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Q&A with Rahm Emanuel: His first Chicago interview

Mayor Rahm Emanuel  |  Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times files

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His conversations with Rod Blagojevich and the convicted former governor's chief-of-staff were captured on federal wiretaps, but Rahm Emanuel insists that all he ever offered Blagojevich was "thanks and appreciation."

He concedes that there may well be a "Stop Rahm" movement among some veteran Democratic ward bosses who favor a strong Council and weak mayor, but says he longs for a "fresh start" with more input and collaboration from the City Council.

For the first time since he returned to Chicago to launch his campaign for mayor, the former White House chief-of-staff agreed to an in-depth interview and answered every question posed to him about the controversies that have surrounded his candidacy.

He was characteristically combative. Sometimes, he got downright annoyed with the questions.

But, he fielded them all for more than an hour, offering a glimpse into the kind of candidate and mayor he intends to be, if he's lucky enough to survive legal questions about his residency and the grueling campaign to follow.

Q. In the middle of the campaign, Rod Blagojevich will be retried. You're on tapes. You may be called as a witness. What can you tell voters about your dealings with Rod Blagojevich -- about the Senate seat and the North Side school you wanted to build-

A. I provided a list of four credible candidates that the president said could be potential U.S. Senate candidates ... When asked, what's in it for the governor, I'm the one [who] said, "All you're gonna get is thanks and appreciation." Then, you also know how the governor then responded to that.

Q. But, why were you wheeling and dealing about names anyway- Was that appropriate-

A. That's a characterization. They're prosecuting the governor, correct- Am I [being prosecuted]-

Q. In a sense, you were also a victim with the school. What happened with that-

A. I was fighting to get a new high school established -- the Chicago Teaching Academy, the first of its kind in the country. ... I made a pledge and I had secured the resources. ... The funds weren't forthcoming and I kept pushing. ... They tried to hold those resources until I helped them with fund-raising, which I did not do. Any attempt to extract or get something for them ... was also summarily rejected. I rejected both times any overture.

Q. Is it uncomfortable to know the trial will come up in the middle of the campaign- Does that embarrass you -- being on tape, being on the witness stand-

A. No. The facts will speak for themselves. Both times, any overture was rejected ... That's why I have no problem. The public will see those facts.

Q. Did you use four-letter words to say, "no"-

A. I can't remember.

Q. Do you think questions about your residency will resolved in your favor-

A. The Board of Elections will resolve it. ... We should talk about the key issues and not use this as a smokescreen to avoid the key issues. ... This is old politics of trying to limit choices for the voters, rather than giving them choices. This is an old game and an old set of politics.

Q. Even if that's resolved, you're still someone who has spent the last decade in Washington.

A. That's not true. ... I was born in Chicago. I lived in Chicago until my parents moved to Wilmette. ... I went to college and I moved back Chicago. ... I worked in Chicago for ten years, then moved to Washington for two. I moved back to Chicago. After my service to President Clinton, I didn't stay in Washington. I moved with my wife and my two young kids back to the city of Chicago. ... My family lived here while I represented the city of Chicago in Congress.

Q. But, you are viewed by some as a Washington insider at a time when being a Washington insider could not be more unpopular. How do you sell that to voters who blame Washington-

A. I don't think anybody in Washington would see me as an insider. They saw me as someone who came in as a member of Congress to change it so we could could get a minimum wage passed, so we could get an extension of the children's health care bill passed.

Q. But, why do you need a listening tour to tell you what Chicagoans are thinking-

A. Why do I listen- Because every problem that ails the city of Chicago, the solution can be found in Chicago. When I do my listening tours, it's to make sure that if I'm lucky enough and fortunate enough to get the confidence of the peole to get to the fifth floor, I carry their voice, their concerns and their issues up there. It is an experience I would recommend to everybody seeking public office....I did [weekend] office hours at the grocery store, Congress on your Corner, and I will do Mayors on Your Corner [if elected].

Q. There's a Stop Rahm movement among many of the ward bosses. What do you think it's about-

A. That's for them to tell you. ... I'm not spending my time thinking about it. What I do know is about 20 seats for aldermen [could turn over]. You're gonna have an election for the first time in about two decades [without an incumbent mayor]. It will be a totally new Council and a totally new mayor. That's a fresh start for the city. Now, there may be some who say it's time to stop Rahm -- that's their right.

Q. What do you think they're stopping- Is it about the fact that you're a prolific fund-raiser and they're afraid of you or is it your personality-

A. You need to ask them. Why should I characterize it- You probably have talked to them. You probably could inform me.

Q. A lot of the aldermen feel liberated by Mayor Daley's impending retirement and they don't want another boss.

A. You can't repeat what the mayor did with the City Council and you can't go back to Council Wars. ... I want a new partnership. The challenges are big enough that the City Council should be a partner in solving them.

Q. In order to vote for someone, you have to like them. How do you like somebody who waves his middle finger at someone in a steam room-

A. That never happened.

Q. Your personality has been described as abrasive. How would you describe it-

A. I describe it as the ultimate middle-child. We wrote a book called, "War or Peace."... I am driven on behalf of the people I represent ... I will fight for Chicago -- not with Chicago. ... People who have worked with me have worked years with me. And there's a sense of deep loyalty.

Q. Hispanics blame you for thwarting immigration.

A. I'm both the son and the grandson of an immigrant. That is my story. It's the story I'm raising my children to appreciate. ... If you go back to my record, I have the exact same voting record on immigration reform as Luis Gutierrez. I've opposed Republican attempts to politicize it and I promoted and sponsored every year, comprehensive reform.

Q. Why didn't it happen in the two years you were chief-of-staff-

A. I don't deserve all the credit for children's health care. I don't deserve the credit single-handedly on universal health care happening. Nor does any one individual deserve the blame if something didn't happen.

Q. Unions blame you for NAFTA and for making the comment, 'F---- the UAW" during negotiations on the auto industry bailout.

A. I didn't just say it about one side of the ledger. I also said certain things about management. ... I asked the fundamental questions. ... It was a top-to-bottom scrub where the basic attitude was, everybody's gonna have skin in the game if we're gonna keep this company alive. And because of the restructuring, a company that was facing the end is a viable company.

Q. The political army of Donald Tomczak, the city's convicted former first deputy water commissioner, helped you get elected to Congress. Did you know soldiers in Tomczak's army were being illegally rewarded with jobs, promotions and overtime-

A. A, never met him. B, don't condone it. C, there were thousands of volunteers because of my life-long work on gun control and putting 100,000 police officers [on the street].

Q. Daley is balancing his final budget with one-shot revenues, making the next mayor's job more difficult. What should he have done- What would you do-

A. Look, this is a one-time deal. It's not a sustainable model going forward. You have to ask some fundamental questions about what government should do, what it should not do.

Q. Daley says the deal to privatize Midway Airport is ready to go, ready to be revived. Would you close it-

A. I'm not gonna address that with you right now.

Q. Privatizing Chicago parking meters was unbelievably controversial.

A. You think- (laughter)

Q. Would you have done it-

A. It's not helpful or productive to say, would I have done something in the past. It's done. What are we gonna do going forward- ... I want to ask fundamental questions: Should the city do this- Are there better ways to do it- There are questions that have not been asked about city services and city government and city structures since 1910 ... Inertia is the enemy of reform and this is going to be an era of reform.

Q. President Obama gave you a great send-off, but he's not as popular as he once was. What will come here to campaign for you-

A. I don't know. ... Whether he does or doesn't, I have to earn this myself.

Q. The Chicago Police Department is more than 2,300 officers-a-day short of authorized strength. Daley's budget provides 200. Not even close to the amount needed to keep pace with attrition. How many officers would you hire and where would you get the money-

A. There's no doubt you need more police on the street. We've got to find the resources. But in the meantime, there's other ways to do things to be more effective with what you have. ... Should we put probation officers in the cars with police officers so that, when gang bangers are in violation of their probation, we know how to be more aggressive about that violation in getting gang members off the streets.

Q. Police Supt. Jody Weis' contract expires March 1. Would you renew it-

A. It's clear to everybody that, when the superintendent and the rank-and-file are fighting, the gangs are winning the crime war -- and that's wrong ... You're not focusing on the safety of the streets. And the mayor has to provide some of that leadership so there's a focus on why we're all here.

Q. Does that mean Weis has to go-

A. No. What it means is, we have a problem. ... Just like city functions, you have to ask some core questions about people: Is this the best- Are we achieving what we need to achieve- And can we do better- That will be about people, functions and services.

Q. The city desperately needs new sources of revenue. Chicago has lost $1 billion in revenue in recent years. Are they any sources you could support- Casino gambling- A city income tax-

A. I would never sit there and talk about a city income tax until you ask some fundamental questions about the government. That's a ridiculous thing to do.

Q. After leaving the Clinton administration, you made a fortune in investment banking in a relatively short time. What will you say to those who characterize you as cashing in on your political connections-

A. I went to the private sector with the purpose to make money, so I could provide for my family. ... I didn't become a lobbyist. I didn't stay in Washington. I didn't write a book about my time with President Clinton and I'm not gonna write a book about my time with President Obama. I serve at their pleasure and it was an honor to serve the country. I chose to do something else ... so I could one day go back to public service. Other people will characterize it as they want. I made a set of choices.

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