Rangel, Waters and the Perils of Entrenched Power

Corruption may not be the point. Maybe they've just been in charge way too long.

By Jamilah King Aug 03, 2010

It’s not been an easy few weeks for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. First, longtime Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel is hit with 13 ethics violations and moves one step closer to a congressional trial where he could face expulsion — right before midterm elections. Then late last week it was announced that a House ethics subcommittee investigating fellow CBC member Maxine Waters had found "substantial reason" to believe the popular Los Angeles congresswoman had broken the rules when she advocated on behalf of a bank at which her husband was a former board member.

It’s a sorrowful sight. In less than four days, two of Washington’s most powerful black politicians have been bantered about the nation’s political pages with disgraced looks on their faces. Rangel and Waters have both forced public trials in efforts to salvage their credibility –and if they do both go on trial, it’ll mark the first simultaneous ethics trials for multiple members in over three decades. Not good news for Democrats, who won control of Congress in part by taking electoral advantage of Republican scandals.

John Breshahan and Jonathan Allen at Politico asked the question of whether black lawmakers face more scrutiny than their white counterparts. There’s certainly evidence to make that claim: at one point earlier this year, all eight lawmakers under formal investigation by the House ethics subcommittee were black Democrats.

But that’s setting the bar too low for our elected officials. It’s based on the assumption that all politicians are inherently corrupt, and so it’s unfair to hold black elected officials to high standards because they’re more likely to be scrutinized. Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect has a better explanation: black lawmakers are in office for too long, and that type of longevity breeds corruption.

It’s worth noting that each of those eight black Democrats come from safe seats, which they’ve held for six terms or more. Together, the CBC members currently or formerly under investigation — Reps. Rangel, Waters, Carolyn Kilpatrick, Donald Payne, Gregory Meeks, Bennie Thompson, Mel Watt, and Jesse Jackson Jr. — have served 80 terms in Congress, an average of 10 terms per person. They represent districts with an average black population of 51.45 percent, and a median black population of 55.8 percent. Insofar that there is an ethics problem within the Congressional Black Caucus, it almost certainly has to do with the fact that these members have an astoundingly high rate of incumbency. With few challengers and total control over their local party organizations, it’s no surprise that they’ve become lax in their ethical responsibilities.

Black folks have good reasons to be fearful of political change and, as a result, cling to congressional stalwarts. But as perilous as these trials could be for Democrats come midterm elections, a changing of the old guard may not be such a bad idea. A whole crop of up-and-coming black politicians are waiting for their shots at political power–and perhaps at launching a renewed reform agenda. 

So far Waters, a 10-term California Congresswoman, is charged with three ethics violations, the details of which won’t be revealed in detail until Congress returns from recess in September. But at least some of the charges revolve around shady dealings with OneUnited, a bank where her husband served on the board and held stock. Waters is accused of setting up a meeting between then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the National Bankers Association in September of 2008–the height of the fiscal crisis–at which OneUnited played a "singular role," according to an 80-page report from the Office of Congressional Ethics. The bank ultimately received $12 million in federal bailout funds. 

Waters vehemently denies she did anything wrong, saying that the report has "drawn negative inferences where there were none and twisted facts to fit its faulty conclusions." But at least a portion of the report suggests that Waters talked with Rep. Barney Frank about her concerns that there could be a conflict of interest in her dealings with OneUnited, and she’s previously faced scrutiny over political dealings that allegedly benefited members of her family. In 1993 her husband Sidney Williams, a former pro football player and current Mercedes Benz salesman, was named ambassador to the Bahamas by President Clinton. When asked how her husband became a board member at OneUnited in the first place, the notoriously outspoken Waters responded curtly, "He takes care of his business and I take care of mine."

It’s hard to argue against either Waters’ or Rangel’s record on sticking up for communities of color and working class folks in D.C. But at what point does the sort of entrenched power they both wield necessarily stop representing the radical change needed in places like Harlem? The tension behind that question surfaced most dramatically during the 2008 presidential campaign. Story after story pitted young, black politicos who often got their starts in the Ivy League instead of the black church (and weren’t afraid to court white voters) against established leaders who were raised in the civil rights movement and matured in the Beltway. The Rangel and Waters trials have revived this discussion.

In a recent feature on the unwinding of Rangel and Harlem’s political machine, New York Magazine profiled community banker Vince Morgan, a former Rangel aide who’s challenging his old boss in November. And then there’s 38-year-old democratic strategist Basil Smikle, who’s challenging Bill Perkins for Harlem’s state Assembly seat in November. Schooled at Cornell and Columbia and a veteran democratic strategist, Smikle’s not exactly the "insurgent" politician the New York Daily News describes him as, but he is new. "This uneasiness in Harlem comes because [the old guard] hasn’t passed the torch, and so now, people are trying to seize it," Smikle told New York reporter Chris Smith. "They’re saying ‘You gotta wait your turn.’ No, I don’t want to wait my turn. Did you tell that to Barack? Did he wait his turn? We can do it whether they say so or not."

They may have their chance sooner than later. Stay tuned.