Rahn Emanuel, the contradictions, adaptations and truths
BY DAVID ROEDER Staff Reporter February 4, 2011 6:34PM
Emmanuel meets the people at Rapid Transit Cycleshop on North Avenue. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: March 7, 2011 12:22AM
In the legend of Rahm Emanuel’s rise from door-to-door campaign grunt to fund-raiser extraordinaire, White House advisor, multimillionaire, congressman and prospective mayor of Chicago, there are contradictions and truth.
One contradiction involves the old Rahm, or “Rahmbo,” the guy known for cursing and bullying, for angrily stabbing a restaurant table with a steak knife in his younger days vs. the milder, principled version he puts out via an $11 million-plus campaign.
“Are you the same person you were 20 years ago?” he replied to questions about the Rahmbo image.
Emanuel won’t call the difference maturity. Maybe adaptation is a better word. Emanuel has been married for 17 years, and he’s a father now, systematically setting aside time for his wife and his three children despite the demands from others and himself.
There’s also the contradiction between the Emanuel who draws strength from L-stop campaigning and the one who turns into a hermit when it comes to appearing at community forums with the other candidates. He bypassed those events, yet he’s campaigned at more than 90 public transit stations in the city, some more than once, with many hurried commuters stopping for conversation.
At the Belmont Blue Line stop on a frosty morning — part of Emanuel’s old 5th Congressional District — some commuters greeted him like an old friend. One man asked why he wasn’t going harder on opponent Carol Moseley Braun. Emanuel demurely answered that he didn’t need to and wanted to focus on ideas for Chicago.
‘A direct conversation with voters’
Then there’s the Emanuel who’s anything but a commoner. He earned $18 million in a brief two-year stint in investment banking, where he traded on business connections made in government.
In December, a formative time for the campaign, he took a week off to visit Thailand with his family, as if the Feb. 22 election was in the bag. Critics, mostly aligned with the other candidates, called it a Rose Garden campaign strategy, a reference to Emanuel’s White House history with Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Emanuel has ready answers to those raps. He never lobbied government, he said, or wrote a tell-all book about the Clinton years, considering that a breach of trust. The book he wrote was about policies the Democratic Party should pursue.
As for his approach to campaigning, he said his opponents don’t have to like a strategy that connects him to voters outside their view.
“I’m having a direct conversation with the public. This is not about forum. It’s about format, and I chose the format I’m doing,” he said.
Subtext for Gery Chico: Eat your heart out.
“You were out there with me at that Belmont L stop,” he told a reporter. “You saw seven women come up and hug me and a lot of people stop to talk. That was the coldest Rose Garden I’ve ever been at, and your feet were cold too, whether you admit it or not.”
Rahm ‘does not stop’
The truth about Emanuel is a work in progress. Let’s start with some basics.
He’s 51, the second of three sons born to a pediatrician and his wife. Dr. Benjamin Emanuel lived in Albany Park and set up shop nearby, later moving the family to Wilmette. Rahm Emanuel graduated from New Trier West High School. New Trier is known for turning out luminaries in the arts and business, not Chicago mayors.
Emanuel is an observant Jew. Chicago has never had a Jewish mayor, observant or not. Woe unto the politico who interrupts him and his family during their Friday evening Shabbat dinners.
He studied ballet, of all things, and was good enough to win a Joffrey scholarship, but he turned it down to pursue a growing interest in government at Sarah Lawrence College, where he graduated in 1981. He also earned a master’s in speech and communication at Northwestern University in 1985.
There was something magical in that Emanuel household. Older brother Ezekiel “Zeke” Emanuel is a doctor, head of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health and an advisor to the White House on health policy. Younger brother Ari is one of the most powerful and feared agents in Hollywood, a funnel for West Coast campaign money to Rahm.
The two strains they represent, scholarship and cold business calculation, seem to blend in their middle brother, Rahm Emanuel. The family also includes a younger adopted sister, Shoshanna.
Zeke Emanuel remembered that the situation made for “pretty fierce competition” when he was growing up as each boy tried to make his own mark. Rahm, he said, “does not stop once he sets himself a clear goal.” Political discussions were frequent in the family, and “often got voluble at the dinner table,” he said.
Given his interests, why didn’t Rahm go out for the debate team?
“I did debate,” the firstborn Zeke Emanuel answered, an explanation parents with rival siblings will understand. Zeke said all the brothers tried ballet, but Rahm Emanuel was the only one to continue.
Zeke Emanuel said people don’t realize that his brother is a jokester good with the one-liners. He also said Rahm Emanuel has a down-to-earth personality that inspires loyalty among people who work for him.
‘Humor and eloquence’
In the 1980s, Rahm Emanuel canvassed neighborhoods for the interest group Illinois Public Action, jumped into congressional campaigns and impressed the old warhorses in 1989 when he helped Richard M. Daley raise nearly $8 million in short order for Daley’s first victorious run for mayor.
His innovative tactic was to phone a donor and belittle the size of his check.
With so many campaigns under his belt, does Emanuel see the humor and improbability of a ballet dancer from New Trier running Chicago?
“There is both humor, and there is eloquence,” he said.
He mentioned the names of men who preceded him in Congress representing parts of what became the present 5th Congressional District — Rod Blagojevich, Michael Flanagan, Dan Rostenkowski, Roman Pucinski, Frank Annunzio.
“The people of that district have reached across a series of things people thought would be divisions or separatism and found common ground. I tried to make that effort and, guess what, they tried to make that effort. ... They know right from wrong.”
In his own TV ads, Emanuel comes off as determined and intense. The ads don’t do justice to another trait. He has an ability rare among politicians to lock in on a person he just met and treat his or her concerns as the most important in the world. It’s no act. supporters say.
Now retired, Pat Kehoe was a firefighter stationed in the 5th Congressional District when candidate Emanuel came calling. The two talked about Kehoe’s daughter applying for college, and how the federal form for financial help went on for pages. “He took a look at it and said he couldn’t believe it. He said that if he got elected he would try to fix it, and he did,” said Kehoe, now volunteering in the Emanuel mayoral campaign.
It took another six years, but Emanuel’s bill passed and the whittling of the form to three pages was finished early in the Obama administration.
“I was surprised at the time that a guy would take an issue that wasn’t the most earth-shattering, and he worked on it,” Kehoe said.
‘He felt it was the right thing to do’
While a congressman, Emanuel tuned into the predicament of John Dudlak, president of Chicago Paper Tube & Can Co. Dudlak needed to move operations from the Near West Side and wanted property at the campus of the old Chicago Read Mental Health Center on the Northwest Side. But the city, state and a private developer shared responsibility for the site, and Dudlak couldn’t get anyone to move on a deal. He was close to signing for space in Kenosha, Wis.
Dudlak said Emanuel called, railed at the “boneheads” who were letting jobs leave Chicago, and asked Dudlak for a week. Emanuel “herded the cats,” Dudlak said, and the company got its four acres in 2005. Dudlak built a 65,000-square-foot building where he now has 30 employees.
“He saw what the issue was. His attitude was, what was the end goal and what were the problems getting there,” Dudlak said. He also works in the campaign.
“As mayor, Emanuel would be outstanding,” he said. “We don’t have 3,000 employees. He intervened because he felt it was the right thing to do.”
Constituent service is the block and tackle of politics. Officeholders with safe seats sometimes neglect it, cracking open the door for a challenger. Emanuel got re-elected three times with about 75 percent of the vote.
One Chicagoan said he couldn’t get anywhere with a Social Security snafu until he enlisted Emanuel’s office. Another said the congressman helped him replace his father’s lost World War II medals. Emanuel recalled a man who darted across traffic toward him to say thanks for tackling an immigration problem. Emanuel said he accepted the thanks but told him, “That’s my staff.”
‘I try to lead by example’
Running an efficient campaign or an administration comes down to staff, and Emanuel has kept a core group with him through the years. “I am very demanding, more demanding on myself than anybody else,” he said. “I try to lead by example and ask my staff to have a sense of purpose to their service.”
He wants documents issued under his name to be comma-perfect and expects aides to help him keep facts straight, titles and pronunciations correct. Emanuel trusts them to get him the basics of every situation before he walks into it, part of his obsession for campaigning only at times and places that suit him. His weapon of choice for policy discussions is bullet points.
Perfectionism and a desire for control will clash with City Hall’s culture, he admitted. Emanuel said he will demand that appointees share his sense of urgency and his intolerance for bureaucratic stupidity. He said he might try something he did as White House chief of staff, which was having key aides write weekly reports to keep them on task.
Anyone looking for Rahmbo, he said, won’t find him purging staff or throwing tantrums on City Hall’s fifth floor. But he insisted that the old fire is still around, depending on the foe at hand.
In Washington, he said, it was insurance companies not covering kids, or cigarette companies marketing to kids, or it was the influence of Wall Street or the gun lobby. As mayor, it might be the gangbanger, the corrupt city inspector, the contractor gaming the system.
‘We cannot waste our time’
Emanuel is a policy wonk wannabe who, if elected, will be testing theory in the curbsides. Voters, he said, can trust that “I’ll be strong when it comes to determining and seeing through the change we need. ... And I will also be accommodating and open when it comes to soliciting ideas to bring about that change.”
Impatience in his mind is a virtue. He explained by recounting his overriding memory from his childhood home. “My parents had a wall in our house. That wall was made up of the photos of people who never made it to this country, who I never met and at the center of that wall was my grandmother’s purse and that purse plus the papers on that wall was [what] carried her passport and my two great aunts to this country.”
The lesson, he said, was that, “We are fortunate to be here, and we cannot waste our time here because others did not make it here.” Emanuel added, cracking a smile, “There is nothing subtle about a Jewish home.”
It’s the portrait that he hopes will put Rahmbo to rest forever, and he’s a little irritated the old anecdotes still get recycled. He challenged a writer, using him as a proxy for all media, to throw them out.
“Reset the button,” he said.
Consider this a start.
If he gets elected, what comes next depends on him.