Fighting for The Spoils
Lawmaker and Rainmaker Rahm Emanuel Wants a Nov. 7 Victory For the Democrats So Bad He Can Almost Taste It. If Only He Had Time to Eat.

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006


This must be how Machiavelli ate his corned beef sandwiches.

Sitting in a South Side deli, Rahm Emanuel doesn't so much eat his lunch as overwhelm it with two hands and a hard stare. It's a combat glower familiar to the political opponents, reluctant donors and more than a few allies who have encountered the White House fixer-turned-Democratic-congressman in his still-young career. By most accounts, they usually didn't fare much better than the sandwich.

"There's no clean way to do this," Emanuel says, not quite clearly, through a garble of onion roll.

They heap the plates high at Manny's, an old-guard cafeteria popular with cops and pols. But within minutes, the football-size loaf of sliced meat and mustard is gone. Emanuel wipes his hands and picks up the BlackBerry that has been buzzing every 40 seconds or so on the Formica tabletop.

"God, I always eat it too fast," he mutters as he checks an e-mail. What follows is either a soft belch or a pfitz of surprise at some new poll results from Ohio.

Charging toward the biggest election day of his career, Emanuel, the 47-year-old chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, doesn't have much time for niceties.

Or, sometimes, even food. He's lost 14 pounds as the whirl of wheedling donors and lashing candidates to meet their fundraising targets has reached hurricane status in recent weeks. (It had been at least a year since he'd indulged his taste for Manny's corned beef.) He's always been slight, but his collar now gaps a bit at the neck; his cheeks, always lean, are now almost skeletal under the graying runner's buzz cut and the basset-hound eyes. He rubs his jaw (and you notice that he's missing a finger; he lost one to a boyhood infection). He admits he's not sleeping well.

"He's driving himself to exhaustion," says Paul Begala, a friend and political compatriot since they both served on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign and afterward in the White House. "He's like Lyndon Johnson, who finished almost every campaign in a hospital bed. As someone from Texas, I don't make that comparison lightly, but Rahm just may be our skinny, nine-fingered, Jewish, Chicago version of LBJ."

Whether that's a fair comparison may be clear soon. If, as historians say, Johnson began his conquest of Capitol Hill with the political chits he collected as a young and triumphant chairman of the Senate campaign committee, what does next month promise for Rahm Emanuel? As the member of Congress responsible for recruiting candidates for House races, raising money and vetting strategy for dozens of districts, he's received raves from campaign connoisseurs in Washington for running a taut committee. Notably, he's nearly closed the perennial cash-on-hand gap between his team -- with $36 million in the bank at the end of September -- and its GOP counterpart. He's fielded credible candidates in districts no one had expected to be in play a year ago. And he's generally been flogging the party like a never-satisfied CEO.

"He has been an amazing success any way you look at it," says congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "I think it's the best operation of any chairman of either party in several years."

If Democrats do take the House -- they need to gain 15 seats to do so -- Emanuel, in only his second term in Congress, stands to claim considerable credit for ending a 12-year electoral drought. That's the kind of triumph Johnson rode to the top of the Senate.

But if they don't . . .

"If they don't win, it will be seen as a colossal failure," says Mann. "Rahm will be devastated."

Expectations Are High

In fact, Emanuel may have already fumbled the game of expectations -- they are wickedly high. With President Bush's approval ratings lodged at car-salesman levels, scandals going off like cluster bombs within the Republican caucus, and a general throw-the-bums-out restiveness in the land, even a near-miss by House Democrats will be seen as the greatest electoral choke since Dewey Didn't Defeat Truman after all. Commentators from George F. Will to James Carville have already laid down rhetorical markers: An opposition party unable to capture the House in this environment should find a purpose other than electoral politics. Selling Herbalife, maybe.

And Emanuel knows that some Democrats would find time during their grief for a small smile at his expense. Such is the "Rahmbo" style that his sizzling passage through the campaign has left scorch marks on some colleagues. Among the singed: Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, with whom Emanuel has tangled over spending priorities; several liberal would-be candidates who say they were steamrollered by Emanuel in favor of more centrist challengers; and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus who went to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi this year with complaints about Emanuel's abrasive style and his increasing demands for them to raise money for the DCCC.

"Well, I never said Rahm was a diplomat who spends a lot of time schmoozing," says Pelosi, who picked Emanuel last year to run the campaign. She tapped him over more senior lawmakers, she says, because she knew he'd be "coldblooded enough" to push the party relentlessly. And to those who came to have their feathers unruffled, she says she made it clear that Emanuel has her full support. "I said to them: 'We're here to win this election. What is this conversation about?' I don't think we can be better served than by having Rahm at the DCCC."

"He's abrupt with me all the time," she adds with a laugh. "I call him the Field Marshal."

A Man for Changing Times

But to some observers of Chicago politics, Emanuel is less field marshal than Marshall Field (recalling the upscale department store that catered to the city's affluent classes). Emanuel was born in Chicago in 1959, the son of a doctor, and grew up in the decidedly non-working-class northern suburb of Wilmette. He's a graduate of the tony New Trier High School and a onetime ballet prodigy who was offered a scholarship with the Joffrey. A triathlete with a degree from Sarah Lawrence College, a master's in communications from Northwestern and a love of taking his children to modern dance concerts, Emanuel doesn't easily fit the stogie-gnawing stereotype of the old Chicago pol.

Nor did he serve the usual ward apprenticeships in the vaunted Democratic machine. Rather, after working as a fundraiser in various campaigns, Emanuel came fully of age politically with Clinton in Washington. He had never sought elected office before running for the House of Representatives in 2002. In particular, Emanuel knew he would be an odd successor for the working-class Polish and Catholic precincts of District 5, which stretches from the lakefront to the Cook County line. "The previous congressmen from my district were named Rostenkowski, Annunzio and Blagojevich," he says. "Then along comes Rahm Israel Emanuel? C'mon, how does that fit?"

But this is a changing Chicago. In front of Manny's, a police Segway is chained to a street sign as the officer eats his pastrami inside. The warehouse across the street is being converted into a Best Buy. And politics, too, has gotten a makeover.

"Rahm is part of the young breed that people call the new Chicago machine," says Don Rose, a longtime liberal activist who worked for Mayors Jane Byrne and Harold Washington. "They're not 'dem' and 'dose' politicians. They know the difference between red wine and white wine. They're not driven by ideology, and they play to win."

They all play to win, those Emanuel boys. Rahm is the middle son of three. His big brother, Ezekiel, is a Harvard oncologist and bioethicist. Younger brother Ari is a high-flying agent in Los Angeles. He made news recently as the only major agent to publicly call for an industrywide shunning of Mel Gibson following the actor's drunken, anti-Semitic tirade. Their baby sister, Shoshana, is a student.

Yes, the folks are mighty proud, Rahm says. How many mothers have two children who have partly inspired TV characters (Josh Lyman on "The West Wing" for Rahm, Ari Gold on "Entourage" for Ari)?

"People ask me what my mother put in the soup," says Ari, who talks with Rahm two or three times a day. "I wish I knew. I have three boys of my own."

Their father is a Jerusalem-born pediatrician who came to the United States after working for the pre-independence Israeli underground. In Chicago, he met Emanuel's mother, an X-ray technician and daughter of a local union organizer who ended up in more than one paddy wagon as a protester in the 1960s. "Politics and the civil rights movement were very much a part of our family life," says Ezekiel. "We went on Martin Luther King's march on Cicero with my mom."

When Rahm was 17, he cut his finger on a meat slicer at Arby's, where he worked a summer job. It became infected, the infection spread to the bone, and a cut grew into a potentially life-threatening condition. Doctors eventually amputated the finger, and Emanuel spent eight weeks in the hospital. He says the experience made him more focused for college and beyond.

"He blames me for ending up at Sarah Lawrence," says Ezekiel, who thought a small Eastern college would suit his brother better than a big school. "But he loved it. He loved being around all those women."

The young Rahm wasn't particularly political. That passion emerged during college when he starting working with the advocacy group Common Cause. Later, he landed on a few campaigns, including Paul Simon's successful first Senate race in 1984. Almost immediately Emanuel proved a peerless fundraiser. Richard M. Daley hired him to dial up dollars for his successful mayoral run in 1989. Two years later, Emanuel got a job in the soon-to-be-legendary "War Room" of Clinton's upstart presidential campaign in Little Rock.

"With the exception of the candidate and his wife, Rahm may have been the only indispensable person in that campaign," says Begala, who credits Emanuel with keeping the money flowing during the Gennifer Flowers unpleasantness. "He was a force of nature."

He stayed with Clinton through most of two terms. Early on, though, his hard-charging style riled as many allies -- in both the White House and the Capitol -- as opponents. In 1993, he was fired as political director, reportedly at the urging of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. But he stayed on as a senior adviser to redeem himself, with both Clintons, by successfully spearheading some of their diciest legislative ambitions, including NAFTA and the assault weapons ban.

Those initiatives passed, and along the way Emanuel's wonkier self bloomed like a thousand white papers. He talks fluidly about 401(k) regulations and dependent health coverage and universal college tuition. With fellow Clinton alum Bruce Reed, he recently wrote a book, "The Plan," an election-year wish list of New Democrat policy proposals.

"He's a great strategist, but I actually think he cares more about the policy side of it," says Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is close to Emanuel and is campaigning with him for several DCCC candidates in the final weeks. "He likes to talk tough, but deep under that crusty exterior is someone who believes that government can make a difference in people's lives."

But Emanuel's devotion to, say, tax reform may never overtake his rep for grenade-launcher etiquette. His spat with Howard Dean, for example, went publicly profane.

"Rahm and I have certainly had our disagreements," Dean says by e-mail. "But the bottom line is we both want to win."

Even within the White House, few were safe from his instinct for showstopping vulgarity. He once marched up to the newly elected Tony Blair in the Oval Office, where he and Clinton were preparing to go out for their first joint appearance. "This is important," Emanuel said to the British prime minister. "Don't [foul] it up."

"Blair looked pretty shocked before he started laughing," says Begala, who was there. "They are a little more formal in Britain than they are in Chicago."

Back in the Game

Toward the end of Clinton's second term, Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, a Wharton MBA, and the first of their three children moved back to Chicago with the express purpose of making some serious money. In 1999, without any previous experience, Emanuel joined the investment bank of Democratic donor Bruce Wasserstein. Within two years, thanks in part to the bank's being sold, Emanuel had made about $18 million, enough to get back into the game without worrying about his family's finances.

"Rahm was always going to go back into politics," says Ezekiel. "That was the whole point of going into investment banking, to earn a nest egg."

It was Da Mayor himself who first suggested that Emanuel run for the open North Side congressional seat in 2002.

"I told him he was crazy," Emanuel says. "But then I did a poll, and it actually looked like I had a shot."

With the Daley cogs turning on his behalf, Emanuel edged out a Polish American state legislator in the primary and went on to win the general election. It's a safe seat now -- he's not even running ads this year -- but he speaks with pride of the street-level fight he waged the first time.

"I walked a hundred precincts during that campaign," he says. "I stood in front of every grocery in my district seven times."

Emanuel keeps in regular contact with his City Hall patron. And some say he has brought LaSalle Street sensibilities to his House job, particularly those who have been on the wrong side of his DCCC machine. He hasn't hesitated to muscle aside liberal candidates in favor of ones he thought could go toe-to-toe with Republicans on security and social issues. He recruited several Iraq war veterans and found sheriffs to run in both Washington state and Indiana. He persuaded Heath Shuler, a former Redskins quarterback and an antiabortion Democrat, to run in North Carolina. (Shuler has said Emanuel's five-calls-a-day pushiness was worse than any college recruiter's.)

In one move that Rose calls a "classic Chicago power play," Emanuel pushed Tammy Duckworth, a political newcomer who lost both legs as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, to run in the congressional district of retiring Illinois Republican Henry Hyde. That didn't sit well with supporters of Christine Cegelis, a technology consultant who had scored a surprise 44 percent against Hyde in 2002. Her supporters say the DCCC effectively starved the antiwar Cegelis of money and support in favor of Duckworth, who calls the war "a mistake" but calls for more aggressive training of Iraqi forces before pulling out U.S. troops.

"There was a lot of frustration on the ground, trying to figure why the national Democratic Party was trying to squash a strong local movement like this," says Kevin Spidel, a founder of Progressive Democrats of America who managed the Cegelis campaign. "It generated a lot of volunteers for us. We were outspent 4 to 1 and came close to beating Rahm Emanuel and his Washington machine."

Out of the Wilderness

Asked if he ever has regrets about his hardball habits, Emanuel stares into his glass of tea for a long moment.

"Look, you're never as tough as they say you are," he says finally.

But the self-reflection lasts only as long as it takes for him to remember the tactics of the other side.

"They call Tammy Duckworth a cut-and-runner when she left two legs in Iraq?" he shouts, jabbing a finger in the air, drawing stares from around the deli. "How dare they! I'm going to give them the medicine that they've been giving out. That's what shocks them."

If Duckworth wins, along with enough of Emanuel's other candidates to deliver the House into Democratic hands, it's easy to predict that all the hard feelings within the party will be quickly swept away by the shouts of hallelujah. And Rahm Emanuel, with a month to go before his 48th birthday and less than five years of seniority on the Hill, will be basking in acclaim for helping to lead his long-suffering party from the backbencher wilderness to the Promised Land of majority.

Just what is the proper reward for an electoral Moses? Plum committee assignments? (He already has a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee.) A leadership post? Leapfrogging to a chairmanship?

"How about the great honor of serving as the chairman of the DCCC?" says Pelosi. "Honestly, we've never even had a conversation about that."

Emanuel refuses to muse, publicly at least, on how a good Nov. 7 could boost his career. Or whether that career is likely to be on Capitol Hill, in Springfield or up at City Hall. For now, he's consumed only with the race.

"I don't even want to talk about that," he says, tapping his BlackBerry on Manny's Formica. "Call me on November 8th. We'll talk about it then."

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