Donation Dilemmas

Two Democratic ethics trials raise questions for Washington politicians—and the fall elections

Local lore has it that Washington was built on top of a swamp. Historians say that’s a myth, but it makes for a great political catchphrase. Back in 2006 when Democrats took the majority in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to “drain the swamp” through vigorous ethics reforms and ethics enforcements. Two high-profile ethics inquiries are testing that promise,and offering political risk and rewards. And the dilemma isn’t just national.

Democratic Representatives Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters are slated to stand trial for a variety of violations leveled against them by the House Ethics Committee. Rangel’s alleged misconduct ranges from tax evasion to faulty financial disclosure. Waters stands accused of lobbying for bailout funding of a bank while her husband was a stockholder there. Republican strategists see opportunity in their misfortune, and they’re inundating congressional swing districts with press releases, calling on Democratic candidates to return money received from Rangel, Waters, and their affiliated political-action committees.

Among the targets are some prominent politicos from Maryland and Virginia.

Last Thursday, Representative Gerry Connolly, who represents Fairfax County, dismissed Rangel’s allegedly corrupt actions as “sad and isolated.” But he and other Virginia lawmakers received campaign support from Rangel in the past. Connolly got $5,000 from Rangel’s National Leadership PAC in 2008, according to Opensecrets.org, the watchdog Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. Also in 2008, Virginia Senator Mark Warner accepted a $10,000 donation from Rangel’s PAC. Farther from Washington, Representative Tom Perriello, who speaks for Virginia’s fifth district—the largest one in the state, which includes Charlottesville—received $5,000 from National Leadership in 2008. (Since rumors of controversy emerged over the last year, however, a number of members of Congress have either returned the money or donated it, including Connolly, who donated the money to the Boys and Girls club, and Perriello, who donated to a variety of charities in his district, according to representatives for both members of Congress. )

On the Maryland side, National Leadership PAC gave Representative Donna Edwards $5,000 in 2008. She’s also a favorite of People Helping People, a California-based PAC affiliated with Waters. Edwards is the only recipient of a People Helping People donation so far this year. The organization gave her $2,500. Back in Virginia, Perriello received $2,000 from the PAC in 2008 (although Perriello later returned that money, a spokeswoman for his campaign said.)

Those numbers may present an political opportunity for Republicans to paint Democrats as hypocrites, but they’re also a chance for Democrats to prove they keep their ethics promises. If Dems return money from or tied to Rangel and Waters (Slate’s Christopher Beam has a handy guide for deciding how to give donations back), they could show they’re keeping their promises. And while the prospect of taking two senior, progressive members of the caucus to task with midterms looming might upset the Democratic base, a rigorous investigation of Rangel and Waters in spite of party loyalty could bolster Democrats’ credibility, especially among independents.

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