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Analysis: NY’s Paterson, Rangel Face the Music

Date: Thursday, March 04, 2010

By: Michael H. Cottman

This is a tough week for black men who are occupying elected seats of power.

David Paterson, New York’s first African-American governor, is under investigation and sinking deeper into political quicksand.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), the raspy-voiced legislator from Harlem, stepped down temporarily Tuesday as chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee after the House ethics committee admonished him last week for taking corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean, a violation of the government’s gift rules.

Washington D.C. Council member Marion Barry, who is no stranger to controversy, was stripped of his committee chairmanship after the D.C. Council voted to censure him on possible public corruption charges. The allegations stem from a conflict-of-interest investigation that alleges Barry took a cut of a $15,000 contract he awarded to his then-girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt.

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans want Rangel to quit Congress immediately, and his abrupt decision to relinquish his chairmanship, even temporarily, could signal the beginning of the end for the 20-term congressman.

In New York, calls for Paterson’s resignation are also getting louder, the accusations against him are becoming more troubling, and New York’s first black governor may have to make some hard decisions in the days head: Resign or transfer power to the lieutenant governor.

Paterson is involved in a sordid scandal that involves a domestic violence case that would probably never reach the desk of a governor’s office. He is being accused of trying to cover up accusations that one of his top aides, David Johnson, who is African-American, was physically assaulting his girlfriend, Sherr-una Booker, who is also black. 

For the record, Paterson denies any wrongdoing. Paterson and Rangel are like family; both men are products of the Harlem elite, and it’s ironic that they are now facing serious investigations that could end their historic political careers.

Rangel is a longtime mentor to Paterson, and the two embattled politicians share a storied history in Harlem, where Paterson grew up listening to back-room chatter about black political empowerment and watching black elected leaders – including his father – become part of a powerful Democratic dynasty.  

But it wasn’t supposed to go down like this.

Paterson, the son of legendary Harlem politician Basil Paterson, was hoping to be successful as New York’s first black governor and perhaps soar to higher political heights, while Rangel, the charismatic icon who replaced Adam Clayton Powell in the House of Representatives, would quietly end an extraordinary run after serving 39 years in Congress.    

Rangel was the lynchpin of the illustrious Harlem-based “Gang of Four” alongside Basil Paterson, who was a New York deputy mayor, a New York secretary of state, and ran for lieutenant governor in 1970; Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president, who died last year; David Dinkins, who was Manhattan borough president and New York’s first black mayor. The four Democrats are hailed as heroes in New York, who helped build a black power base while encouraging many young blacks to seek elected office over the years.   

But today, even some supporters on Capitol Hill say privately that it’s time for Rangel, who is now 79 years old, to resign from Congress.

The House ethics panel is also investigating other serious allegations that Rangel failed to pay federal taxes on rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic and his ownership of four rent-controlled apartments.

In New York, even amid calls for Paterson to resign, several black Democrats insist the allegations against Paterson smack of a racial double standard because the governor’s critics are prematurely calling for his resignation before a thorough investigation has been completed.

But here’s the deal: Sherr-una Booker had an order of protection against Johnson, Paterson’s top aide, and she once showed a judge several bruises she claimed were inflicted by Johnson.


New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating whether Paterson committed a crime – possible witness tampering – by contacting Booker before she was to appear in court to tell her story about Johnson. She never made it to court on Feb. 8, and the case was dropped. 

The days ahead will only get tougher for Barry, Paterson and Rangel. 

Barry is a proven survivor who could come away from this latest scandal unscathed. He told a jam-packed Baptist church Tuesday night, “I have no intentions of going anywhere. They may take my committee chair. They can’t take my dignity.”

But Paterson and Rangel are different. They may now be considering similar options that would have been unthinkable one year ago: Jump – or wait to be pushed.