Rahmbo’s assault on Chicago

October 13, 2010

Bob Quellos looks at the man who wants to succeed his old friend Richard Daley.

ON OCTOBER 1, Rahm Emanuel announced that he would be leaving his post as President Barack Obama's chief of staff to return home to Chicago to run for mayor. By the end of the weekend a few days later, he had released his first campaign video and launched his campaign Web site. The following Monday, he was walking Chicago's neighborhoods on a misnamed "Tell It Like It Is" tour. And by the end of that week, over 27,000 people had "liked" his campaign's Facebook page.

Emanuel made his move fast, with all the confidence of a longtime ally of current Mayor Richard Daley and a veteran operative who knows in the ins and outs of Chicago politics.

Still, Emanuel's reentry into Chicago politics wasn't received well by everybody at City Hall. A number of alderman were less than enthusiastic about Emanuel's campaign. Alderman George Cardenas told the Chicago Sun-Times, "He's gonna come here and run roughshod over everybody? I don't think so. It's a new day. People want a different path. People want somebody they can work with. They don't want another bully. I want someone who's gonna respect me and respect the people I represent."

Rahm Emanuel
Rahm Emanuel (House.gov)

Cardenas' posturing may signal the potential for behind-the-scenes infighting within the Chicago Democratic Party--not to mention some good political theater. But it's unlikely to affect the outcome of Chicago's mayoral campaign considering that voters have watched Chicago's alderman kowtow to Mayor Daley for the past 21 years.

Emanuel is entering the mayoral race with significant advantages over other candidates. In just the first week of his campaign, the media attention surrounding Emanuel dominated the news in Chicago, far outweighing the combined coverage of all other candidates.

Also to Emanuel's advantage will be the limited ability of other candidates to raise money. Daley spent nearly $5 million on his 2007 mayoral campaign, and he barely faced a challenger. Any viable candidate will have to raise a substantially larger sum to contend this time around.

Emanuel is beginning his run with $1.2 million in campaign funds and a legendary reputation for raising money. Emanuel led Bill Clinton's campaign finance committee in the 1992 race for the White House, raising a then-record $72 million. A few years earlier, Emanuel was chief fundraiser for Daley's first mayoral victory. According to Chicago journalist Ben Joravsky writing for The American Prospect:

By all accounts, he made himself indispensable to the boss as a fundraiser, badgering, bullying or guilt-tripping the locals into giving money to Daley's campaign. It was then that Emanuel established his reputation as Rahmbo--the brash, arrogant and tempestuous assistant that political bosses use to get things done.

Some people have tried to cast Emanuel as an outsider to Chicago--his qualifications to run for mayor were even challenged due to his recent residency in Washington, D.C. But Emanuel's roots in Chicago politics are deep--dating back to the 1985 congressional campaign of David Robinson and running through to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempt to sell Barack Obama's open Senate seat. In 2002, it was the congressional seat left empty by Blagojevich that Emanuel won and held for two terms.

Emanuel worked on Blagojevich's first campaign for governor--and the questions surrounding Emanuel's relationship with Blagojevich could lead Rahm to have to testify in the ex-governor's upcoming retrial, set for this coming January. According to Mark Guarino of the Christian Science Monitor:

It is an image that his campaign is already trying to downplay, a challenge in the months ahead. Emanuel's name is expected to make many appearances during the retrial of Mr. Blagojevich, whose first trial on extortion, racketeering and conspiracy charges ended in August and resulted in a hung jury on all but a single charge.

DURING HIS time as mayor, Richard Daley successfully moved large portions of the Chicago Democratic machine's strength off the streets and into the corporate boardrooms, giving more power and a greater voice to Chicago's major corporations than traditional ward bosses.

This is likely to give Emanuel an advantage. Despite his lack of a strong political base in Chicago, he will likely get the backing of the city's business community. According to Adam Doster of the Daily Beast:

Since Daley announced his retirement, Emanuel hasn't done much to dispel concerns about his mayoral ties. White House visitor logs show that Rahm has met with a cavalcade of Daley allies during the past 18 months. They include the mayor's brother William Daley and officials from William Blair & Company, the architects of Daley's infamous parking meter lease deal. Big Daley donors like real-estate tycoon Neil Bluhm and billionaire Hyatt Hotel chair Penny Pritzker are friendly with Emanuel, too.

A vast pool of candidates have either declared a run for the mayor's office or have said they're exploring the idea. But outside of Emanuel, none of the potential candidate has been able to muster much attention. And none--including Emanuel--have begun to even remotely address any of the numerous issues that plaque Chicago, including the city's budget gap, the foreclosure crisis, crumbling infrastructure and the ever-decreasing access to public services.

The list of over a dozen potential candidates includes former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, Alderman Miguel Del Valle and Rev. James Meeks.

Meeks has a base among African Americans and has already boasted that he has twice the required signatures to put him on the ballot. But his anti-gay rights and anti-abortion stances aren't likely to win him the votes he'll need to become mayor. Neither will his stance toward Chicago's teachers. Meeks stated last April, "The biggest gang problem in Chicago is the Chicago Teachers Union."

Del Valle was the first out of the gates with a campaign video and could garner a large portion of the Latino vote, but he has little in the way of campaign funds. Gutiérrez has begun to explore the idea of running for mayor. He is collecting signatures and has a relationship with Chicago's immigrant rights community, but he hasn't stepped forward as a serious contender yet.

Chicago is central to the Democratic Party. Without it, the election of Barack Obama as president is unimaginable. And facing what is likely to be a grueling reelection campaign in 2012, the Democrats can hardly afford to have the Chicago party embroiled in infighting.

Obama's top political adviser David Axelrod, an ally of Emanuel, has already announced that he will be heading back to Chicago this coming spring to begin overseeing Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.

So there are a lot of early signals that would seem to make Rahm Emanuel a good bet as Chicago's next mayor. But Emanuel isn't likely to sit well with most Chicagoans.

Emanuel was the person assigned to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement when he worked for Bill Clinton White House. A decade and a half later, when confronted with the fact that tens of thousands of autoworkers would loss their jobs during the restructuring of General Motors, he replied with the words: "Fuck the UAW"--and then helped the Obama administration see through the further humiliation of the once-powerful United Auto Workers union.

The current mayor at least pretended to be a friend of labor while attacking public-sector workers. With public-sector workers' pensions and pay continually under attack, Emanuel's openly hostile views toward organized labor could lead to explosive tensions and conflicts in traditionally pro-union Chicago.

Emanuel's stance on immigration could also alienate him from possible supporters. Chicago is a "sanctuary city" for the undocumented and the home of a large and vibrant immigrant's rights community. Rahm had previously cautioned the Obama administration that the issue of immigration was "the third rail of American politics."

His run for mayor has already generated a protest outside City Hall, put together by Frente Unido Pro Inmigrantes (United Front For Immigrants). At the protest, Guillermo Gomez of the Mexican Political Organization stated to the Chicago News Cooperative, "Latinos in Chicago are a viable political force that will be decisive in the upcoming mayoral election... We will work day and night to remind Latino voters of the role Emanuel has played in immigration and the human suffering that it has caused."

Likewise, Emanuel is unlikely to lend a sympathetic ear to those in Chicago struggling with foreclosure. After serving in Clinton's White House, Emanuel worked as an investment banker and was appointed by Clinton to the board of directors at the government-backed Freddie Mac. During his tenure, Freddie Mac was engaged in attacking federal legislation on home loans and cooking the books.

According to the Chicago Tribune, "They manipulated bookkeeping to smooth out volatility, perpetuating Freddie Mac's industry reputation as "Steady Freddie," a reliable producer of earnings growth. Wall Street liked what it saw, Freddie Mac's stock value soared and top executives collected their bonuses." And in the end, Emanuel made of $320,000 from his short stint at Freddie Mac.

AN "ANYBODY but Rahm" movement has already begun in Chicago and is likely to grow. Well before Emanuel's announcement, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee started an online petition that reads in part, "I will not support Rahm Emanuel in any future election for Congress, Mayor of Chicago, Governor or other office...He sold us out on the public option and is a weak Democrat who caves instead of fighting conservatives and corporate power. We won't forget the choices you've made, Rahm."

While a visceral reaction to a Rahm Emanuel mayoral campaign is well understood, an Anybody but Rahm campaign is unlikely to lead to any conversation about the issues facing Chicago or help build the networks required to challenge power in the city. Unfortunately, an independent progressive alternative to the Democratic Machine has not emerged--and it is unlikely to without a larger and broader movement in Chicago, not mention the limited time available to collect signatures for the February mayoral primary.

The task ahead for Chicago progressives is to maintain an independent base that continues to challenge the current policies in place in Chicago--equally pressuring all those contending to be Chicago's next mayor.

In its absence, real answers to Chicago's budget crisis, the issue of ongoing privatization, crumbling neighborhoods and infrastructure, TIF funding (that sets aside a multi-million dollar slush fund for the mayor to spend with no oversight), the attack on the Chicago Teachers Union, and a multitude of equal important issues will continue to go unaddressed.

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