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Charles Rangel stepped down from Ways and Means.

Congressman Charles Rangel, who represents Northern Manhattan, announced on Wednesday that he is temporarily stepping down from his post as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel sent a letter on Wednesday morning to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requesting a leave of absence as the House Ethics Committee completes its investigation of his tax and financial transactions. Rangel, who has represented Harlem since 1971, faces allegations that include falsely disclosing his personal assets, failing to pay federal income taxes on a vacation property, and renting rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem at rates far below market value, despite rules prohibiting House members from accepting gifts that cost above $50. Rangel said at a press conference that he was taking a leave of absence "in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections." And some local politicians say that while many of the charges could be unwarranted, several allegations leave him with no other choice but to relinquish the gavel. Curtis Arluck, a District Leader of the New York County Democratic Committee and member of the Broadway Democrats—the official Democratic organization for Morningside Heights—said that he only felt strongly about the charge in 2008 suggesting that Rangel had preserved a tax break for an oil-drilling company in exchange for a $1 million contribution to a public-policy school that would bear his name. "In light of that serious allegation, the decision to step down temporarily is the correct one," Arluck said, adding, "I find this whole matter heart breaking. ... It's a shame that Rangel's distinguished career is winding up in this cloud." Some say that what Rangel calls a "leave of absence" might be a euphemism for his permanent departure, one which may have been on its way since the House ethics panel began its inquiry two years ago. "The intention of saying that he is temporarily stepping down is essentially to not make him feel so bad," New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. "It's hard to recall the last time someone stepped down as chair of the most powerful committee and was restored," he added, alluding to the fact that the committee has power over tax policy, international trade, Medicare, Social Security, and welfare programs. Rep. Pete Stark of California is currently the default chairman by virtue of his seniority, and the Democratic Party has already begun discussing who will succeed Rangel. Some experts argue, though, that the controversy does not imply an end to Rangel's political career. "Charlie Rangel got his seat because of issues with Adam Clayton Powell," Barnard political science professor Kimberley Johnson said, referencing Rangel's predecessor. "It was a number of years before people were fed up with Powell, but I don't think they're at that point yet with Rangel." Some say that Rangel's decision to step down is intended to prevent damage to the Democratic Party, particularly during this politically crucial juncture as the party pushes for health care reform and other important agenda items. "This is a face-saving maneuver," political science professor Robert Erikson said. "It looks like the Party is telling him it's time to step down from the Committee and wishes the problem of this scandal would go away." And aside from the Democratic Party's need to subdue a potential scandal that could compromise their legislative goals, others cite the necessity of his removal in order to avoid future electoral repercussions. "One could argue that the Democrats are being smart to deal with this now," assistant professor of political science Jeffrey Lax said. "Push him out—let this not be an issue when election time comes around." Lax added that the step down, if made permanent, could hurt Rangel's district. "It's one of the most important of the chair positions, one of the most coveted. ... It's certainly a loss to his district to have him lose that influence." Experts note that because Rangel's constituents have historically voted Democratic, his success in the general election itself likely would not be jeopardized. But September Democratic primaries could be problematic. "Harlem is not what people think it is. It is no longer a bastion of black voter turnout," Sheinkopf said, noting that changing demographics may affect votes. "Voter anger is just as strong in New York as it is in every other place in the country." Sam Levin contributed reporting. kim.kirschenbaum@columbiaspectator.com

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