PI Original Adam Doster and Micah Maidenberg Thursday September 9th, 2010, 4:17pm

The Case Against Rahm (VIDEO)

Rahm Emanuel may be the odds-on favorite to replace Mayor Daley at Chicago's City Hall. If elected, would he be a progressive mayor? We take a close look at his resume.

There is no shortage of local politicians and government officials crowing to reporters that they are thinking about running to serve as the next mayor of Chicago, a post left wide open following Mayor Richard Daley's bombshell retirement announcement Tuesday. Amidst the swirl of talk, one name has risen to the top on many lists of serious contenders: Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel, currently serving as President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff, hasn't been shy about expressing his interest in occupying the fifth floor of City Hall. Indeed, some in the press are already treating Emanuel's return to Chicago as essentially a done deal. "Daley's retirement likely to lure Emanuel from White House" a headline in the Tribune declared Wednesday. The powerful former congressman and Democratic Party political operative has made no formal confirmation himself.

Over at Crain's, pundit Greg Hinz recently called Emanuel a "tier one" candidate because because of his fundraising acumen and, interestingly, his style: "[H]e's a superb fundraiser, one with national connections who likely would pull in $10 million in a couple of months," Hinz wrote. "Two, he fits the Daley profile -- knowledgeable, brassy, Teflon-covered, capable of making the Big Decision -- and that gives him natural allies in the mayor's inner circle and in the business community."

That characterization sounds about right; Emanuel has long been connected to Daley and the business community and has a reputation, like the current mayor, as an aggressive politician. It also begs an important question: Does Chicago need another mayor in the Daley mold?

Below is our attempt to paint a broad picture of Emanuel's career. Like some other elected officials who are already started to dent Emanuel's purported Teflon armor, we think there's a lot in this biography that should make Chicago progressives nervous about the prospects of a Rahm mayoral run.

An Early Dose Of Politics

Emanuel's entrance into politics is intertwined with Chicago's retiring mayor. In the late 1980s, with the city reeling from the death of Harold Washington and scuffling under the leadership of former Ald. Eugene Sawyer, Emanuel saw in Daley Junior a political figure whose connections ran deep and whose ceiling was immense. Ben Joravksy explains how the two joined forces:

Emanuel was no dummy. He knew Daley would defeat Sawyer and, once in office, would probably rule for life -- just like his father, the late Richard J. Daley. So Emanuel did what any bright and ambitious young politico would do -- he signed on with Daley. 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.

Rahm parlayed that success into a job with Bill Clinton, first as a fundraiser and later as an administration policy advisor, a position he held until 1998. During his White House tenure, Emanuel was instrumental in the passage of legislation that required centrist votes. That included the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade deal that displaced thousands of manufacturing jobs and was fought heavily by organized labor. "We were a very determined administration," Emanuel told Frontline. "We made a lot of compromises to get NAFTA passed and a lot of deals to get NAFTA passed. Did we cave in or not? We got it done."

Emanuel also had a hand in the 1996 welfare reform fight, which was politically beneficial for the party but which stripped away aid to poor people who were unable to find adequate employment, a decision whose repercussions were felt only when the national economy bottomed out.

The Lucrative Years

By 1999, Emanuel left Washington to follow "a well-trodden gilded path out of politics and into the lucrative world of business," according to a 2008 story in the New York Times. Rahm's choice was investment banking. "Putting together deals -- arranging mergers and acquisitions, which is essentially what an investment banker does -- is not unlike overseeing the passage of legislation," Emanuel told the Chicago Reader in 2002.

Emanuel, now outside of the public sector for the first time in years, took a position with the Chicago-based firm Wasserstein, Perella & Company. In just over two years, he made more than $18 million, the Times reports. Emanuel essentially served as a rainmaker for the firm, pounding the phones and drumming up deals. His connections to Mayor Daley and the broader world of Democratic Party politics certainly helped:

The clients included Loral Space & Communications, run by Bernard L. Schwartz, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, who said he got to know Mr. Emanuel while he was in the White House; the Chicago Board Options Exchange, whose chairman and chief executive, William J. Brodsky, became friends with Mr. Emanuel while he was working for Mayor Daley; and Avolar, a business aviation company whose top executive, Stuart I. Oran, was formerly in charge of governmental affairs for United Airlines, a role in which he said he interacted with Mr. Emanuel at the White House.

One of Emanuel's major deals involved purchasing a home alarm business called SecurityLink from SBC Communications, which was then run by William Daley, the former Commerce Secretary under President Clinton and, of course, Mayor Daley's brother.

In 2000, another opportunity came Emanuel's way. Outgoing President Bill Clinton appointed Emanuel to the mortgage giant Freddie Mac's Board of Directors. The 14 months he served on Freddie's board proved a cozy sinecure for Emanuel. He wasn't listed as a member of any board committees, but was rather described as teaching board members how to "play the levers of power," according to a Tribune investigation. Emanuel and other new directors were immediately granted stock and options plus a $20,000 annual fee upon joining the group; he earned at least $320,000 from the company, a number that doesn't include an additional sale of Freddie stock, the Tribune found. Not bad for a board that met no more than six times annually.

And during those meetings? The Tribune describes Freddie's board during Emanuel's tenure as more than willing to ratify questionable practices by the company's top managers. Emanuel himself was never accused of any specific wrongdoing but an investigation into Freddie's board by Armando Falcon, the director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, is summarized thusly:

Falcon concluded that the board of directors on which Emanuel sat was so pliant that Freddie Mac's managers easily were able to massage company ledgers. 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.

Fixing Freddie Mac, along with mortgage backer and holder Fannie Mae, is expected to cost taxpayers no less than $160 billion and possibly up to $1 trillion when all is said and done, Bloomberg News reported this summer.

During Emanuel's time on Freddie's board, the company sought to bolster its political clout in Washington and ward off regulation. The increased focus on politics ultimately led the Federal Election Commission to levy a $3.8 million fine against Freddie "for illegally using corporate resources to host fundraisers for politicians." 

Emanuel, in turn, "was the beneficiary of one of those parties after he left the board and ran in 2002 for a seat in Congress from the North Side of Chicago." But most of them, the Tribune piece points out, benefited Republican candidates.

A Run For Congress

After his stint in investment banking and as a Freddie Mac director, Emanuel decided to run for Congress in Illinois' 5th Congressional District, a political territory that covers a swath of the North Side of Chicago and the northwest suburbs. He was, in many ways, an atypical candidate for the office. Ben Joravsky, in a 2002 profile of Emanuel's campaign published in the Chicago Reader, noted that most would-be Chicago pols "push the notion that they're neighborhood guys":

They point to the parks where they played, the high schools they graduated from. But Emanuel isn't a neighborhood guy. He didn't grow up in Ravenswood, North Center, Albany Park, Portage Park, Dunning, Belmont Cragin, or any of the other communities that make up the Fifth District. He didn't play ball at Welles or Portage or Hamlin park and didn't go to Lane Tech, Steinmetz, Lakeview, Roosevelt, or Prosser. He didn't even attend a local college or university.

The lack of 5th District connections was something that could have hurt Emanuel's image in the district. But he also needed volunteers to get the vote out for him in the Democratic Party primary. Nancy Kaszak, general counsel at the park district when Mayor Harold Washington was in office, was fighting Emanuel for the seat. Once again, Emanuel's connections to Mayor Daley proved crucial.

Emanuel, according to news reports, benefited from city employees who traded political work for raises, promotions, and overtime doled out by Donald Tomczak, the convicted former head of the Department of Water. "City Hall officials ordered the city's top water boss, Donald Tomczak, to marshal his political army of city workers for Mayor Daley, Congressman Rahm Emanuel and other politicians," is how the Sun-Times put it in a May 2005 piece published as part of the newspaper's exhaustive investigation into Daley's corrupt Hired Truck Program. Ben Joravksy, writing in 2008, remembers the scene from his neighborhood: 

The mayor brought out the pay rollers to make sure that Emanuel steamrolled his opposition. I happen to live in the district and I remember the fellows on the sidewalks outside the polling places on Election Day. Beefy boys with thick necks and fat bellies, they passed out palm cards that pretty much said, "Vote for Emanuel -- or else!"

Emanuel told the Sun-Times in 2005 he did not know Tomczak, saying, "If they ever did any political work on public time, that's wrong." But questions about Emanuel's connections to Tomczak and the political army he controlled are expected to come up should the chief of staff toss his hat into the ring for the empty mayoral chair.

On The Hill

After being elected to represent the Northwest Side in Congress, Emanuel voted like one might expect a mainstream Democrat to vote. During the 109th Congress, which spanned from 2005 to 2007, VoteView ranked Emanuel as the 108th most liberal member of the lower chamber, having broken with his party only 8 percent of the time. He voted against the second round of Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and the restrictive immigration bill that passed the House in 2005. His record on the environment is respectable and NARAL gave him a 100 percent ranking for his pro-choice stances. In 2005, he even co-sponsored the "Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2005," which is an issue Daley has campaigned on for years. In other words, Emanuel didn't really rock the boat in the halls of the Capitol.

Rahm's two notable accomplishments during his stint in Congress where the publication of his 2006 book "The Plan" (co-authored with Democratic Leadership Council CEO Bruce Reed) and his work as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 election cycle. His book attempted, in the words of the author, "to offer a bold vision of what America can be." What resulted was a laundry list of policies E.J. Dionne called "plausible" and "middle-ground": compulsory national service for all Americans under 25, universal health insurance for children (but not everyone), alternative energy production (but no cap on carbon), and modest progressive tax reforms.

In late 2005, Emanuel took over at the DCCC. During the following election cycle, he aggressively recruited Democrats he favored to take on vulnerable Republicans and proceeded to dump huge quantities of money into those "winnable races." The strategy paid off for the party; Democrats gained 31 seats and took back control of the chamber.

The long-term effect of Emanuel's tactical approach is less clear-cut. Although the candidates Emanuel backed actually weren't all that more conservative than the party as a whole, he did fight for some centrist figures at the expense of progressive candidates who had a real shot at victory. Christine Cegelis, who was defeated in Illinois' 6th Congressional District Democratic primary by the well-funded Tammy Duckworth, is a prime example. Emanuel never fully embraced Howard Dean's 50-start strategy, either, which some progressive commentators say laid the grassroots groundwork for the election of Emanuel's current boss. "For him," wrote Dan Froomkin earlier this year, "victory is everything -- even if you have to give up your core values to win, and even if you could have won while sticking to them."

Emanuel jumped so quickly into his party's leadership circle in part because of his fundraising prowess, which was directly connected to the relationships he developed with the financial services community before he was elected. During the 2008 election cycle, Emanuel was the top House recipient of contributions from hedge funds, private equity firms, and the larger securities/investment industry. Those groups stuffed his warchest during his six years in office with $1.5 million in funds, money he didn't need for a re-election bid in his safe Democratic district.

Back In The West Wing

As President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Emanuel hasn't been shy about expressing his distate for progressives in and outside of the Democratic Party, in his usual florid style.

During discussions about the auto industry bailout, Emanuel reportedly responded to news that doing nothing to boost the sagging domestic auto manufacturers would put "hundreds of thousands of people out of work" by saying, "F--- the UAW." Earlier this year, he called liberal activists "f------ retarded." Pointedly, he apologized to the head of the Special Olympics for the outburst, but not to liberals.

Policy-wise, progressives have questioned why Emanuel let centrist Democratic Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) negotiate the health care reform bill for months with recalcitrant Republican Senators. Emanuel downplayed the importance of a public option in the legislation, too. That prompted the the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to release an ad last December in the Chicago market blasting Emanuel for "undermining" the public option:

It doesn't stop with health care. Progressives have criticized the way Emanuel handled the stimulus bill for the Obama Administration. Immigration advocates are frustrated with Emanuel's stance on the issue; he advised Obama successfully to wait until this fall's election is over before taking on a reform package. With Republicans poised to take at least one chamber in Congress, the caution may not mean further stasis on the issue.

Emanuel has defended his strategy and tactics, insisting his critics on the stimulus bill, for example, don't understand the realities of passing legislation. That hasn't staunched calls for Obama to fire him.


Throughout his nearly 20-year career in politics, Emanuel has spent virtually no time working at the municipal level. That makes it nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy what type of issues he'd prioritize as the mayor of Chicago. The best we can do this early in the game is guess. We know that as a congressmen and party operative, Rahm has a history of liberal moderation. As he raises money for an expensive campaign and gets his feet wet on the fifth floor should he win, he's also likely to rely on the same financial and political insiders who have disproportionately benefited from Daley's tenure.

Emanuel doesn't have the familial legacy or personal relationships the current mayor boasts, which could create space for a bit more independence on the City Council. But for progressives ready to turn the page on the Daley dynasty and focus more energy and resources supporting the city's struggling neighborhoods, its going to take a lot of promises from Rahm to earn their vote.

Full Disclosure: A top official with the SEIU Illinois State Council, which sponsors this website, told the Chicago News Cooperative yesterday that he thinks Emanuel would cater to the city's business community.


Log in or register to post comments