Massa, Rangel: Symbols of Democratic woe

Resigned Congressman Eric Massa (AP)

One is a former Democratic freshman little known outside his Corning-Olean-Pittsford, N.Y., district. The other, a 20-term Democratic kingpin from Harlem, is widely known to New Yorkers and anyone following tax legislation.

But now, Republicans — looking for any opening to regain control of the House — are portraying newly resigned first-termer Eric Massa and veteran Charles Rangel as dual symbols of Democratic ethical misconduct.

There’s no connection between Rangel’s violation of House gift rules — as reported by the House ethics committee — and the ethics panel’s abruptly ended investigation of Massa’s alleged harassment of male staff members.

But there is this link: Both cases represent potential albatrosses for Democrats in the fall elections, and the party can only hope that the problems fade away.

The House Democratic campaign chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, confirmed Wednesday that the House ethics committee has ended its investigation of Massa because his resignation this week removed him from the panel’s jurisdiction.

But Van Hollen quickly acknowledged in an ABC News webcast that Massa staff members who complained of harassment can still pursue the case in other forums. And House Republican leader John Boehner said there were many questions in the case that still must be answered.

Translation: The potential political damage is far from over.

Rangel’s problems also continue. He stepped aside this month as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee after the ethics committee reported that the New York City Democrat ran afoul of gift rules by accepting corporate money to attend two Caribbean conferences.

Still under way is a more serious ethics investigation of Rangel’s fundraising and finances, including allegations that he misused his official position to raise money for a center named after him at City College of New York. The ethics committee also is looking at his belated reporting of hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets.

Rangel acknowledged he became a political liability when he stepped aside from his chairmanship. He said staying on would have prolonged distractions for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats.

“It’s not fair to her and it’s not fair to the many freshmen and those who have close districts, that instead of getting their message out, (reporters and constituents) are asking about me,” Rangel said.

If Massa and Rangel were the Democrats’ only problems, the party might be able to control the damage more easily.

But they also must contend with investigations and misconduct of others in the party:

_Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is charged with corruption related to his efforts to fill President Barack Obama‘s former Senate seat.

_New York Gov. David Paterson faces two misconduct investigations and increasing calls for him to quit.

_Paterson’s predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned in a prostitution scandal.

Republicans are mindful that Republican ethical misconduct was one reason the GOP lost control of the House in the 2006 elections. The party was badly damaged by the case of then-Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who sent sexually suggestive messages to former male pages.

That was bad enough, but the real damage came when it was learned that Republican leaders knew of the misconduct and took no action.

A Democratic leadership aide, who was not authorized to be quoted, said Wednesday night that the speaker’s office was told of Massa’s use of strong language and other problems in his office in October — but nothing about harassment.

When the alleged harassment was brought to the leadership’s attention last month, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer demanded that the ethics committee be contacted within two days and promised to make the report himself if that didn’t happen.

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