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Politics & Poker: Democrats Could Solve Two Problems at Once

Problem: Rep. Charlie Rangel (D), the dean of the New York Congressional delegation, faces myriad questions, including a House ethics committee investigation, about his finances, spoiling Democratic leaders’ argument that they represent something other than business as usual on Capitol Hill.

[IMGCAP(1)]Problem: New York Gov. David Paterson (D) continues to post miserable poll numbers, stoking fears from the White House to Buffalo that he’ll not only lose his bid for a full term next year but drag several other Empire State Democrats down with him.

A possible solution? Get Rangel to retire and Paterson to run for his seat.

You read it here first.

“They’re not going to like it north of 96th Street,— a veteran New York Democratic operative said the other day when presented with the idea, employing the Gotham euphemism for “Harlem.—

No, they probably won’t. But it may be worth exploring.

Even at the age of 79 and with his problems mounting, Rangel, a 39-year veteran of Congress, shows no signs of stepping aside now that he’s finally Ways and Means chairman. But how much is he really enjoying his job? It’s hard to argue that his influence on key policy debates — health care reform being the most pressing example — hasn’t been diminished. Because clearly it has, as House leaders wish Rangel’s problems, if not the man himself, would just go away.

At the same time, Paterson continues to say he will run for governor in 2010, even as polls show him getting swamped by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a hypothetical Democratic primary and by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) in a general election. (It’s worth noting that neither Cuomo nor Giuliani is a gubernatorial candidate yet.)

Given a national platform on NBC’s “Meet the Press— on Sunday, Paterson was downright defensive, insisting that President Barack Obama has never asked him not to run (though conceding that unnamed White House officials “certainly sent the message that they have some concerns—). He went on to say that, even as Republicans threaten to oust appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and a handful of House Democrats and retake control of the state Senate, which the Democrats struggled for two generations to capture before finally prevailing in 2008, that he is “not a drag for my party.—

Paterson, New York’s first African-American governor, also pointed out that he has proved naysayers wrong throughout his life.

But polls do not lie. And most political professionals, fairly or not, have written Paterson off.

It’s no accident that Paterson is referred to as the accidental governor. He was minding his own business, serving as Minority Leader of the state Senate and dreaming of the day when Democrats might grab control of the chamber, when he was tapped to be Eliot Spitzer’s running mate in 2006. Spitzer was then attorney general of New York and the heavy favorite to be elected governor that year. Several Democrats, including two black contenders, were already running for lieutenant governor.

But for reasons that still aren’t altogether clear — other than the fact that Spitzer wanted to reach out to skeptical Harlem power brokers like Rangel, who sarcastically called the attorney general “the smartest man in the world— — Spitzer wanted Paterson to be his No. 2. The widespread assumption at the time — never confirmed or denied by the principals — is that Spitzer promised to appoint Paterson to the Senate if Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected president.

Of course, that never happened. While Clinton was losing to Obama in the White House sweepstakes, Spitzer was suddenly and ignobly gone in a sex scandal. And Paterson — who confessed on “Meet the Press— that he sure wished he’d been given some warning that he was about to take over — became governor.

Which more or less brings us to today. Paterson’s rotten poll numbers are in part due to the lousy economy and the devastating effects it’s had on state government programs. But many of his wounds are also self-inflicted.

Can Charlie Rangel throw him a lifeline?

Recent press accounts have suggested that Rangel isn’t that close personally to Paterson, as Paterson has lately been seeking the counsel of other African-American New York pols of his generation. But Rangel is very close to Paterson’s dad, Basil Paterson, whose lengthy résumé includes stints as a state Senator, New York secretary of state, deputy mayor of New York and vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Rangel and the elder Paterson are part of a quartet of venerable Harlem Democratic leaders, which also includes David Dinkins, the only black mayor of New York, and Percy Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president and mayoral candidate who is now a broadcasting mogul, who have enjoyed unparalleled success.

Anytime there is speculation about people who would run to succeed Rangel, the same half-dozen or so local pols are mentioned, and the Congressman is close to some of them. But chances are he’d be just as happy seeing David Paterson replace him as any of the other potential contenders.

Right now, Rangel is having none of it. In Sunday’s New York Daily News, he was contemptuous of the idea that Obama and his people might be trying to shove Paterson aside in favor of Cuomo.

“Anyone who has been involved in this has to be embarrassed,— he said.

As for Paterson, it’s hard to imagine him happily giving up all that power in Albany for a Congressional seat.

On the other hand, if it looks like he’s going to lose anyway, he can run for Congress and save face politically. He can say being a legislator is his first love (which is probably true). He can say the problems of the state and nation are so intractable that he really wants to focus on helping the people he’s closest to. He can say that he can’t think of a better role for himself than as successor to his Uncle Charlie.

The Democrats are in no danger of losing Rangel’s seat — no matter what happens to Rangel himself. But Rangel’s problems, along with those of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) and a few others may become an albatross around the necks of national Democrats in the 2010 midterms.

Paterson’s political problems are a little more desperate. The Democrats aren’t just afraid of losing the governor’s mansion. Allies of Gillibrand and New York Democratic Reps. Michael Arcuri, Tim Bishop, Eric Massa, Michael McMahon and Scott Murphy are pulling no punches — they’re saying that Paterson’s problems could wash down the ballot in 2010. And if Democrats lose the governorship and lose control of the state Senate, that has profound implications for redistricting — which will be felt for the next decade.

Charlie Rangel and David Paterson both feel as if they deserve better, that they’ve earned the voters’ respect.

But both men, like most New York pols regardless of their race and ethnicity, know a little Yiddish. And both may, at some point soon, look themselves in the mirror and ask, “For what do I need this tsuris?—

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