For a New York Weboy, I've been pretty quiet about Charlie Rangel.
Outside of New York, I'm not really sure how many people understand the Rangel story, not fully, anyway. Rent stabilized apartments, vacation villa in Punta Cana... yeah, it's a scandal... but it's such a New York scandal. And part of the New York reality is that, in many ways, it's meaningless in Charlie's district. And that's really where it should matter most.
New York is a collection of neighborhood, and in politics, the neighborhoods are very much characterized by some larger than life presence, usually a politician. It's not the same politician, or political level in every case - Chelsea's gay enclave is voiced, for instance, by State Senator Tom Duane and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The Upper West Side, for a long time, was voiced by someone like Ruth Messinger, until her career imploded with a failed run for Mayor. Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community is usually voiced by Dov Hikind... and so on.
It's impossible to minimize how much Charlie Rangel is the voice of Harlem. His seat, formerly held by Adam Clayton Powell, has historically been the voice of the urban black community, and Rangel has been that, for a very long time. He dominates the uptown political landscape, and like most of New York's political clubs, the uptown political scene is a cozy, insular world still handled, comfortably, with a lot of patronage and cozy relationships.
I'm not saying this to impugn scandal or graft - though there's some clear examples of that at the State Government level in Harlem, to be sure - but to explain why Charlie Rangel won't face a serious challenge to his power, now... or probably even two years from now.
A New Yorker, really, is defined in many ways by housing. When I moved to the city, I was struck by how conversations you didn't have in other places were central, accepted, not even rude: where'd you get your apartment? How much do you pay? Are you rent controlled or stabilized? It may be tacky to talk about money in polite company... but a New Yorker shares rent stories like the time of day, or the weather. (Ths is followed by a discussion of transportation, the best way to get across town or uptown, one's favorite subway line... that sort of thing.)
The scandal isn't that Charlie has a rent stabilized apartment - he's lived in the city a long time, and almost everything was stabilized then. You really can't know who's sitting on rental gold. But four rent stabilized apartments? One he used as an office? That's just... offensive.
To a New Yorker.
The problem in New York is that rent laws have been gradually relaxed under Republican administrations at the city and state level. Rent Control is essentially dead (you have to inherit a rent controlled apartment from a relative, and it's strict... finally), and rent stabilization has a ceiling of $2,000 a month rents... so most new apartments come in over the ceiling. That may change given the financial downturn... it hasn't yet, even though there's a glut of unsold and unrented apartments, a growing one.
Rangel's apartment scandal, along with the vacation property and the car storage, and all the tax problems... might amount to something if there was energy around getting him out. There won't be. Making his apartments the key issue, seems to me a lost cause at the national level; most people find New York's rental market arcane and byzantine (how many people understand that the apartments were stabilized and not rent controlled? Not many, I'm guessing)... and they're right. A real campaign over the rent issue would be better focused on reforms aimed to help New York renters.
Indeed, nationalizing Rangel as some sort of "emblem of Democratic greed" seems awfully misplaced. If Republicans thought Rangel was such a bad guy... why not run a Republican to replace him - no, really, stop laughing - and actually take a stake in a key urban area. They won't, because they can't. Are Rangel's tax problems a scandal for the head of the chief Tax Writing committee of the House? Sure... but who likes taxes? Who's on the side of the IRS in this?
In a sane world, Rangel might be gently encouraged to retire; it's been a long time, and he's probably overdue. Harlem could use some fresh energy in its politics, especially when real economic growth might - if this debt disaster is survivable - finally be in place. But this is New York, and politics are as rational as the housing market itself... which is to say, not at all. No one can make him go, only he can decide it... or a young upstart - as if that's going to happen - with the nerve to point out the sense of moral outrage and the smell of corruption. But that's here, now, Charlie. The question is... does it matter?