Charlie Rangel’s not-so-last hurrah

    The latest assault on the Washington incumbents has apparently failed. As evidenced by last night’s marquee primaries, it’s tough to dislodge an old lion.

    The top story is probably Thad Cochran’s near-miraculous survival in Mississippi (the 36-year Republican senator downed his upstart tea-party challenger), and we’ll get to that race in a moment. But let’s kick things off with Charlie Rangel, if only because I’m fascinated that the 44-year Democratic congressman, censured by the House for sleaze, has apparently survived his New York primary. His current victory margin is a mere 1800 votes. And we have to wonder:

    What does it take in this country to beat a demonstrably corrupt incumbent?

    Consider this guy’s track record, the various ways he has gamed the system for personal advantage. In 2010, Rangel was found guilty by his House peers of 11 ethics violations, such as: Failing to pay taxes for 17 years on property he owned in the Dominican Republic; failing to report, on required congressional disclosure forms, that he owned income-generating properties in New York, New Jersey, Florida; failing to report, on those forms, that he had two bank accounts with a combined value as high as a million bucks; failing to report his dividend income from other investments; failing to report what he pocketed from the sale of a Harlem townhouse, not to mention the rental income he had made off that townhouse prior to sale.

    Only one congressman – Rangel – has been censured by the House in the past 31 years. More than half the censure votes were cast by his fellow Democrats. The ethics violations also included: soliciting “charitable” donations from people who had business with his powerful House committee; forging a deal with an oil corporation, whereby the firm agreed to pay $1 million for an institute called The Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Policy – and, in return, Rangel agreed to protect a tax loophole beneficial to the firm. All told, Rangel’s colleagues ruled, 333-79, that he had brought “discredit to the House.”

    If there was justice in this world, Rangel’s 2012 Democratic primary would have been his last hurrah. But no, he held off challenger Adriano Espaillat by a thin 1000 votes. And in last night’s rematch with Espaillat, his win margin appeared to be a tad wider (pending the tally of absentee ballots). Rangel may be 84 years old, and highly tainted, but, like many seasoned incumbents, he can tap his connections and call in favors. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer came up to Harlem to stump for him. So did Bill Clinton.

    And so did Nancy Pelosi. Back in 2010, as House Speaker, Pelosi summoned Rangel to the front of the chamber to formally announce his censure (“Will the gentleman from New York, Mr. Rangel, kindly appear in the well?”). Now, in 2014, she shows up to campaign for him. That says it all. The establishment protects its own, and old lion roars again.

    Meanwhile, down in Mississippi last night, another seasoned veteran found a way to survive. A few weeks ago, in a GOP Senate primary, Thad Cochran finished second to upstart Chris McDaniel; under Mississippi rules, a runoff was required because neither guy cleared 50 percent of the vote. It was widely assumed that Corcoran was toast, that McDaniel had the momentum and the requisite grassroots conservative zeal.

    But Cochran, with abundant help from the Republican establishment, did something very unusual. The primary was open to Democrats, so he rallied those voters as a way to trump the grassroots conservatives. In Mississippi, the Democrats are disproportionately African-American. No doubt you see the irony of a traditional center-right southern Republican rallying blacks to save his butt.

    It worked; Cochran topped McDaniel by 6400 votes. And it’s easy to see why his strategy was so effective. Even though Cochran has long voiced the standard Republican rhetoric about the evils of “big government,” he has long been a master at bringing home the “big government” bacon. And needy black Mississippians have benefited from that bacon. In mailings to black neighborhoods, for instance, Cochran touted the federal money he has long channelled to black colleges and universities, and to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps).

    By contrast, McDaniel was your standard tea-party lightweight, railing against Washington to the point where he actually promised to be a do-nothing senator (his pledge to voters: “I’m not going to do anything for you”). Mississippians may claim to be opposed to federal help, but in practice, most of them want the money to keep coming.

    McDaniel’s supporters are furious this morning that Cochran did an end run by expanding the primary electorate – one activist tweeted, “the GOP is done. They teamed up with Dems to steal a race. Kiss the base goodbye” – but hey, Corcoran simply made the most of the hand he was dealt. The old lion roared again. Guys like him (and Rangel, alas) are very tough to beat.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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