What a difference a year makes.
As Rep. Charlie Rangel prepares to celebrate his 81st birthday with a gala at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on Wednesday night, the veteran lawmaker faces a far different political landscape than he did just a year ago.
At that time, Rangel was set to undergo a trial by the House Ethics Committee over 13 different violations related to his personal finances, including allegations that he had failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in hidden income and assets.
Thanks to his ethics problems, Rangel was locked in a competitive Democratic primary that threatened to end his 40-year congressional career. The New York Democrat had been forced to step down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee earlier in the year over a different ethics case, he was bleeding hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash to his legal team - who eventually stepped aside shortly before the trial began - and even longtime Democratic colleagues were nervous about being seen publicly with him.
High-profile Democrats like then Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo grudgingly attended Rangel’s 80th birthday party, but he tried to slip in the back door so he wasn’t publicly seen with embattled congressman,
Yet on Wednesday, as he celebrates another birthday with a big fundraiser cum birthday bash, Rangel’s future looks better than his immediate past. Rangel was found guilty on 11 ethics counts and censured by the House, but he was able to win his primary and easily be reelected to a 21st term in the House.
And a veritable Who’s Who of Empire State Democrats will host tonight’s event, including Cuomo, Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Reps. Joe Crowley, Steve Israel, Nita Lowey, Carolyn Maloney, Gregory Meeks, Jerrold Nadler, Ed Towns, and Nydia Velazquez, as well as other luminaries from state and city politics, demonstrating that Rangel is no longer as politically toxic as he once was. And the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin - who was the subject of widespread rumors about her health early this year - will appear for a special performance at the party.
“This year, everybody can use the front door,” noted one Democratic insider.
While Rangel is not the ranking member on Ways and Means, and he is no longer the fundraising draw that he one was either, even he admits that his current political outlook is far different than 2010.
“Last year it was more than a fundraiser, it was an appearance of confidence in me,” Rangel told POLITICO in an interview on Tuesday.
Rangel was also buoyed by a recent POLITICO report on allegations against two former Ethics Committee attorneys for improperly sharing information in his case with Republicans on the panel. Blake Chisam, the former staff director and chief counsel on Ethics, told Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), then the panel’s chairman, in a secret memo last December that the Rangel case could have been dismissed if these actions had come out during the New York Democrat’s trial.
Rangel has not sought to reopen his ethics case, yet the reports of potential wrongdoing inside the Ethics Committee appear to have softened the blow of censure for him. Rangel was the first lawmaker in nearly three decades to face that punishment.
“And I think your newspaper has reported that the chief counsel has said that had the committee allowed me to call witnesses, that all of the charges would have been dismissed based on tainted evidence,” Rangel added. “So what it means is, at least people who are familiar with the papers that are distributed on the Hill, their appearances of confidence…was validated.”
Other Democrats agree. “Last year was in the middle of all that stuff,” said a top House Democratic aide. “That’s all been resolved. It’s all history, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
A source close to Rangel noted that when the New York Democrat appeared on MSNBC on Tuesday to demand President Barack Obama call Congress back into session before the end of the August recess, his ethics problems weren’t even mentioned.
“There was a strong sense of rallying around Charlie last year because there was a broad consensus in New York that the attack on him was totally out of proportion to the rules violations that he had committed and admitted,” this source said.
Rangel cautioned that his 2012 House race won’t be easy, and he is also unsure of what kind of support Obama will get in New York during the president’s own reelection campaign.
“Most of all what tomorrow means is 2012 is going to be a difficult campaign in my congressional district,” Eangel said Tuesday. “While it’s abundantly clear that my community … will not even think about voting for someone else” they are all feeling enough pain in their lives because of the economy that Rangel is unsure whether they will turn out for the top of the ticket.
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.