Rahm Emanuel could face obstacles on road to Chicago mayor's seat

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he will not endorse anyone to replace him as speculation grew about who would emerge as a front-runner from a long list of potential contenders, including current White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. (Sept. 8)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 7:14 PM

President Obama on Thursday declared that his chief of staff would be an "excellent mayor" of Chicago - adding, in the same breath, that he did not expect Rahm Emanuel to decide about launching a mayoral bid until after the midterm elections in seven weeks.

The remarks illustrated the difficult box Emanuel now finds himself in. His boss needs him to remain focused on the White House and trying to stave off a disaster on Nov. 2. A mayoral campaign in Chicago - which Emanuel has dreamed of for years, and which has not been open for more than two decades - would require him to start planning almost immediately to raise the estimated $4 million required (he has about $1.2 million in his campaign coffer) and assemble thousands of signatures and precinct workers before the primary in February.

In the four days since Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced he would not run for another term, Emanuel has mentioned his aspirations in passing during meetings at the White House. He has assured colleagues that his head is still in the national game, several of them said. But his allies are increasingly sure Emanuel is about to make the jump back to local politics - a possibility underscored by Obama's willingness to speculate about it on television this week.

"He is an excellent chief of staff. I think right now, as long as he is in the White House, he is critically focused on making sure that we're creating jobs for families around the country and rebuilding our economy," Obama said in an interview, aired Thursday, with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America." "And you know, the one thing I've always been impressed with about Rahm is that when he has a job to do, he focuses on the job in front of him. And so my expectation is, he'd make a decision after these midterm elections. He knows that we've got a lot of work to do. But I think he'd be a terrific mayor."

With that near-endorsement from the president, colleagues said they think that Emanuel's mayoral bid is all but a done deal, leaving only the question: What are the odds he would win?

He might not have as much of an advantage as it would appear.

While Emanuel is a national figure, that cuts both ways with interest groups, including labor unions and immigration advocates angry at him because they think he has not done enough on their behalf during his time at the White House.

"There is already in Chicago sort of forming an 'anybody but Rahm' coalition," said Dick Simpson, a former alderman who is now head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times made a similar point Thursday, saying black and Hispanic caucuses in the racially divided city were already meeting to pick their candidates.

Public-sector unions and immigrant groups, meanwhile, are "really mad at Emanuel because they don't feel like the promises made going into this administration are promises kept," said Carol Marin, a political analyst for the Sun-Times and the Chicago NBC station. Still, Marin said, Emanuel may be able to wait until after Nov. 2 to declare his intent. "All of the stuff that he must do [now] is behind-the-scenes kind of stuff," Marin said.

When Daley steps aside in May, Chicago will have been run by him or his father for 43 of the past 55 years. But the Democratic machine they once controlled no longer exists. City politics are fragmented, a factor that makes it impossible for any single candidate to sail toward coronation.

Running for Congress, Emanuel benefited from Daley's pull and the efforts of patronage organizations, particularly in his first race. He worked on public housing issues for Daley and remained loyal when members of the mayor's circle faced trial on charges of unfair hiring.

Yet his former congressional district was just a slice of the Chicago, and some of the city's 50 aldermen were quick to paint him as an outsider, gone too long and too often from the city.

His most formidable opponent, should he decide to run, likely would be Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff, said Don Rose, a longtime political adviser and commentator. Dart is a likable Democrat well known for refusing to evict people who fell behind on their mortgages during the financial crisis. He has been building his own political organization of loyal precinct captains and committeemen, and has toiled for Daley's operation.

"Dart's as close as anybody to having universal recognition now, and it's all positive," Rose said. "All of the things people know about him are good-guy stuff. There's nothing divisive."

To win, Emanuel would have to rebuild the money machine and the political organization that carried him into Congress - and then greatly expand it.

"He does not have the machine. The machine itself is weak and balkanized, and it will become more balkanized because so many aldermen and committeemen are talking about filing," Rose said.

While some politicians have spoken of the importance of electing a woman or an African American to the mayor's seat, no black or female candidate has emerged to build the electoral coalition that would be required. Presumably Obama would be able to help rally the African American electorate. But a formal White House endorsement would have to come first, something White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said was premature to assume, saying it would be "hard to make that judgment not knowing who the candidates are."

kornbluta@washpost.com Staff writers Peter Slevin in Chicago and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company