Chicago, get ready for Rahm Emanuel's charm offensive

By Neil Steinberg
Sunday, October 3, 2010; B01

CHICAGO -- So Rahm Emanuel, the ultimate sharp-elbowed Washington power broker, thinks he can just quit his job as White House chief of staff, catch a plane to O'Hare, slip on a Bears jacket midflight, land smiling and convince a majority of savvy Chicago voters that he -- as opposed to the dozen other veteran Windy City politicians who have waited years for this opportunity -- is the best choice to replace longtime mayor Richard M. Daley?

Well, he has pulled off this sort of thing before.

"He is viewed as a carpetbagger," a prominent Chicago political columnist sniffed in 2002, when Emanuel first ran for Congress on the city's North Side. "Emanuel grew up in the suburbs, attended college in New York, served two stints in Washington, D.C., and moved into the district in 1999. It's no accident that his campaign isn't catching fire."

The image of Emanuel that the media loves to gild -- the ruthless, foul-mouthed insider raising millions, whispering into the ears of powerful friends, brow-beating cringing underlings and anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way -- is even more common now than it was then. It masks an important truth, however, one that will quickly emerge as he hits the ground in Chicago: Emanuel is a good campaigner, disciplined, focused and ready to ring doorbells, pump hands and kiss babies. In his six years in Congress, he tirelessly engaged in the kind of gnat-level constituent service and hokey freshman-representative showboating that builds loyalty back home.

Early in the 2002 Democratic congressional primary -- the true contest in Republican-starved Chicago -- Emanuel trailed in the polls by as much as 15 points behind a neighborhood activist named Nancy Kaszak, who not only had lived in the district for 25 years but was also of Polish descent, a significant asset in the famed 5th District, home to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish and ex-congressman Dan Rostenkowski.

"I'm the district," Kaszak said. "He's the Beltway."

Replace "district" with "city," and you have the darts that will be fired at Emanuel soon after he arrives in Chicago this weekend to prepare for his official entry into the mayoral free-for-all touched off Sept. 7, when Daley announced that he will be moving on after 21 years running the city. Emanuel joins a list of hopefuls that includes half a dozen aldermen, several members of Congress, Cook County's sheriff as well as its treasurer, former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. James Meeks, the powerful pastor of the 20,000-member Salem Baptist Church.

Eight years ago, Emanuel was expected to lose. Today, he is the guy to beat, as the candidate with the most money and the greatest national name recognition -- although in Chicago, that name inspires whispered respect for his notoriety more than anything that could be called affection or popularity.

The cash will help, but it will not be Emanuel's name or his powerful friends in Washington that will win this election; it will be his knack for retail politics. In that sense, Emanuel resembles Daley, another man more feared than loved. And like Daley, Emanuel is not known to play a game that he hasn't already rigged in his favor. As in 2002, Emanuel has been carefully laying the groundwork before he leaps in, gathering information and conducting polls. Those who talked to his pollster say they were asked whether they are sore about Emanuel's ties to disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich. He also spent three weeks calling and meeting with potential allies, lining up support, and letting the air out of the opposition -- naturally without a trace of bullying.

"He's a big dog," one potential mayoral candidate told the Chicago Tribune. "Big dogs don't have to do that."

Emanuel isn't coming home with presidential pomp on Air Force One. Instead he's embarking on what he calls a "listening tour" -- expect to see him visiting factories and gazing respectfully at elderly ladies in Laundromats. That is exactly what he did in 2002, even as the race grew increasingly bitter and as Emily's List ran TV spots calling Emanuel a rich investment banker and an "outsider."

In another TV ad, Kaszak was shown driving through the district in her car.

"I'm Nancy Kaszak," she said. "I know my way around. I'm from here. I'm a wife and mom. I've worked on community issues for 25 years."

Then the ad shifted ominously to Emanuel murmuring into a phone in a limousine.

"My opponent just drove into town," Kaszak scoffed.

Two weeks before Election Day, the president of the Polish National Congress suggested to a packed Casimir Pulaski Day rally that Emanuel, who is Jewish, was also an Israeli citizen who had spent two years in the Israeli army and had shot at Palestinians -- all untrue -- as well as a "millionaire carpetbagger who knows nothing about our values, our causes, our expectations or our heritage." Anonymous fliers posted in the district claimed he was close to Osama bin Laden.

Emanuel did not crumble. Instead, he out-grass-rooted the neighborhood activist, shaking hands on train platforms, throwing gutter balls at bowling alleys, visiting firehouses, interrupting bingo games, and dropping in on T-ball award ceremonies and senior centers. One elderly Chicagoan told reporters that she had bumped into Emanuel three times.

Nor did he neglect the other end of the political equation: He hoovered up money not only for himself but for his potential Democratic congressional colleagues, while extracting a rare endorsement from Daley.

Emanuel won the primary with exactly 50 percent of the vote -- as much as Kaszak and the other six Democratic contenders combined. That fall, he campaigned harder than was necessary against his foredoomed Republican opponent, in what was widely seen as a sign of his thoroughness.

Emanuel irked some older Democrats by lobbying for a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee before the formality of his general election victory. He got a seat on the panel but did not spend so much time wielding its power that he neglected to do the things a freshman member of Congress is supposed to do, such as co-sponsoring feel-good resolutions popular with constituents -- in Emanuel's case, congratulating the Cubs' Sammy Sosa for hitting his 500th home run and applauding the 11th anniversary of the return of pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski's remains to Poland. Conservatives pointed to his habit of meeting with constituents in grocery stores as "one indicator of just how far the Democratic Party has fallen."

This is the side of Emanuel that gets obscured by stories about obscenity-bespattered phone calls and gifts of dead fish. He knows you can't bully the voters. (Political opponents, of course, are another story.)

To put it another way: Since 1984, Emanuel has worked directly on eight major political campaigns, whether he was raising money, advising a candidate or running himself, in elections that were local, statewide and nationwide. He won every time.

Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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