Saturday, March 24 , 2018, 6:57 am | Fair 43º


Froma Harrop: Ethics Trials May Help — Not Hurt — Democrats

As she promised to do, Pelosi is changing Washington's culture of corruption

Democrats will “drain the swamp of Washington” if they win control of the House of Representatives. So promised Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., before the 2006 election that led to her becoming House speaker.

Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop

Now that two Democratic reps have been charged with serious ethical lapses, a chorus of Republican operatives is accusing Pelosi of breaking that vow. Our political prophets have largely picked up the tune. A difficult midterm election for Democrats has just become tougher, they say with near unanimity.

But suppose these predictions are off by 180 degrees. Suppose voters see these trials as evidence not of an unattended swamp, but of murky waters being drained. The Office of Congressional Ethics, which Pelosi helped create, is leading the charge. And even the most hardened partisan can’t believe that all the bad behavior happens across the aisle.

That the Democrats under the microscope — New York Rep. Charles Rangel and California Rep. Maxine Waters — are both black only underscores the seriousness with which the Democratic leadership supports a new set of standards for conduct. African-Americans make up an important Democratic voting bloc.

Asked whether these investigations will hurt Democrats’ prospects in the midterms, Pelosi properly responded, “The chips will have to fall where they may politically.”

For the record, Rangel and Waters both deny any wrongdoing. The same goes for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who is also under investigation, by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department. (Ensign’s case includes payoffs related to an extramarital affair.) All three assert that their alleged misdeeds amounted to nothing more than congressional business that everyone does.

Rangel, for example, is accused of doing expensive corporate favors in return for a hefty donation to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. His lawyers note that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has tapped money from defense contractors and others with business before Congress for the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville.

Nope. The ethics dock is not going to be a Democrats-only platform. And as defendants, Waters and Rangel are hardly two of a feather.

Waters is known to be a sharp-edged bully. She reportedly threatened to harm the business interests of a black newspaper publisher if he didn’t fire a columnist who, against her wishes, endorsed Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

Rangel, on the other hand, is quite the charmer. He fights back with brains and wit. And his record of valor in the Korean War is incontestable.

Pelosi deserves a medal for political bravery — and for political smarts. She is battling the (exaggerated) perception among many white voters that Democrats extend special protection to minorities. Her insistence on not interfering poses a great inconvenience for Fox News, which, nonetheless, is already cranking up racial resentments among key parts of its white audience.

African-Americans, meanwhile, should note that the two congressmen who resigned this year under charges of improper behavior are both white. They were Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.

Going after alleged ethics violations in one’s own party is hard work politically and emotionally. When supporters argue that the defendants have been singled out for doing “business as usual,” Democratic leaders should hang tough and respond that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

What is owed Rangel, Waters, Ensign and Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., who is also under investigation? A fair process.

Are the current inquiries more dangerous for Democrats come November than for Republicans? Again, that’s what most pundits say. But Americans are a lot more perceptive than some give them credit for — and political predictions can be very, very wrong.

Froma Harrop is an independent voice on politics, economics and culture, and blogs on She is also a member of the editorial board at The Providence (R.I.) Journal. Click here to contact her at

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