of having sex with minors. A closer look, however, would reveal that 8 of the 11 violations were directly related to dude raising money for the City College of New York. Not a penny of which made it into the congressman’s pocket, by the way. The illegal use of congressional letterhead and solicitation of individuals whose interest could potentially be affected by Mr. Rangel’s influence were amongst the more “serious” charges surrounding his fund raising efforts. The remaining infractions, included tax code violations presumably made by the congressman’s accountant, included: a) failing to tell the IRS about a crib he owned outside of the country (in which taxes to that country were paid) and b) the use of rent stabilized apartments as an office (as opposed to “living purposes” as required by the lease). Note that the sub-panel’s final analysis emphasized ZERO findings of corruption or monetary gains as a result of Mr. Rangel’s violations.
So why, assuming the sub-panel (as well as the congressman’s colleagues who ultimately voted on his punishment) did their diligence, was Rangel dealt the same harsh punishment as those Congressmen found guilty of sex with minors some 18 years prior? If character assessment was a variable, as is typical in a court of law, why was the sum total of Mr. Rangel’s achievements not considered? The guy spends 40 years working on behalf of the good folks of Harlem, and by extension, the broader U.S., only to see those efforts ignored? Let’s not forget this guy got a Purple Heart AND Bronze Star for being exceptionally gangsta in the Korean War too–although I suppose the honor reserved solely for war heroes wasn’t enough to make a difference either? Regardless of whether or not you feel the sub-panel should of considered Rangel’s career in its entirety, the simple lack of any empirical evidence of monetary gains as a result of his infractions, alone should of been reason enough for leniency. If the consensus of his colleagues were that his mistakes were neither intentional nor malicious, why in the world would he get the same punishment as those convicted of having sex with minors?
While the congressman has taken full responsibility for his infractions, the injustice of the his punishment can only be shared by the media and his colleagues.
In the increasingly more polarized political environment in which the 24-hour news cycle feeds the climate of hostility, Mr. Rangel never really had a chance. His fate was decided in the media long before the investigation ever concluded. In our ever increasing thirst for “breaking news”, the race to deliver a story as quickly and as scandalous as possible trumps any real need for extended research on behalf of truth. Sadly, in the case of Charlie Rangel, the end result of this expedited pace in news delivery may have ultimately sealed his fate.
With the wounds of the November elections not yet fully scabbed, a fearful Democratic party chose to nip any allegations of cronyism and corruption before the Right had a chance to declare them; eventually deciding on a punishment which best fit the press’ narrative of guilty to the fullest extent.
While the Republicans, always eager to villainies a member of the opposing party, took special pleasure in following the lead of Fox News, eventually voting almost unanimously for censure. In the end, it would be the combination of these forces which would prevent Congressman Rangel from getting anything resembling a fair punishment.
While hindsight is of course 20/20, had Charlie chosen the easy route and bowed out gracefully when the allegations first surfaced, perhaps the painful process of public humiliation could have been avoided. For Rangel, however, the easy route was not an option worth considering. There had been no “easy route” when bravely leading some 40 men out of a Chinese encirclement in the Korean War, and there damn sure wasn’t anything “easy” about the atrocity he faced alongside Dr. King as he fought for basic civil rights. Having dedicated his life to fight for what he believed, taking the easy route would have gone against the congressman’s most basic nature.
By choosing to run for a rare 22nd term, Charlie Rangel effectively choose to embark on what will quite likely be his most challenging re-election race to date; and while this decision will undoubtedly lead to more difficult roads ahead, as once stated in reference to his time on the battle field, “Compared to where I’ve been, I haven’t had a bad day since”…
Written by Rickey Mindlin for Parlé Magazine