New York is reeling in the aftermath of two scandals featuring prominent Democrats last week. One scandal cost incumbent Governor David Paterson his campaign, potentially throwing the governor’s race into disarray, while the other will likely have no impact on longtime Harlem representative Charles Rangel. Paterson decided to drop his nascent election campaign — he had announced his candidacy only one week ago — after the New York Times finally published a long-rumored bombshell report involving the governor. Another bombshell report, from the House Ethics Committee, concluded that Rangel was guilty of ethics violations for, among other things, accepting corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean.
The Times report alleged that Paterson had improperly intervened in a court case filed against one of his closest aides, David Johnson. Paterson contacted the woman just before she was due to appear in court seeking an order of protection against Johnson. Aides to the governor at first tried to claim that the woman had initiated contact with Paterson, but were later forced to admit that it was the governor who first reached out to her.
The revelation was enough to force the already weak Paterson from the race, as Democrat after Democrat was reportedly counseling the governor to step down from the campaign. Paterson did not resign, however, as many New York newspapers and Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey had demanded. Paterson’s continued presence in the governor’s mansion could complicate the expected gubernatorial campaign of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo has long been considered a sure bet to seek the governorship, challenging Paterson in the Democratic primary. But he has thus far remained mum on his intentions. Cuomo may not have relished declaring against New York’s first African American governor after his experience in the 2002 Democratic primary against H. Carl McCall. Cuomo was forced to drop his bid in that race, but only after securing the nomination of New York’s Liberal Party. Cuomo’s name remained on the ballot on Election Day, angering many in the black community.
With Paterson out of the way, Cuomo has until July to make his campaign official. But Rick Lazio, the likely Republican nominee for governor, has been hounding Cuomo to declare earlier, saying the Attorney General has been absent on issues important to New Yorkers.
“Andrew Cuomo is missing in action. He is running a campaign for Governor while hiding from the people of New York,” Lazio declared in an e-mail to supporters. “It’s nothing more than politics as usual. Andrew Cuomo has been part of the Albany dysfunction for so long he believes the people can be ignored. As Martha Coakley found out in Massachusetts, the people will be heard from.”
Meanwhile, the House Ethics Committee issued its report into allegations of wrongdoing by Rangel last Thursday. The committee found that Rangel and several other members of the Congressional Black Caucus were in violation of House ethics rules for taking the Caribbean trips in 2007 and 2008. But the committee stated that only Rangel was aware that a corporation with interests before Congress was funding the trips.
Rangel has defiantly refused to take responsibility for the violation, blaming the incident on his staff. “[C]ommon sense dictates that members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or mistakes or errors of staff unless there’s reason to believe that member knew or should have known, and there is nothing in the record to indicate the latter,” Rangel said.
But that explanation was not enough for several Democratic members of Congress, who have called on Rangel to step down from the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the body responsible for writing tax legislation. At least four Democrats have called on Rangel to give up his post, although he retains the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs seemed to indicate that President Obama expects Rangel to step down from the committee, saying that members of Congress, “ought to be accountable,” for ethics violations.
But Rangel is showing no sign of intending to go away quietly, announcing Saturday that he plans to seek a 21st term in 2010. Democrat Vince Morgan, who has filed to face Rangel in the primary for the seat, told The Hill newspaper that both Rangel’s ethics problems and Paterson’s scandal are helping him build support for his candidacy. “It’s not a question of guilt,” Morgan said. “[Y]ou’re in a situation where even the specter of doing something wrong has become just numbing in New York.”
That dark cloud hanging over New York Democrats could potentially help Republicans in the state’s two Senate races as well. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is seeking election to her seat for the first time after being appointed by Paterson last spring. Republicans have yet to field a candidate against her, but former Tennessee Representative Harold Ford, Jr. is weighing a challenge on the Democratic side.
New York’s other incumbent Senator, Democrat Charles Schumer, has likewise not drawn serious Republican opposition yet. But Schumer’s approval numbers have been steadily declining, recently falling below 50% for the first time in eight years. Paterson and Rangel’s troubles could contribute to a continuation of that slide and encourage a high-profile Republican to challenge Schumer. Economist and radio and television personality Larry Kudlow has been reported to be giving serious consideration to a run.
Republicans are widely expected to make gains in this year’s congressional elections. Some observers speculate that Republicans could regain control of both houses of Congress. For that to happen, they will have to score some unexpected victories. Places like New York, long considered safe territory for Democrats, are increasingly in play due to the growing unpopularity of President Obama and congressional Democrats’ liberal agenda. Paterson and Rangel’s scandals could provide the boost Republicans need to pull upsets in deep-blue New York.
Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel