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Brown: Rahm Emanuel’s new political role: Raising money — and red flags

President Barack Obamhugs outgoing White House Chief Staff Rahm Emanuel White House October 2010. Now Emanuel is soliciting big donations

President Barack Obama hugs outgoing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel at the White House in October 2010. Now Emanuel is soliciting big donations on behalf of SuperPACs that back Obama's re-election. | Susan Walsh~AP file photo

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:31AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the next two months, Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to spend part of his time soliciting political campaign donations in unlimited amounts from big corporations and wealthy individuals.

If he were raising money in this manner for his own campaign fund, it would be a clear violation of state and local fund-raising laws that limit the size of contributions.

Instead, the mayor will be seeking donations on behalf of SuperPACs supporting the re-election of President Barack Obama and Democratic candidates for Congress — for which there now are no limits under a controversial Supreme Court ruling.

That makes it legal. It doesn’t make it right.

While the focus in the news last week was on Emanuel stepping down from his honorary role as co-chairman of the Obama campaign to avoid any conflict with his new fund-raising duties, I’m wondering why nobody sees a conflict with his very real role as Mayor of Chicago.

Theoretically, Emanuel is now free to solicit six- and seven-figure campaign donations from companies doing business (or who might like to do business) with the City of Chicago — the same folks for whom he is prohibited by city ordinance from taking more than $3,000 a year for his own political funds.

Now, do I expect city contractors are the first people Emanuel had in mind when he took on these fund-raising chores for the Democrats nationally?

Not at all. I would expect he’s going to turn first to the same national network of super-rich businessmen that he’s cultivated over many years — on behalf of congressional candidates, President Bill Clinton, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Obama and himself.

But if you happened to be among the group of people always looking for a way to cozy up to Chicago’s mayor — and there is an endless supply no matter who is holding the office — this would sure be your opportunity to score some points.

“Whenever a public official takes on a private obligation like that, it does raise red flags,” observed David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which helped enact the state contribution limits.

The public would have a dickens of a time connecting the dots, which clearly goes against the purpose of our campaign finance disclosure laws. Donations to SuperPACs must be disclosed, but there will be no way to know if it was Emanuel who brought in the money.

Neither the mayor’s press office nor his political team would even offer any assurances Friday they will alert the news media if he makes out-of-town trips to attend fund-raising events as part of his new responsibilities. In the past, Emanuel has tended to be less than forthcoming about that sort of thing.

Emanuel’s defenders would argue he is in demand on the fund-raising circuit because of his national star status as Obama’s ex-chief of staff as well as a former adviser to Clinton, more than his position with the city.

I would argue the fact he is the sitting mayor of Chicago very much lends to his stature when he “makes The Ask” — as they say in the fund-raising world.

“The Ask” has been Emanuel’s forte from his earliest days with Daley’s 1989 campaign, when he called together a meeting of top donors and told them he expected each to come up with $100,000 — which was real money then.

It was that same chutzpah, now multiplied by inflation, that allowed him not to blink while drumming up $1 million donations from major Chicago area corporations to underwrite bringing the NATO summit here earlier this year.

When Emanuel revealed his new fund-raising role last week, many were saying this now makes him the Democratic Party’s counterpart to Republican guru Karl Rove, whose Crossroads groups have helped tilt the fund-raising picture heavily in the GOP’s favor during this election cycle.

There’s one big difference that jumps out at me. Emanuel is an elected official. Rove is not. Creep that he may be, Rove has no obligations to anyone but himself. Emanuel is responsible to Chicagoans.

To be clear, the issue with me is not whether the time and effort Emanuel is devoting to political activity will keep him from fulfilling his duties as mayor. My problem is with him plunging into this new netherworld of unlimited donations without so much as a nod to the ethical implications for his day job.

As the mayor asserted in his own defense last week, he is fully capable of multitasking — although if Chicago teachers go on strike Monday, he might want to rethink his plans to appear that afternoon at an Illinois fund-raiser for the House Majority PAC, one of the federal SuperPACs he now plans to assist.

Wouldn’t be prudent.

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