Rahm Emanual: The One-Man Political Machine


emanuelBy Scott Turow

On a brutally cold morning in mid-December, Rahm Emanuel, hatless and wearing a glove on only his left hand, stood for an hour in front of the turnstiles at the Paulina el station, which sits in his old Congressional district on Chicago’s North Side. As the trains slammed and screeched overhead, he offered his hand to the mostly young and professional commuters heading downtown. Emanuel’s manner seemed more studied than spontaneous. He employed standard lines – “nice hat,” “good book” – and relied on the logos on riders’ head wear and jackets for conversation starters. He addressed both sexes as “man,” and when a woman asked about his plans for the Chicago Transit Authority, he was characteristically a trifle abrupt – “Here’s the deal,” he said to start – and egocentric. As he did with me, he told her the elevated line right above us was something “I built,” before saying “we,” apparently realizing he was discounting the work and leadership of many others. He hardly seemed like an irresistible force.On Sept. 9, The Chicago Sun-Times published a poll of the likely candidates to replace Richard M. Daley, who announced two days earlier that, after six terms as mayor, he would not seek re-election. The poll found those candidates tightly bunched. After “undecided,” Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, held the early lead, with the support of 12 percent of the city’s voters. Emanuel, who was then still the White House chief of staff, was in fifth place, with only 7 percent. (Despite his high profile in Washington, Emanuel began the mayoral race unknown to many Chicagoans, who did not recognize his name or know what to make of him.) Four months later, Emanuel was the overwhelming front runner. Two recent polls estimated Emanuel’s support at more than 50 percent of the city’s likely voters, several times the percentages of his nearest competitors.

Emanuel leads not just among whites but also among blacks and Hispanics, each about a third of the city’s population. He now stands on the verge of accomplishing what seemed unattainable when the race began: winning a majority in the Feb. 22 election and avoiding a runoff on April 5 between the two highest finishers.

Emanuel, as his appearance at the el stop suggested, does not have the same natural social gifts of most politicians. On first meeting, he is aloof and wary. (And I have had several “first” meetings with Emanuel over the years, because he was, as I used to joke during my days as a regular Democratic contributor, the only major Democratic politician in town who never remembered me.) Worse, he has repeatedly offended important people in Chicago’s political circles – to cite only one example, he once refused to speak to the wife of a major Democratic figure when she was seated next to him at a dinner party. Some of his former business colleagues are said to have found him surly and uncooperative. And a veteran of the Clinton White House told me that Emanuel, who did not care for a decision that was made during a meeting, was the only person ever seen failing to stand when President Clinton entered the room.

Yet in the weeks after Labor Day, leading up to the announcement of his candidacy in November, Emanuel was quick to win the support of most of Chicago’s business leaders, many of them former Daley loyalists, as well as a large number of influential local politicians. They are drawn to Emanuel’s intelligence and his experience in the use of political power. When I asked a prominent businessman who was backing Emanuel’s mayoral candidacy if he liked him, he replied: “Like? Like is not the point.”

In late November, less than two weeks after Emanuel announced his candidacy, paperwork was filed with the city to get him knocked off the ballot. Ballot objections are part of the trade craft of Chicago elections – Emanuel himself tried to boot an opponent when he ran for re-election to Congress in 2004 – but they are usually a sideshow. This one seems to have been the pivotal event of the campaign. Originally initiated with the consent of two of Emanuel’s opponents, the ballot objections, based on a claim that Emanuel gave up his Chicago residency by renting his house when he went to Washington to serve in the White House, seemed well conceived politically.

The idea was to portray Emanuel, who worked as a top adviser to Presidents Obama and Clinton and was elected to four terms in Congress, as a creature of Washington, a politically entitled outsider and veteran fund-raiser who wanted to muscle his way into the office. After all, Emanuel started the campaign with more than a million dollars left over from his 2008 Congressional campaign, and he soon raised much more.

Illinois law placed no limits on political contributions until Jan. 1, and Emanuel made the most of the opportunity. He collected more than 70 contributions of $50,000 or more, accounting for roughly half the $10.5 million he raised by the end of last year. Those contributions alone were more than was raised by all of the other mayoral candidates combined.

Many of his biggest contributors live outside Chicago. He received large checks from New York (the financiers Roger Altman, Ronald Perelman and Donald Trump each gave $50,000); Silicon Valley ($50,000 from Steve Jobs); and especially Southern California, where Emanuel’s brother, Ari, a powerful Hollywood agent, raised money on his behalf. David Geffen gave $100,000, Steven Spielberg $75,000.

Money alone can’t buy the office, of course. (In 1983, Jane Byrne reportedly raised $10 million in her mayoral re-election bid, and she lost.) But Emanuel has spent wisely. He paid AKPD Message and Media, the consulting firm founded by David Axelrod, $2.2 million last year, the bulk of it for TV ads during a period when none of his opponents had a significant presence on the air.

The short time frame between the mayor’s announcement and the February election also played to the advantage of a man who has been inside political campaigns since before his graduation from Sarah Lawrence. There was no time to mount a draft movement for an exciting political outsider, someone like Patrick Fitzgerald, the white-knight federal prosecutor. Nor could labor quickly coalesce around an alternative to Emanuel, whom many union members dislike for his role in helping Bill Daley, then a special counsel to President Clinton, win Congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement. The need for fast action also accentuated the power vacuum in the city’s African-American community. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., who had long awaited the mayor’s departure, has been damaged, perhaps permanently, by Fitzgerald’s allegations that he was party to an arrangement to trade $1 million in campaign donations to Rod Blagojevich for Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. (Jackson denies any wrongdoing.) And in late October, Tom Dart, the popular sheriff with ties to the few remaining strong ward organizations on the South Side, decided not to enter the race, citing his obligations to his five young children. Had Dart stayed in, he surely would have pushed Emanuel into a runoff, at the very least. Dart’s withdrawal left Emanuel as the only major white candidate in a city where experts expect whites to be about 42 percent of the turnout. (Should Emanuel, who is Jewish, win on Tuesday, it will mark the end of an era. Every person elected mayor of Chicago for roughly the last 80 years, save Harold Washington, has been a white Roman Catholic.)

Still, Emanuel’s main electoral rivals each started the race with some advantage over him. Carol Moseley Braun emerged as the consensus black candidate in late December. She is the only major female contender and, as the first African-American woman ever elected to the Senate, back in 1992, she has virtually universal name-recognition. Gery Chico, a lawyer, will vie with Moseley Braun for second place. He was Mayor Daley’s chief of staff in the 1990s and the president of the Chicago public-school board from 1995 to 2001. “Of everybody who understands the nitty-gritty of [city] government, he probably is the most knowledgeable,” Bill Daley told me. Miguel del Valle, the city clerk, has won the admiration of progressives by refusing to take campaign money from anybody doing business with the city, but he has hobbled his campaign as a result.

“Within days, Rahm had 90 percent of who was going to do what in his campaign done, fixed,” says his friend William M. Daley, the mayor’s brother and the man who has now taken Emanuel’s former job as chief of staff in the White House. “Who the media person was, who the fund-raising person was, everything. Everybody else is thumbing around thinking who they’re going to hire. He’s off to the races.”

It is now obvious that the effort to toss Emanuel off the ballot backfired, not just because it wasn’t successful but also because the controversy created sympathy for him and gave him a platform from which he could combat his detractors’ sharpest critiques. On Dec. 14, Emanuel was called as the first witness in a residency hearing that took place in a low, windowless basement conference room in a county office building. Testifying at a folding table that served as a makeshift stand, Emanuel kept a photograph of his family right in front of him. The picture was taken on Oct. 1 last year, on the Truman Balcony during his last day at the White House, and was there, in part, to remind him of his youngest daughter. She made him laugh on the phone that morning with a line from her school play about Thomas Paine. “Daddy,” she said, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

If the popular image of Emanuel is that he is arrogant and incendiary, what the news media and other observers saw that day was a soft-spoken, polite and responsive candidate. When Emanuel was baited by a lawyer who called his residence a “flophouse,” he avoided making a combative reply. And although he looked tired at the end of nearly 12 hours of proceedings, Emanuel remained patient even during the long afternoon session, when he was subjected to rambling speeches by a number of citizen objectors. Paul Black wanted to talk about something he called the F.B.I. “Mega File,” while Queen Sister Georgetta Deloney, who wore millinery that made her look as if a large golden coffeecake had landed on her head, took nearly five minutes before asking Emanuel a purely argumentative question about how he could claim Chicago residence if he couldn’t turn the key in his house.

“I think I proved something in the hearing for 12 hours that I don’t think anybody expected,” Emanuel would later tell me. The politics of the appearance were so good for Emanuel that, at one point during the legal drama, Bill Daley says he joked with Emanuel, “Can you soak this thing for a couple more weeks?”

Having survived the last legal obstacle to his entry in the race – an appellate court ruling on Jan. 24 that was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court three days later – Emanuel is now running hardest against himself or, more particularly, the oft-told tales of his foulmouthed outbursts and the hyperaggressive pursuit of his goals. In joint appearances his rivals have sometimes ganged up on him hoping to make the most of his reputation for acting out. But in emphasizing Emanuel’s brashness, his opponents may actually be, once again, making a case on his behalf. “The people of Chicago understand,” Bill Daley says, “you gotta be tough and big, and they don’t want a little guy to fill big shoes.” Or as Diana Martinez, the president of Second City International, the improv theater, put it to me, “It takes a shark to control the barracudas.”

Yet Emanuel has also strived tirelessly to succeed as a retail politician. By the end of January he had made more than 200 stops at el stations, grocery stores, bowling alleys, restaurants, police and fire stations and public schools. (Emanuel’s huge campaign bankroll is one reason he is free to spend his time this way. Chico, by contrast, admits having to spend “four to five hours a day, sometimes more” raising money.)

When I asked Emanuel in January why he was wearing a glove while shaking hands during a morning visit to an el stop, he removed it to show me the chafed areas on his index finger. By then, at a glass-walled el station on the far South Side, Emanuel was far more relaxed than he was a month before. He was plainly enjoying the interaction with voters, often laughing freely. The hundreds of patrons who entered during the hour were all African-American. He now knew what schools young people attended by their uniforms, and his huge advertising buys had taken hold. “You look taller on TV,” one woman told him, and several others giggled and shouted his name when they recognized him. A prominent local political consultant told me that Emanuel was scoring particularly well with black women, many of whom say they appreciate a white man’s giving up a position of power in order to serve an African-American president. At one point, three friends enveloped Emanuel in a hug, and he wrapped his arms around all of them as all four bounced up and down amid uproarious laughter.

If he wins, Emanuel told me, he plans to hold office hours in supermarkets, as he did as a congressman -a commitment that says something about his political values, which have largely escaped scrutiny amid the discussion of his personality. Emanuel, whose mother was a civil rights advocate, grew up in a home where, he says, politics was so often discussed that he thought the Democratic Party “was one of the 10 lost tribes of the Jewish faith.”Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic representative from Illinois, says Emanuel has a “deep sense of justice that I think comes very much from his Judaism.” (Schakowsky is my representative, to whom I’ve regularly contributed, except between 2005 and 2009, when I held a rigidly nonpartisan, part-time position on the state ethics commission.)

And while Emanuel is reluctant to discuss the role of faith in his political views, he does say that during his first Congressional campaign in 2002, he came to regard the Rev. John Cusick, who heads the young-adult ministry for Chicago’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, as “another rabbi.” On the day Emanuel was sworn in, he phoned Cusick on the way to the Capitol to give Cusick his cellphone number. “Father,” Cusick says Emanuel told him, “if you ever think I’m doing something wrong, I want you to call me.”

Should Emanuel win on Tuesday, it won’t be long before a lot of people think he is doing a lot of things wrong. Chicago, like so many other cities and states, faces a historic fiscal crisis. There is a $655 million shortfall in the $6.15 billion budget, and that’s not even counting the hundreds of millions by which the city has underpaid its pension funds, or the $370 million deficit in the separate budget for the schools. A property-tax increase would drive out residents and further depress housing pricesĀ­. The city may have to sell Midway Airport to make ends meet. “They’re talking bankruptcy in two years, three years.” Tom Dart told me. “That was a frightening number,” he admitted, when he contemplated running for mayor, and he said it deepened his understanding of the time he would have to spend away from his family. Yet cutbacks are hard to envision in a city where roughly 70 percent of the budget goes to the Police and Fire Departments and emergency services, and the Police Department is already undermanned.

When I had lunch with Emanuel in mid-January, I wondered why he wanted to be mayor, at least right now. We ate at a sleek deli, trimmed out in black and white subway tiles, that stands near the East Bank Club, where Emanuel works out at 6 a.m. every day. He ordered oatmeal, which he said would double as breakfast and lunch, and spoke at a machine-gun pace that seemed more natural to him than the deliberateness he displays when he is behind a lectern. With one month to go before Election Day, he had yet to fully extricate himself from Washington, assuming he ever will. At one point, one of his advance people brought a cellphone and told Emanuel he had to take a call. Emanuel walked off. About five minutes later, he returned with an apologetic smile and said, “The president of the United States.”

He took his seat, and we focused again on Chicago. “I think we’re headed for a lot of change,” Emanuel told me. “Change may come across as pain, but it’s change. Denial is not a long-term strategy, and for a while we’ve been operating on the philosophy of denial.” He is not likely to be more specific. His opponents attacked in a pack when Emanuel said last month that he would consider raising the retirement age for city pensions and increasing employee contributions, or restructuring the city sales tax. Within days of Emanuel’s statement on pensions, the police and firefighters unions endorsed Gery Chico.

“It’s going to be hard,” Emanuel admitted, by way of answering my questions about his motivations, given the city’s immediate future. “Now the question is, given it’s hard, given the depth of it, whom do you want to help lead that effort?”

{The New York Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}