Maxine Waters, the Democrats’ Sacrificial Lamb

Maxine Waters, the Democrats’ Sacrificial Lamb

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The headlines in several major dailies blared, “Maxine Waters under scrutiny for bank ties,” “Waters helped bank whose stock she once owned,” and “What is the Maxine Waters scandal all about?” The reports painted the embattled California Congresswoman, who is one of the most influential and outspoken elected officials, as a corrupt politician who schemed to get millions in TARP bailout money for a bank that her husband had stock in. Waters, readers were told, faced possible ethics charges in the House.

There are several problems with this. Start with the headlines. The news they are reporting is a year and half old. The House Ethics Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Congressional Black Caucus, and in fact all House Democrats hashed over the allegations against her at the time. Apart from the allegation that she arranged a meeting with treasury officials on behalf of the National Bankers Association, a minority banking group, and that her husband had an interest in one of the banks, the allegation is not new. During that time, legions of bankers and Wall Street financial house representatives met with treasury officials. They all came with hat in hand for bailout funds. Waters did not attend the meeting in question and had no input in the decision by the treasury to eventually shell out $12 million in bailout funds to minority banks. On the strength of an old charge, a single meeting, and no proof that Waters twisted the arms of treasury officials to fork over money to the bank in question or any other minority bank, Waters muscled aside Charles Rangel as the poster politician for Congressional thievery and malfeasance.

It’s no accident that Waters has been dumped on the political hot seat three months before the 2010 mid-term elections. House Democrats are scared stiff that the GOP will erase their majority. What better way to prove that they can police their own -- and make good on Pelosi’s oft-quoted vow to cleanse the swamp in Congress -- than to make sacrificial lambs out of a handful of wayward Democrats? And they chose those who are the most identifiable, outspoken, and vulnerable: African-American Democrats. The choice of Waters and Rangel has little to do with their alleged transgressions, whether or not they have merit. It’s politics, pure and simple.

The list of white Republicans and Democrats who engage in influence-peddling, conflicts of interest, bed-ties with lobbyists, nepotism, financial campaign violations and improprieties, would fill up a small telephone directory. There are occasions when a few of them get hand-slap punishments for their sins. Almost always, this happens when they are so over the top that they can’t be ignored. But black politicians who are accused of wrongdoing, or who actually do wrong, are called on the carpet far out of proportion to their numbers.

The pattern was set more than two decades ago. Between 1983 and 1988, the Reagan Justice Department initiated 465 political corruption probes of elected officials. A disproportionate percentage of the investigations were against black elected officials, even though blacks comprised only three percent of U.S. elected officials. A decade later, the pattern was repeated. Half of the 26 members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time were the subjects of federal investigations. To put the racial magnitude of the investigations into perspective, this would be the equivalent of bringing charges against 204 of the 409 white congressional representatives. Reagan and Bush, Sr. officials hotly denied that there was any racial bias in the top-heavy number of black elected officials hit with investigations and charges.

Administrations officials said the investigations simply were intended to root out political corruption. It’s true that political cronyism is a time-honored tradition in American politics. A number of white politicians have been indicted, convicted and imprisoned, both Democrats and Republicans. But partisan politics can’t be separated from who gets targeted for prosecution or hit with ethics charges. In the case of Rangel and now Waters, they are not rank-and-file Democrats; they are two of the highest profile, nationally known Democrats, and apart from the fact that they’re African American, this gives an even greater veneer of credence to ranking Democrats’ contention that they’ll go after any Democrats that cross the ethics line, no matter their party rank or stature.

Pelosi and the Democrats should hold to that high standard. But they should hold to it with all Democrats. Waters and Rangel may face trial, and the betting odds are that every effort will be made to lay out their dirty ethics laundry. If convicted, the Democrats will crow that their penalties will serve as warning that Democrats are staunch standard keepers of the ethical flame in the House. Waters is the perfect sacrificial lamb for them to make that case.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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