Are Current House Ethics Cases All About Race?

Rep. Charles Rangel regaled his colleagues in the House this week with his version of his ethics case. But Rangel's defense sidestepped many of the facts in the case, which in combination with another against Rep. Maxine Waters, is causing Democrats major headaches in this election season.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And while the House took a moment to commit billions of dollars to schools, Congressmen Charlie Rangel took a moment to defend himself. The New York Democrat is battling 13 counts of ethics violations, and he gave a surprise and defiant 30-minute speech to his colleagues on the House floor.

Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): I don't want anyone to feel embarrassed, awkward. Hey, if I was you, I may want me to go away, too. I am not going away.

MONTAGNE: Among other things, Rangel is accused of failing to pay taxes on his villa in the Dominican Republic and using his congressional letterhead to ask donors to fund a new academic center named after him.

NPR's news analyst Juan Williams joined us to discuss the charges against Rangel and Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: There are new developments this week in the ethics probes for Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel. Remind us, just to begin with, briefly, what the charges are against Maxine Waters.

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, in brief, Maxine Waters is charged with having violated congressional ethics rules by urging the Treasury Department to give her husband's bank - a bank in which he had an interest - $12 million in TARP bailout funds. She arranged a meeting between Treasury officials and officials of this bank.

Her defense, Renee, is that all she was trying to do is represent the interest of minority banks across America, during a time of financial crisis. And, in fact, she says many of the contacts between the bank and Treasury officials were handled by her chief of staff, who turns out to be her grandson.

But she says, you know, it was lower level staff that handled much of this and she was not trying to benefit her husband or herself.

MONTAGNE: But how, generally, has Maxine Waters responded to these charges?

WILLIAMS: You know, Renee, she has played the race card more aggressively than Charlie Rangel. She's been very clear in saying that she feels the Ethics Committee has been unfair to her. And that when you look at the Congressional Black Caucus, they have already made the case that the Ethics Committee, in its short tenure since, I believe, '08 - has gone after eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And there's an effort by members of the Congressional Black Caucus to respond by limiting the powers of the Ethics Committee.

And what you see from Maxine Waters is the attempt to say, quite clearly, that this is all about race.

MONTAGNE: One of the things thats come out in this, is - in the context of the Democratic Party - is you have a Congressional Black Caucus which supports these two members, Rangel and Waters, and the Blue Dogs - the white moderate Democrats in the party. And they are falling on very different sides of this whole issue.

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, they are worried about their re-election chances. And so you have Dennis Cardoza, who is the leader of the Blue Dogs, the California Democrat, saying this issue needs to be resolved. He does not want Waters and Rangel used as the face of Democratic corruption in the midst of the campaign season. He doesnt want their trials run on cable TV, constantly acting as a disincentive for people to vote Democratic in the fall.

MONTAGNE: And then, by resolved, Juan, he means he wants Charlie Rangel to quit - which Charlie Rangel is not going to do.

WILLIAMS: Well, I dont if he would say, explicitly, quit, Charlie Rangel. But boy, Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters are being pushed, but Rangel especially, to resign. A number of the conservative Democrats have even returned fundraising money that have come from Charlie Rangel because they dont want anything to do - they dont want to have any taint of association with Charlie Rangel at this point.

MONTAGNE: Realistically, Juan, how much do the troubles of Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel, outside their own districts, have on people's thinking in terms of who to vote for?

WILLIAMS: Well, when I talk to members of Congress, and now Im talking about people across the nation, what they say is they are worried that Rangel and Waters could be having their trial in late September, October, in the midst of the campaign season. And they just worry that it would just look to people like, you know, oh, look, the Democrats are corrupt or something terrible is going on.

Or, it could depress black turnout, because you're going to have two black Democrats and, you know, the question would be are they being unfairly treated?

The real issue here is what happens if the Republicans use Rangel and Waters as the face of Democratic corruption. But as of the moment, it does not seem to be having any impact in terms of determining how people vote in most congressional districts across this country.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Thats NPR News analyst Juan Williams.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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