Rep. Charlie Rangel says he has no intention of leaving Congress, vowing to stick it out for an ethics trial that threatens to derail his 40-year career on Capitol Hill.
"I’m in the kitchen and I’m not walking out,” Rangel vowed to reporters at a Harlem press conference on Friday.
And that’s exactly what House Republicans are hoping for.
Republicans are making a push to tie Rangel’s troubles – his trial by a special, eight-member ethics “adjudicatory committee” could last well into the fall – with an upcoming ethics committee report on the sexual-harassment allegations against former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.).
The idea is to build up a “culture of corruption” narrative against Democrats, just as Democrats used various corruption scandals to oust the GOP in 2006. It is unclear when the ethics committee report on the Massa investigation will be released, but Republicans hope it takes place well before Election Day.
Massa resigned from the House on March 8 after POLITICO reported that he was under investigation by the ethics committee over allegations that he sexually harassed several male staffers.
In the GOP strategy, the Massa scandal, when combined with the Rangel case, may be “merged into one big scandal” that drives voters into the GOP ranks, according to a top House Republican aide.
“Despite Pelosi’s promise to run the ‘most ethical Congress in history,’ a Rangel trial will undoubtedly dredge up a host of Democrat ethics issues to be debated in the court of public opinion,” said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Republican candidates will be highlighting this as yet another example of Democrats not living up to their campaign pledges in 2006 and 2008.”
Sources familiar with NRCC strategy said there will be a push made against specific members who either took campaign donations from Rangel, once one of the party’s biggest fundraising draws. They also plan to target those Democrats elected under the “change” mantle in 2006 following a series of Republican corruption scandals. The GOP blitz on Rangel, expected to start after the August congressional recess, will come in the form of ads, mailers and specific candidate talking points.
“You won’t start really seeing these things until September or October” in the form of mailers or TV ads, a GOP source said, adding that the effort would be adjunct to the pivotal issues of the election – jobs and the economy.
So far, Democratic lawmakers have dumped more than $500,000 in campaign donations from Rangel. On Friday, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who is running for a Senate seat in the Hoosier State, added his name to that list, declaring that he would turn over $12,000 in Rangel donations to charity. Also Friday evening, Rep. Betty Sutton, a politically vulnerable Ohio Democrat, called on Rangel to resign.
But there are still roughly 35 Democratic nationally who haven’t returned Rangel donations, and GOP officials said they would try to hang the New York Democrat’s scandal around their necks.
At the same time, Democrats throughout New York privately express concerns about the impact Rangel trial could have on races there.
So far, few top New York Democrats have spoken out to defend Rangel. A prominent New York Democrat said the prospect of Rangel ethics trial this fall “would be a disaster for Democrats nationally but especially in New York."
A few of Rangel’s New York colleagues, including Rep. Dan Maffei – a former Rangel aide - have rallied around him, although none of the other delegation members joined him at his recent campaign kick-off.
Rangel's 80th birthday fundraiser on August 11 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, featuring luminaries like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Aretha Franklin and Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand is bound to be overshadowed by his ethics issues.
A Schumer spokesman said the senator, who recently gave $10,000 to Rangel’s re-election campaign, will be there, despite the scandal. Bloomberg and Gillibrand will also attend, their offices said.
A spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo said no decision has been made as to whether he would go to the event.
Rangel told POLITICO earlier in the week that he had invited former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but was unsure if they would be coming.
“They never miss it,” Rangel said of the Clintons.
Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders, after avoiding questions on the Rangel case following Thursday’s announcement from the ethics committee, are not expected to show up.
H. Carl McCall, the former state comptroller who is among the most prominent African-American officials in New York and top Rangel ally, was blunt about the potential national damage for Democrats.
"We don't know how that's all going to play out. I don't think it's an issue for us in New York state, but nationally, yes."
A source close to Rangel said that no one had asked Rangel to resign or retire at this point.
Still, several Democratic sources said that buzz surrounding the list of would-be replacements for Rangel if he steps down is growing. Some sources noted that Gov. David Paterson still harbors interest in the seat although local political concerns may prevent that from happening.
The list of potential replacements also includes State Sen. Bill Perkins, Assemblyman Keith Wright - another Rangel supporter - and Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat. Councilwoman Inez Dickens had been said to be interested, but several sources close to her said Rangel had been more interested in her as a possible successor than she was in seeking the seat.