Hopenchange: Could Rangel lose his primary?

Meh, probably not, but let’s indulge in the fantasy that a liberal district might have what it takes to toss out an entrenched fossil iconic Congressman. In one corner, a 22-term, Congressionally censured tax cheat endorsed by former President Bill Clinton. In the other, a young(er) state Senator from the Dominican Republic tapping into the increasingly Hispanic voting public of this storied Harlem-area Congressional district, endorsed by the New York Times.

Weakened by the aforementioned censure and changes in the district, Rangel won his last primary against New York Sen. Adriano Espaillat by only about 1,100 votes. The New York Times endorsed Espaillat over Rangel, declaring it time for him to “yield to the next generation.” The Espaillat endorsement began with this shot: “After a humiliating censure by Congress four years ago for failing to pay taxes and other ethical lapses, Representative Charles Rangel has steadily lost power in Washington.”

The Washington Post reported on the changing composition and guest lists of Rangel’s fundraising bashes:

The crowded fundraiser this month was a departure from Rep. Charles B. Rangel’s legendary birthday bashes of the past, which often were headlined by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick and attended by New York’s black political royalty — former New York City mayor David Dinkins, the Rev. Al Sharpton and singer Harry Belafonte.

This year, many of the speakers were lesser-known Dominican activists and political strategists. The headliner was Dominican entertainer Frederick Martinez, also known as “El Pacha,” a popular Spanish-language radio and television host.

Those changes to the guest list tell almost the entire story of the political peril that threatens to end one of the iconic careers in American politics.

It may be his event planners are the only ones capable of showing the sort of deference and decorum a past-his-prime and censured 80-something professional legislator might be smart to adopt in a changing district. Rangel himself isn’t so good at it, once using a racial attack that earned him an improbable, albeit oblique reprimand from the Rev. Al Sharpton:

Rangel brought up Espaillat’s nationality after accusing the state senator of not having done “a darn thing” to raise the minimum wage. “I hope somewhere during this debate, … [Espaillat] tries to share what the heck has he done besides saying he’s a Dominican?” Rangel said.

He condescended to the 59-year-old state senator in debates:

Congressman Charlie Rangel had yet another question for his top rival, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, at tonight’s televised debate.

“Do you know who Frank is?” the congressman asked Mr. Espaillat, who had just challenged Mr. Rangel about votes on the Dodd-Frank Act, a 2010 law that brought sweeping regulations to the financial industry.

Mr. Espaillat sputtered. “Yes! He’s a member of Congress.” (Indeed, Barney Frank is a former Massachusetts congressman.)

It was just one example of how Mr. Rangel, a Harlem lawmaker for more than 40 years, openly mocked Mr. Espaillat, a legislator for half as long. The two men are locked in a bitter contest for the second time in two years and the Democratic primary for the 13th Congressional District is less than two weeks away. The race also includes Pastor Mike Walrond, a long-shot candidate who nevertheless brought a fervent group of supports to the NY1-sponsored debate at Lehman College in the Bronx.

And, who can blame the veteran Congressman, who founded the Congressional Black Caucus in his first term in 1971? Aside from the censure in 2010 for a greatest hits list of evasions and exploitations of the tax law he was in charge of writing, shameless swagger has been a winner for Rangel. A sampling of those law violations, in which I quote myself, if you’lll allow it:

Rep. Charlie Rangel amended his financial disclosure forms under pressure in 2009 to show “that he had omitted an array of assets, business transactions and sources of income. They include a Merrill Lynch Global account valued between $250,000 and $500,000; tens of thousands of dollars in municipal bonds; and $30,000 to $100,000 in rent from a multifamily brownstone building he owned on West 132nd Street.” That wasn’t all. “The latest filings come on top of an amendment to Mr. Rangel’s 2007 disclosure form reported this week showing that he had failed to list at least $500,000 in assets.” The new disclosures doubled Rangel’s net worth.

Rep. Charlie Rangel rented several apartments in Harlem at suspiciously below-market rates from a big campaign donor, combining several to create his home while using one of them as a campaign office. That was a violation of rent-control laws, which require rent-controlled apartments to be used as residences.

Rep. Charlie Rangel parked his Mercedes for free in a Congressional parking space for about five years, never declaring the approximate $300 monthly fee on his taxes, as IRS rules require. Luckily, the House Ethics committee determined that he didn’t violate any rules because they only apply rules about parking to staff, not members.

Rep. Charlie Rangel used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York from companies that might have significant interests in the policy making of his committee, a move ethicists said “crossed the line.” He’d already funneled federal earmarks for the center.

Later, one of the big donors to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service benefitted richly when Rangel changed his position on closing a tax loophole.

Rep. Charlie Rangel failed to report $75,000 in rental income or pay taxes on a Dominican villa he owned, causing the New York Times to call for him to step down from his Ways and Means Chairmanship.

In 2008, Rep. Charlie Rangel was forced to pay back taxes on rental income on his villa in the Dominican Republic— a property he was advised to buy by one of his donors and for which he later received preferential treatment when the interest rate on his mortgage was waived.

Rep. Charlie Rangel took the “Property Homestead Deduction Act” tax break on his Washington, D.C. residence for five years, despite the fact that he maintained his primary residence in New York for electoral reasons. Lawmakers who maintain a residence in D.C. but must also maintain a primary residence in their districts are not eligible for the homestead break, tax lawyers told the NY Post.

Rangel is one of the most demonstrably corrupt manipulators of the tax code in Washington, and his longtime position as the guy who wrote tax code for the rest of us makes the corruption all the more despicable.

Polling shows Rangel ahead by a decent margin, but I think we’ve all recently learned polling Congressional Districts is tough and can sometimes overstate a veteran member’s chances. Rangel, perhaps learning the lesson of the Cantor primary, has reportedly been on the trail, not taking the seat for granted.

Bring on the new blood. Yes, Espaillat will be just as liberal as Rangel, but perhaps not quite so corrupt? At the very least, a man 25 years younger who has known something beyond the Washington life and its enriching past time of wringing every possible tax advantage from the tax law one writes, while castigating the rest of us for not paying our fair share, would be a nice change of pace.

Front page courtesy of Rep. Charles Rangel’s Flickr page.