David Spielfogel — Mayor Emanuel’s go-to guy — is ‘mini-Rahm’
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter February 27, 2014 9:41PM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his senior adviser David Spielfogel. |Brooke Collins/ City of Chicago
Updated: April 1, 2014 10:29AM
On the day in June 2011 when civil unions became legal in Illinois, Mayor Rahm Emanuel performed one of Chicago’s first for the man who would become his alter ego at City Hall.
Then-chief policy adviser David Spielfogel legally cemented his decadelong partnership with Lee Crandell, then a top official at the Active Transportation Alliance, which shares the mayor’s affinity for bike lanes, bike-sharing and pedestrian-friendly streets.
“We had had a very, very long engagement. We were tired of waiting. I told [Emanuel] we were very excited to do it, and he said he would love to, so we took him up on it,” said Spielfogel, 36, who has since been promoted to senior adviser to the mayor.
“It was maybe 15 minutes, and we were in a meeting immediately back to work,” he said.
Welcome to the workaholic world of Rahm Emanuel’s go-to guy.
Spielfogel is not only the mayor’s intellectual match — without the ego to go with it — he’s the brains and execution behind virtually every one of the mayor’s policy initiatives, from ethics reform and ride-sharing to petcoke and the drive to raise $50 million over five years for jobs, mentoring and recreation programs for at-risk kids.
Emanuel rarely makes a move without consulting him.
“Since David joined my campaign in its first few weeks, he’s helped me to shape city hall’s agenda on every major priority. Our first discussion in 2010 was about a range of ways to break from the past and move this city forward . . . Whether on the campaign, or running my transition team, or now in city hall, I have come to value David’s opinions, insight, advice and focus,” Emanuel said via e-mail.
Spielfogel’s father, Keith, said about his son: “If I call, he doesn’t answer. If the mayor calls, he answers.”
David Spielfogel’s cellphone starts ringing with calls from the mayor shortly after Emanuel completes his predawn workout. It doesn’t stop ringing until 10 p.m. each night — and only because they’re both such early risers. Spielfogel routinely rides his bike or jogs to work from his home in Lake View.
“There’s a special relationship there. He’s almost like Rahm’s alter ego, a mini-Rahm: studious, geeky, Jewish,” said a co-worker who asked to remain anonymous. “David is able to whip together a program that triangulates politics, communications and policy. The mayor has a special affection for that because that’s what the mayor does. The mayor relies on him heavily.”
Crandell added, “He’s always on. Always working. It’s a challenge when a job is that demanding.”
Like Emanuel, Spielfogel comes from a family of overachievers.
His mother is Dr. Carol Ober, a Ph.D. and chairman of the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago.
His father, Keith, is a criminal defense attorney who recently defended former Chicago Police Officer Steve Mandell against charges of building a torture chamber to castrate, mutilate and murder a businessman whom Mandell was allegedly trying to extort. A federal jury found Mandell guilty of those charges, though he was acquitted in a separate, similar alleged plot.
After graduating from the University of Chicago Lab School, the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the London School of Economics, Spielfogel worked as an energy and environmental policy aide in the Clinton White House.
A two-year stint as chief of staff for the MacArthur Foundation was sandwiched between four political campaigns: Howard Dean’s crash-and-burn 2000 presidential race; Barack Obama’s winning 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate and Alexi Giannoulias’ failed Senate race in 2010.
On the night Giannoulias conceded to Republican Mark Kirk, Spielfogel was with the losing candidate until 2 a.m. Six hours later, he joined Emanuel’s mayoral campaign.
The political marriage was arranged by John Kupper, Emanuel’s longtime political consultant, who had worked together with Spielfogel on Obama’s Senate campaign.
Spielfogel said his first meeting with Emanuel was “a rapid-fire 25 minutes on a lot of ideas he had and how we would package those together to fit his overarching” themes: safer streets, better schools and “investing heavily” in Chicago’s aging infrastructure.
“He’s everything everybody says he is,” Spielfogel recalled when asked about his first impression of the mayor.
“But, despite what people say, he’s pretty collaborative when it comes to new ideas and how to make them reality,” he said.
Giannoulias said he advised his deputy campaign manager to take a break before jumping head-first into another pressure-packed campaign. But Spielfogel didn’t listen.
“Typical Spielfogel, he wanted to be part of a campaign of someone he really believed in and move the city forward,” Giannoulias said.
“David is one of the most gifted and competent individuals I have ever worked with,” he said. “It’s a rare combination of being truly intelligent, but also having a huge heart and genuinely caring about public policy. He’s a true believer. He’s under the radar. But he’s very influential and one of the greatest hidden gems of this city.”
Crandell said what attracted him to Spielfogel was his curiosity, his passion to “do something valuable and helpful to society” and his terrific sense of humor.
“He has an incredible ability to handle stress and not take things too personally, which is kind of essential for being in a position like that and working with the mayor,” said Crandell, now the Special Service Area program director for the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce.
“He’s easy to get along with and very likable,” he said. “Everybody who meets him wants David to like them.”
Keith Spielfogel said acting was his son’s “thing” as a kid growing up in Rogers Park — at Evanston’s Piven Theater and at the Court Theater at the University of Chicago. He thought David would pursue a career as an actor or a writer.
But a trip to Africa after graduating with his master’s degree from the London School of Economics was a “motivating experience” for David, his father said.
“If I’m doing the dishes, he wants to turn off the water after each dish. The environment is critical to him. That sense of realizing how fortunate we are in this country has permeated him,” Keith Spielfogel said.
“People expect him to always have this far-left or left-of-center position. But you never get it like that. He has an incredibly practical mind. When you approach an issue, it’s always what the sides are talking about and what makes sense,” he said. “That always amazes me. He can be unpredictable.”
David Spielfogel is the most influential of a large number of openly gay employees in the Emanuel administration.
He had a girlfriend all through college “who I loved,” and he came out after graduation, because, “I’m not sure I knew” before then.
Although his own family was “very accepting,” Spielfogel said the fact that he’s gay gives him a unique and important perspective when it comes to making policy.
“It makes me more sensitive to the feeling among different groups that they’re not included in progress or don’t feel like they have a stake in decisions,” he said.
“Whether you’re gay, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re part of a minority group, there are times when you feel like your voice doesn’t want to be heard solely because of something that’s biological for you. There’s an extra sensitivity there.”