N.Y. Democrats Suffer Through Bad Political News

Congressman Charles Rangel of New York was, until Wednesday, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Cases pending against him in the House Ethics Committee have led him to step down, at least temporarily. New York Governor David Paterson is being urged to step down because of his intervention in the domestic violence case involving a key aide.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Scandals have brought down two prominent politicians in recent days. New York Governor David Paterson called off his reelection campaign. He faces allegations that one of his state troopers tried to block an investigation of the governor's aide. Now he faces even more questions about accepting World Series tickets.

Congressman Charles Rangel gave up a powerful chairmanship amid an ethics investigation. Their problems are different, but in a way they're part of one story. They are both New Yorkers, both African-American, and both have links to Harlem, which was once a center of black political power. NPR news analyst Juan Williams is in New York this morning, joins us from the NPR bureau there.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are they connected to Harlem?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's very interesting. You know, Congressman Rangel has represented Paterson's district in Harlem for 20 terms. So they have the same roots of black political power, which has been the center of black political power in the United States.

David Paterson's dad, Basil Paterson, was one of the leading black politicians in New York for years, along with Congressman Charlie Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, who was the former Manhattan borough president. It was called the Harlem Clubhouse since about the 1960s. And David Paterson's dad was the first black secretary of state, was also in the New York State Senate.

Rangel, for his part, went on, of course, to become one of the founders of the congressional black caucus, the first black person on the House Ways and Means Committee, which of course writes tax policy, so it's quite powerful.

And I think it's important to note here that Charlie Rangel succeeded Adam Clayton Powell. And Adam Clayton Powell represented that district from the 1940s to the 1970s, when he was ousted by a young reformer, Charlie Rangel, and a new face of black politics in America.

INSKEEP: So two very prominent African-Americans here. You know, Juan, we had some discussion of that last night on Twitter, nprinskeep. And one of the questions I asked was why - I was asked, actually - was why does it matter that they're African-American? How is that part of their ethical trouble here?

WILLIAMS: It's not. I think, you know, clearly race is always a factor in American politics. But in a way this is a story of black politics in the age of Obama, Steve.

Congressman Rangel's, really, decision yesterday to step down as chairman of House Ways and Means was evidence of flagging support from fellow Democrats, but in specific inside the Congressional Black Caucus, especially from younger members, people like Artur Davis, the congressman from Alabama, who just said the weight of this ethics probe was too much and contributed or offered Republicans leverage to claim there was now a culture of corruption among Democrats. That kind of action I don't think you would have seen in a previous age.

INSKEEP: Do you think in past decades that African-Americans would've circled around their own?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And I think it would've been really telling, because remember, Charlie Rangel is the dean of black politics in Congress and such a revered figure here in New York.

And similarly, I think in the case of Governor Paterson, the New York Times -I can't imagine the New York Times taking on the first black governor of the state in the way that they have been doing at this moment before this age of Obama.

INSKEEP: Juan, very briefly, is this in some way a sign of progress? Minority politicians get the same chance as everybody else to be knocked down over their ethical trouble?

WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think it's new that they get knocked down, Steve. But I think that the idea that other black people don't circle in quite the same way, that they don't have that same level of protection, is a new day in terms of American politics. And I think in the case of Charlie Rangel, it has come as a rude wake-up call at the end of his career. And it's almost Shakespearian in its epic and tragic dimensions.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR news analyst Juan Williams speaking with us this morning from New York City.

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