N.Y. Democrats Come Out for Rangel

Scandal-plagued Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel was feted by New York’s most prominent Democrats at a gala fundraiser and birthday party at the Plaza Hotel in New York City Wednesday night. 

The birthday party is an annual summertime event for the 20-term congressman, and often draws a who’s who of New York’s political scene. Reports this year, however, had indicated that many Democrats were finding their schedules unusually busy, not wanting to get too close to Rangel and the 13 ethics charges the House Ethics Committee has recently detailed against him.

The ethics charges were not enough to keep fellow Harlem Democrat Gov. David Paterson or New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg away. Neither the governor nor the mayor are facing the voters this year—or perhaps ever again—and so had little to lose. It remained unclear as late as Tuesday whether New York’s two senators, both up for reelection in November, and Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee for governor, would make an appearance at the event.

When reports began swirling on Wednesday morning that Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cuomo would all make an appearance and speak in Rangel’s honor at the fundraiser, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio pounced.

In a press release issued hours before the party was set to begin, Lazio railed against Cuomo’s decision to appear, and called on Rangel to step down. 

“Cuomo has been in Albany so long he thinks it’s alright for the chief law enforcement officer of the state to host a glitzy Manhattan fundraiser for Charlie Rangel, who has 13 ethics charges pending,” Lazio said. “With 13 ethics charges and federal charges likely, it’s time for Charlie Rangel to end his political career and for Andrew Cuomo to be defeated in November.”

Lazio kept up the pressure on Thursday, releasing three separate web videos critical of Cuomo’s appearance. In one, titled “Runaway,” a camera catches Cuomo leaving the Plaza Hotel through an underground passage, rather than going out the front door. Asked about his support for Rangel, whom he praised at the gala for “carry[ing] the banner,” and “deliver[ing] for New York,” Cuomo gave no answer.

Both Schumer and Gillibrand thanked Rangel for his service to his district in their remarks, with Schumer alluding to the ethics charges facing the embattled congressman. “He has fought for New York through thick and thin,” Schumer said.

The Republican Senate candidates, whose campaigns have thus far struggled to gain traction, sought to raise their profiles with swipes of their own at Gillibrand and Schumer. 

Gillibrand’s challenger, economist and former Treasury Department official David Malpass, blasted the potentially vulnerable incumbent for standing with Rangel. “Sen. Gillibrand’s priorities are seriously out of whack,” Malpass said in a campaign statement. “She has refused to answer my call to donate the $29,000 she has received from Congressman Rangel, but she will have to answer to the voters in November. This is exactly the kind of behavior they are fed up with.”

In an interview with CBS News, Schumer’s opponent, former CIA Station Chief Gary Berntsen hit on a similar theme in his criticism of Schumer’s appearance at the fundraiser. “New Yorkers are horrified at Sen. Schumer’s behavior, his support of people like Charlie Rangel,” Berntsen said. “If anyone saw a television last night, you saw the coverage of Charlie Rangel’s birthday party fundraiser, of course a parade of corruption and arrogance. Sen. Schumer was there, supporting Rangel.”

Rangel opened the evening with a defiant declaration. “This damn sure ain’t no funeral, is it?” he quipped. It was a reference to remarks Rangel delivered on the House floor on Tuesday in a feisty, 35-minute, often rambling defense of his actions in the ethics scandal.

“If I was you, I may want me to go away too. I am not going away. I am here,” Rangel said to a smattering of applause from the Democratic side of the aisle. Then he dared his colleagues to expel him from the House. “What are you [going to do] to me? Are you [going to] expel me from this body? As much as I love you Democrats that figure it’ll be easy for you [to oust Rangel] I’m the guy that was raising money in Republican districts to get you here. But if I can’t get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot in getting rid of me through expulsion,” he said.

Rangel is facing primary opposition from Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the late Harlem representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who himself was ousted by Rangel in the midst of an ethics scandal 40 years ago. If Rangel survives the primary, Republican Michel Faulkner awaits him in the general election. If he is to hold on to his seat, Rangel will need all the help he can get from his fellow Democrats. But his defiant tone and the general mood of the electorate nationally is cutting against him. Rangel may ultimately discover that his birthday bash was more a farewell party than a campaign kickoff.