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Brown: Time for me to stop underestimating Rahm

Updated: March 22, 2011 5:50PM

The next mayor of Chicago cut his political teeth just out of college in the early 1980s as an organizer here for the Illinois Public Action Council, a group that sent workers door to door to solicit donations in support of populist causes.

That put Rahm Emanuel in the same orbit in those days with a young political reporter for the Sun-Times. We’d get lunch or shoot the breeze on the phone. Sometimes he’d push me to write about his issues. Sometimes we’d just talk politics. We kept in touch as he advanced rapidly from job to job, right up until the point he went to Little Rock to help Bill Clinton get elected and lost touch.

I’d say I knew him pretty well back then, certainly better than I do now. So you might want to know: What was a young Rahm Emanuel like?

Let’s put it this way. You know how lots of people say they met a young Barack Obama and immediately thought to themselves, “This guy could become president of the United States some day.”

Well, it wasn’t like that. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me in those days that Rahm Emanuel would go on to become the mayor of Chicago. Not once.

To borrow a phrase from a recent past president of the United States, I misunderestimated the man.

Don’t get me wrong. It was always apparent Emanuel would be a big success in life. He had “can’t miss” written all over him for whatever direction he turned his considerable energies, which I would have expected to stay focused on the off-stage business of electing other people or using his contacts to make money.

But as a candidate, the out-front guy? I never saw it coming, didn’t recognize those talents, never even realized he harbored those ambitions, which was somewhat foolish on my part, because nearly everybody working in politics has those ambitions.

I ask myself how I missed it. Was it because he was five years younger than me, and when you’re young that seems like a lot? Was it because he’s a little squirt, and because big guys underestimate little guys? It could be.

Mostly though, I think it’s for the same reason Emanuel snuck up on all the established political powerhouses that he outmaneuvered for the job they had lusted after for so long. It’s because he breaks the mold of what we have come to expect in our Chicago politicians.

If you want to imagine what a young Rahm Emanuel was like, take that “Saturday Night Live” caricature of him — the profane, aggressive bully — and imbue it with all the raw edges and energy of youth.

If the Rahm of modern lore is seen as tireless, a young Rahm was a hyperkinetic spitball.

Did he swear? Of course, he swore. Nearly everybody in Chicago politics swears. It helped the North Shore kid fit in. The only strange thing about his swearing is that it somehow sticks out in Washington.

Sure, he was aggressive and ambitious. He was also funny and voluble and enthusiastic.

The part of his personality the caricature misses is Rahm the cajoler, Rahm the sweet-talker, Rahm the wheedler. You must remember that before he had real power, Emanuel needed methods other than bullying to get his way. And if there’s anything about Emanuel of which I am sure is that he’s results driven.

While I don’t accept the idea some have advanced that he’s without a philosophical center, the young Rahm was definitely more focused on the winning and losing than pushing any particular view of the world.

When Emanuel first ran for Congress in 2002, I thought he faced an uphill battle with a skill set better suited to working behind the scenes. He wasn’t naturally suited to pressing the flesh or making speeches. But with Mayor Daley’s help, he won.

When he announced he was running for mayor, I was still among the skeptics questioning where he would find his votes. What is his political base? He has no base, everyone said, and I agreed.

It turns out Emanuel’s votes came “from every corner of this city,” as he put it, which may be the best political base a candidate can have. I’m going to have to try to stop misunderestimating him.

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