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Bill’s candidacy, David’s mustache

David Axelrod William Daley guest speakers MisericordiHome Tuesday January 15 2013. l John H. White~Sun-Times photo

David Axelrod and William Daley, guest speakers at Misericordia Home, Tuesday, January 15, 2013. l John H. White~Sun-Times photo

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Updated: February 17, 2013 6:24AM

Fancy fund-raising breakfasts usually start with a prayer — more toward generic gratitude if it’s a secular crowd, peppering in a few references to “God” or even “Jesus” if it’s a just-us-faithful gathering.

Attendees picking at their fresh fruit cups — those of us who still eat at these things — generally don’t hang on every word of the prayer, and at the Misericordia breakfast Tuesday I was only half listening as the Rev. Jack Clair spoke of the organization’s devotion to helping people with development disabilities live the most fulfilling lives they can.

Then he did something that caught my attention. Noting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was sitting front and center — nibbling oatmeal specially ordered for him, not the icing-dribbled cinnamon-swirl french toast, cheese cubes, sweet rolls, omelets, bacon and sausages troughed out for the gluttonous herd — he reached under the podium and withdrew a goblet of water.

“Every time I see the mayor, he asks me the same question: ‘How is the water over there?’ ” said Clair, raising the glass. “A toast. Mr. Mayor, we spared no expense.”

Kind of an edgy joke. You know an issue is sensitive when it pops up in the invocation, including a visual aid no less. In the 2011 budget, you may remember, the mayor ended the water bill exemption for “any charitable, religious or educational institution.” The bills have gone out, but the matter is not yet over — City Council powerhouse Ald. Ed Burke has spoken out against it, and in December the council proposed legislation to undo it. Misericordia is a Catholic institution run by the fearless Sister Rosemary Connelly, and the mayor was in her house now.

Yet one would not expect Rahm Emanuel to cave in, and he didn’t. He came prepared. After Clair finished, it was his turn to speak.

“I watched that tax fight that President Obama had at the end of the year,” Emanuel began. “I wanted to make sure I got my first, most important charitable contribution under the wire.”

Here he reached under the podium for his own prop — a gallon jug of spring water — and handed it over, to general laughter. “I gave with one hand and took away with the other.” Not quite mocking them, but close.

The interplay got yucks, but the issue is serious. The city figures it can save $20 million by charging religious institutions for city water — the institutions, which are suffering under the same wobbly economy the city is, feel both injury and insult, particularly in the case of Misericordia, which is already owed $22 million in back payments from the deadbeat state and balky feds. So while two branches of government drag their feet on paying their debts for services already rendered, a third decides to glibly shut off a tap that has been flowing freely, quite literally, for decades.

“We are facing some financial problems and challenges,” said Connelly. “The climate has changed, radically.”

Not that I’m lobbying for free city services for religious institutions. Church and state are supposed to be separate, remember? Maybe places that provide vital human services, like Misericordia, could continue to get discounts, while those merely providing clerics with droid armies of religious zealots to pressure politicians should have to pay.

President Barack Obama’s former major domo, David Axelrod, was there, showing off his newly mustacheless upper lip, an alarming development Emanuel summed up perfectly.

“I’ve known David for 30 years, and this whole mustache thing is a little much,” the mayor said. “I’m thinking of having a fund-raiser to grow it back. It’s like looking at the guy naked. I’ll do anything to help him grow it back.” (Write me down for a $100 pledge, Mr. Mayor — put the money toward Misericordia’s water bill. Our children are exposed to enough horror on TV).

“Bill’s thinking about running for governor,” Emanuel said, referring to Bill Daley. “I can see it now — free Misericordia. Free water. Vote Daley.”

Asked directly if he is indeed running for governor, the most compos mentis of the Daley brothers continued playing coy.

“I am giving it a lot of thought,” Daley said, shifting into a joke about being reluctant to owe Sister Rosemary that amount of money.

But later, in discussing the multitude of woes facing the state beyond owing Misericordia, he added something perhaps telling.

“This is not an easy job,” Daley said, referring to politics. “Legislators, aldermen, the mayor. These people sacrifice beyond anything in the private sector. I’ve spent my life around politics. It’s a brutal job, a brutal existence.”

Telling, though I’m not sure what it tells. Does that mean he’ll skip the baby-bussing nightmare of campaigning, preferring the far more private, more lucrative corporate world where he excels? Or is Daley laying the groundwork for his selfless sacrifice of actually running? My guess? He won’t run.

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