Democratic 'Golden Boy' Rahm Emanuel, Basking In the Glow of Victory

Emanuel, a key congressional campaign strategist, on election night.
Emanuel, a key congressional campaign strategist, on election night. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Yesterday morning, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) appeared from behind a glass door over at the Democratic National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill.

He wasn't wearing glass slippers. He was wearing a blue suit, sky-blue shirt, red tie and black shoes. This was a kind of victory lap -- albeit standing still -- before some media and party staffers.

"The Democrats haven't been this happy since 2000 when CNN declared for Al Gore," he said. "And that lasted all of about an hour."

He smiled. His aides smiled.

Emanuel, a two-term congressman from Chicago, is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the man responsible for recruiting many of the candidates who will give control of the House to the Democrats in January.

"I said before the election that if the Democrats win the House, the lion's share of the credit should go to Rahm," says Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "He legitimately can be called the golden boy of the Democratic Party today. He recruited the right candidates, found the money and funded them, and provided issues for them. Rahm did what no one else could do in seven cycles."

Alternately, Emanuel has been described as a shark, a pit bull, a barracuda and a host of unprintable names -- by Democrats!

"Rahm Emanuel is a very ambitious person," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said yesterday, glowing in his own reelection and the possibility that he will be named chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. "There's no question that with the election, he's picked up a lot of political clout. But he's also lost some friends along the way. He curses a lot. He's blunt."

At the podium, standing in front of a backdrop that read "A New Direction for America," the blunt barracuda was smiling, recalling watching the election returns Tuesday night: "The blue states kept getting bluer," he crowed.

He got two hours' sleep the previous night, he said. His eyes looked tired and at times he rocked on his heels as if he might fall onto an imaginary sofa.

He was quick to credit other Democrats, noting 18 months of hard work that went into the results. Still, on a day of victory and pride, he shifted his shoulders, he gulped from his water bottle, he let show a sliver of a smile. And demurred when asked about his personal future.

"My mother called last night," he said. "She said, 'What you gonna do next?' "

He smiled. His aides smiled.

He already sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Someone mentioned majority whip.

He blinked.

"I had an obligation to the candidates that I was going to focus like a laser on Tuesday," he was saying. "Well, Tuesday has come and gone, hasn't it?" He went on: "I know the whip's race is in the air. I haven't decided yet. I'll make a decision in short order."

He was asked about 2008, about what the election results say about potential Democrats eyeing the presidency.

There was a pause, as if he was channeling his thoughts. "My staff over there is nervous about what I might say," he said.

He said only that America prefers governing from the center "and not polarization," and that candidates would do well to keep that in mind.

To those who expected a bragging pol, he was quite the subdued victor. He seemed peaceful -- as peaceful as a slow-moving shark. "Every Republican who ran those anti-Nancy Pelosi ads," he said, "lost."

He nodded like a Chicago horn player having heard a good musical note.

"We have an obligation to work in a bipartisan fashion," he said. "We won't have those slogans -- 'Mission Accomplished,' 'Cut and Run.' None of that's working."

He added that the election was a reminder to Democrats "that we must always be reformers and come as agents of change."

He slid toward the door. He had a plane to catch.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company