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For Democrats, Ethics Cases Add To Woes

House Democrats, on July 28, in front of the Capitol.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
House Democrats, on July 28, in front of the Capitol.

Formal ethics charges against 10-term Rep. Maxine Waters of California were filed Monday, just days after the House Ethics Committee, in a separate investigation, charged New York Rep. Charlie Rangel with 13 ethics violations.

The charges against Waters -- and her immediate vow to follow Rangel's lead and challenge the findings -- only confirmed the stark political reality that has emerged for Democrats over the past week.

Going into what had already been shaping up as a challenging mid-term election for Democrats, the party will now have two of its most prominent House members -- both African-Americans -- facing public ethics trials.

"Democrats are facing the loss of control of the House, just owing to the economy," says Darrell West of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. "Adding the ethics problems on top of that is pouring gasoline on the fire."

"A bad economy plus bad ethics is not a winning platform," West says.

Race Factor?

Furious behind-the-scenes negotiations designed to encourage Rangel and Waters to settle their cases before public trials have not only met with vigorous resistance so far, but prompted whispers that race has played a role in the targeting of the two legislators.

Waters herself, in a statement asserting her innocence and her plan to force a public hearing on what she characterized as the "frivolous and unfounded" charges against her, said: "The accusations against me stem from work I have done throughout my decades of public service as an advocate for minority communities and businesses in California and nationally."

The ethics charges against Waters, issued by the House ethics panel based on an investigation by it and the Office of Congressional Ethics, flow from allegations that she steered federal aid to a bank in which her husband had a significant financial stake, and where he served on the board.

The charges against Rangel, a former Ways and Means Committee chairman who is in his 20th term, center on allegations that he used his public office and staff to advance his private foundation, that he failed to keep accurate financial records, and improperly accessed and used rent-controlled apartments in New York.

His trial before an ethics committee panel is expected to begin Sept. 13.

"There is a very strong sense, in my opinion, among African-Americans that they tend to be treated differently in these situations," says Darry Sragow, a leading California Democratic consultant and friend of Waters. "To the extent that there is a perception of that in the community, you could make the argument that both Rangel and Waters need to stand up and fight."

For The Party's Good

There also may be another reason why private entreaties by House leaders for Rangel to accept a plea agreement before trial, and for Waters to settle quietly, are falling on deaf ears.

Both are in districts where they won't face the possibility of defeat, even with ethics charges hanging over them. Waters has typically won her Los Angeles district with more than 80 percent of the vote; Rangel routinely captures 90 percent of the vote.

This is lose-lose for Democrats. There is no way Democrats can spin this.

And the Democratic House members most at risk of losing their seats in the fall? They are members of the party's Blue Dog coalition, a group of moderate-to-conservative House Democrats -- many of whom come from swing or GOP districts, and have not backed the party's overall agenda, including legislation championed by the Congressional Black Caucus.

A case in point: Among the dozen or so House members who have called for Rangel to step down is Democratic Rep. Michael Arcuri of largely rural central New York state, who voted against the Democrats' health care overhaul legislation. He represents a swing district that voted 51-48 percent for Obama in 2008, but went for Bush the previous two presidential elections.

"There comes a time," Arcuri has said of Rangel, "when the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts."

Democrats currently have a 77-vote edge in the House, 255 to the Republicans' 178 members. Two seats are currently vacant. At least 65 House seats, most held by Democrats, are at risk of changing hands this fall, according to most congressional race watchers.

Overplay The Hand?

Republican pundit William Kristol is among those who have suggested that the potential damage from a Rangel and/or Waters ethics trial this fall is overstated.

Kristol, in comments on Fox News, suggested that there is "zero empirical evidence" that the Rangel case will hurt Democrats and that anyone who makes that claim "thinks that voters are idiots."

Some Republican strategists have advised party members to stay quiet about the Rangel and Waters probes, as well as other recent investigations into the actions of Democrats -- including Peter Visclosky of Indiana and (the since resigned) Eric Massa of New York. That way, the Democrats' drama could unfold without drawing attention to the GOP's own ethical issues. Those include two House members' resignations this year in the face of ethics investigations, and an ongoing investigation into the activities of GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada.

Democratic consultant Sragow, perhaps hopefully, characterizes the Rangel-Waters events as inside-the-Beltway stories that have little resonance among "real world" voters.

"Most voters already think that most politicians are self-serving and dishonest," he says. "None of this comes as a surprise or a shock.

But with Democrats -- and most prominently House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- having made a 2008 campaign issue out of "draining the swamp" of corruption, it is difficult to see how the party would not be hurt by public ethics trials.

"This is lose-lose for Democrats," West says. "There is no way Democrats can spin this."

Indeed, the party's leader, who has seen his own approval ratings sink below the 50 percent horizon, seems to agree that this is a very big deal.

"I think Charlie Rangel served a very long time and served his constituents well," President Obama said last week during an interview with CBS News. "But these allegations are very troubling, and, you know, he's somebody who is at the end of his career, 80 years old."

"I’m sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity," Obama says, "and my hope is that happens."

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Corrected: August 4, 2010 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the party affiliation of Rep. Peter Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat.
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