Rahmbo Returns

Photo Illustration
Photo Illustration

Mark Halperin evaluates the prospect that Mr. Emanuel will be Chicago’s next mayor.

Rahm Emanuel didn’t leave his job as White House chief of staff to go back to Chicago and lose. He is not a shoo-in to be elected mayor next year, and he knows he’s entering an unruly arena that will make life in the West Wing seem genteel and predictable. In this case, Emanuel’s crystalline apprehension is one of his key strengths.

The reign of the Windy City’s current mayor, Richard M. Daley, has lasted twenty-one years; there hasn’t been a competitive contest for the slot in over a generation. After just a few days in the race, it is clear that Emanuel’s chances of winning are neither as good as his boosters believe nor as bad as his detractors suggest. This is going to be a fight.

Emanuel is under no illusions about the task at hand. As one of the top political operatives and fundraisers of his era, a former Illinois congressman whose district included Wrigley Field and who was a member of the Democratic House leadership, Emanuel is the polar opposite of na├»ve. He faces a February 22 non-partisan election ballot that will feature a long roster of combatants reflecting the town’s racial, ethnic, religious, class, and neighborhood fault lines and conflicts – and then, in all likelihood, a runoff with the other top vote-getter in April. His most formidable rivals at this point appear to be Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff and state senator James T. Meeks, an African-American reverend.

Rahmbo brings some serious assets to the contest: he is a fast-talking, larger-than-life tough guy with a national reputation in a city that respects and craves all those characteristics. His bid already has been the subject of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch and a New York Times front-page photo featuring a Chicago voter starting with surprise at the sight of the new candidate out on the campaign trail. Emanuel has no large electoral base, such as African-Americans or labor, but he expects to draw substantial votes from every bucket. And he has wasted no time starting to put together a campaign team of local and national all-star operatives.

His greatest advantage, other than his political savvy and steely intellect, might be money – not a surprise, since Emanuel began his rise to national prominence as the man who kept Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign afloat in 1992, maintaining the flow of donations even as controversies erupted over the candidate’s draft record and relationship with Gennifer Flowers. A new state law will subject mayoral candidates to their first ever contribution limits — $5,000 for individuals, $10,000 for businesses–but the measure doesn’t take effect until January 1, 2011. That means Emanuel’s quick start – and nationwide fundraising base – will allow him to amass several million dollars (to add to the more than one million he has left over from past campaigns) while his would-be opponents are still deciding whether to run. Amongst those expected to help round up cash for Rahm: his well-wired Hollywood agent brother Ari.

By launching his campaign early (to gather qualifying signatures, sign up Facebook supporters, and start fundraising), Emanuel has put a giant bulls-eye on his back, and there are plenty of people who are ready to fire. Local pols who have waited years for their own turn, or that of their tribal group, have made it plain that they aren’t going to bow down and kiss Rahm’s ring. Liberal activists, both nationally and locally, are salivating at the prospect of extracting revenge on all of Emanuel’s White House slights (some perceived and some very real, such as his push for more centrist positions). The Chicago political media, mirroring the city’s electoral tradition, is still as tough and unforgiving as ever, and has been scrutinizing Emanuel’s residency status and his ties to former governor Rod Blagojevich, whose retrial on federal charges is schedule to begin early in 2011.

Both Daley and Obama are long-time Emanuel allies, but neither has offered explicit backing. At Emanuel’s departure ceremony from the White House, the president didn’t endorse, but he did say his friend was “extraordinarily well-qualified” to be mayor. It is impossible to imagine Obama not weighing in more forcefully if Emanuel needs his help as election day approaches, but for now, an adviser says, “Rahm has made clear he has to go out and earn it himself, and that’s exactly what he intends to do.”

Related Topics: Analysis, Democratic Party

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