NEW YORK - AUGUST 05: U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) departs after speaking at the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce's Economic Development Awards Luncheon at Columbia University August 5, 2010 in New York City. Rangel is battling 13 ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Charles Rangel
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) suggested Thursday in an impassioned speech in Harlem that he was being pressured to take a plea deal to make other people "comfortable" in the House ethics case against him - and drawing a parallel between his own situation and someone railroaded in the criminal justice system.
Rangel's comments were some of his strongest in his own defense since House ethics probers revealed a pending congressional trial against the 80-year-old dean of the New York delegation, who is battling against pressure from his Democratic colleagues to settle his case - or step down outright - as the issue threatens to drag down his party in the fall midterm elections.
He spoke at a Harlem Week event at Columbia University, where he was joined by state Comptroller Carl McCall, one of his staunchest supporters, who urged everyone in the crowd to turn out for the congressman's birthday bash Wednesday at the Plaza.
Rangel, who's running for reelection against four other Democrats in the Sept. 14 primary, spoke candidly into a discussion about his problems of late, adding "I have never heard of a case where somebody's accused of something" and is asked to plead guilty to make things easier for others, without a hearing of the facts.
He asked if the crowd was familiar with the concept of "plea bargaining," adding, "It's an old Anglo-Saxon procedure that happens in the courts."
He then invoked an imaginary case in the criminal courts system, in which someone was accused of bank robbery of something similar and was told, "You don’t have to have any hearing or any trial … if you go through a trial this judge would give you 20 years. It would cause so much disruption, but, however, if you cut a deal this judge is prepared to let you walk away with dignity."
Continuing with the imaginary example, he added, "Nobody said you were dishonest. No one said you’ve done anything wrong, it’s just that this is a bad time to be having trials about where you work. We’ve got to get rid of these things."
Rangel went on, "They say, 'Well, you’re giving us a hard time you’re acting defiant and so therefore you make up your mind, it’s your decision.' "
To laughs, he added, "How lucky you are when God tells you that you don’t have to take a plea. That you can tell them to let the facts speak for themselves. And if you’re afraid of the facts then it means that I can afford to be defiant."
He used the word "comfortable" to describe why people would like to see settlements, adding, "I think for all the lawyers that are here … learn to take another look at our system so that everybody will be able to say, if you want to give me a deal, let’s give me a deal based on the facts, but don’t give me a deal based on what makes you feel 'comfortable.'"
People could "threaten" what they want, he said, but because he felt the facts are on his side, "I don’t expect to have another bad day since Nov. 30, 1950."
The last line is a reference to his military experience and surviving an attack in the Korean War, a survival that became the basis for the title of his autobiography a few years ago, "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since."
Rangel has been under a different kind of fire of late, including from comments by President Barack Obama suggesting it was time to end his decades-long career "with dignity," as he has pleaded with his colleagues to be patient and let the facts emerge.
Outside of the luncheon, Rangel seemed amused as reporters peppered him with questions, including asking why he didn't feel the need to resign.
"Because I'm running for reelection," he said.
Another question came about Obama's comments that were seen as suggesting Rangel should retire, saying, "I don't know why the president of these great United States would say something like that. I guess he believes 80 is old."
He declined to talk about House minority whip and fellow Congressional Black Caucus member James Clyburn (D-S.C.) intimating he'd like to see Rangel settle his case.
He also would not comment on the impending trial facing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in the House, adding, "I don't think about her much at this point in time."
And why not?
"I have (enough) problems of my own," he said.
He was also asked, based on his comment that God had told him not to accept a plea, whether he's been using prayer as comfort. No, he said, saying he was getting carried away in his rhetoric.
"I haven't spoken with Her lately," he added.
Rangel was met with a standing ovation at the luncheon in Harlem, and strong praise by officials on the dais for his leadership.
He also got good news in the form of a source close to Mayor Michael Bloomberg telling POLITICO that the mayor will indeed attend the congressman's birthday fundraiser next week, which has become a major guessing-game over which Democrats will show and which won't.