As Emanuel returns home to run for mayor, some in Chicago say he has a lot to learn

By Jason Horowitz
Monday, October 4, 2010; 3:02 AM

IN CHICAGO On Thursday afternoon, Rob Halpin came to the door of the blue-shingled house he rents from Rahm Emanuel in the leafy North Side of Chicago and politely explained that he couldn't say anything about the outgoing White House chief of staff and incoming mayoral candidate.

A term of the lease he renewed just days before Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his retirement prevented him from talking to the media, whether it be about Emanuel's unsuccessful efforts to move back in or anything else concerning the house. But as he closed the door, he noted that Emanuel would return to Chicago over the weekend.

"He's here to learn what the city is all about," said Halpin.

Despite the East Room send-off from President Obama and sub rosa assists from the White House media operation, Emanuel's carefully orchestrated rollout has slammed into the granite reality of Chicago politics.

Far from Emanuel receiving any deference, his opponents literally couldn't wait for his return to start defining him in the harshest terms. They've called him a carpetbagger, a bully, an enemy from within the White House who subverted immigration reform, the public option and gay-equality initiatives. Detractors are printing ABRE (or Anyone but Rahm Emanuel) buttons. They relay punch lines about his scramble to find housing in Chicago.

"We're not going to let people from outside our city explain how our township should be run," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has yet to declare his candidacy but is leading a crowded pack in early - and largely meaningless - polls.

That refrain is common among a roster of congressmen, aldermen, ministers and City Hall officials who are clamoring to seize the office, which is up for grabs for the first time in two decades. In sounding out city leaders about his own bid, Dart encountered a litany of grievances from liberal constituencies about Emanuel, whom, accurately or not, they blame for the shortcomings of the Obama administration.

"I have already heard from a lot of those different people, Dart said. "It's going to be an issue."

After nearly two years as Washington's bad lieutenant, Emanuel has to make nice. On Monday, he will start a humble, Hillary Rodham Clinton-like "listening tour" in doughnut shops and L stops through eight city neighborhoods. It will be the first step in his effort to navigate the complicated and cutthroat ethnic, racial and special-interest politics of a city facing what Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, called its worst crisis "than at any time since the Great Fire" of 1871.

"These are the same attacks opponents attempted when Rahm ran for Congress," said Lori Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the Emanuel campaign, "but they weren't effective because they are distortions. Rahm takes nothing for granted and works hard for every vote."

This time, Emanuel can argue that he played an instrumental role in the passage of an impressive list of the president's agenda items, including a health-care overhaul, financial regulatory reform, education reform, auto-industry assistance and the economic stimulus efforts. But the attacks already seem to be seeping in with voters.

"Rahm would be nuts in the mayor's office," Laura Loeger, 48, said as she picked some red coxcomb flowers in a farmers market in Daley Plaza across the street from City Hall.

She shuddered at the thought of the "intense" Emanuel lording over the fifth floor of City Hall, where she worked in the 1980s.

Plenty of competition

As Emanuel's leading rival, Dart has presented himself as a more palatable, less profane alternative. Dart said the next mayor needs to be someone who "worked with people" and had the credibility of being an "open and honest" broker. Despite all the talk of Emanuel's war chest, Dart, 48, insisted that donors have "signaled that they are favorably disposed to what I've been saying."

Dart has also lined up a big-name political consultant for the race. ("If Tom goes, and I think he will, I'm on the team," Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who ran the John Edwards and Howard Dean presidential campaigns, said before unveiling a line of attack: "One guy has been in the White House and the other has been on the streets.")

The blocks around City Hall are teeming with candidates hoping to be elected in February. The sheriff's executive office sits in the towering Richard J. Daley Center, across Daley Plaza from City Hall. The mayor's former chief of staff, Gery Chico, is in the hunt from his nearby law offices overlooking the Chicago River. In City Hall, on the second and third floors below the mayor's suite of offices, a half-dozen aldermen are jockeying for the job.

"I'm running," said Robert W. Fioretti, 58, a lawyer and alderman. He portrays himself as an independent Democrat running against his party's establishment, and argues that Emanuel would continue the worst aspects of Daley's tenure: "They are autocrats who don't listen to the people. They have a tunnel vision to make their friends rich."

Fioretti said Emanuel - a Clinton administration veteran and member of the congressional leadership before joining Obama's White House - was a creature of Washington: "He was out of touch then and he is out of touch now."

The office of City Clerk Miguel del Valle sits on City Hall's ground floor, down the hallway from banks of gilded elevator doors. Del Valle, 59, said he looked forward to Chicagoans contrasting candidates "grounded in and connected for decades with the city" and Emanuel, who, he said, merely "reads about" the city.

In a hint of the personal acrimony awaiting Emanuel, Del Valle recalled a time at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, at which he spoke, when he gave up his seat to Emanuel's wife, Amy Rule, so that she could sit next to her husband and children. Emanuel, he said, replied with a curt "thanks, buddy." "And that's it!" said Del Valle. "I thought to myself, 'I'm not the help - I'm an elected official.'รข??"

Balkanized politics

Emanuel built a constituency of North Side voters to win his impressive congressional victories. But Chicago is even more complicated than the 5th Congressional District, which is home to luxury lakefront condo dwellers and ethnically diverse middle-class families. Throughout the city, African American, Latino and ethnic white constituencies, not to mention powerful party bosses, hold great sway. Emanuel will have to maneuver the balkanized politics without a built-in base.

The city's vibrant and sizable Latino community has its main artery on 26th Street, which is already papered in red-and-blue "Luis Gutierrez for Mayor" signs, even though this nine-term congressman has yet to commit to the race.

"I can't see any way that overall immigration policy doesn't come to bear on the campaign," said Gutierrez, who has consistently accused Emanuel of leading Obama astray on immigration reform.

Even as drivers rolled down their window to yell "Luis! Run, run run!" Gutierrez was hesitant about committing to the race. But things moved so quickly, he said, that "you have no choice. If you do not take steps, you eliminate yourself from the possibility."

The city's large African American population is centered in the South Side, and although there are several potential black candidates, the most formidable appears to be state Sen. James Meeks, who presides as the Rev. Meeks at the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago.

The megachuch is as capacious as a sporting arena, features a giant blue sign on the facade reading "House of Hope," and is surrounded by a vast parking lot that accommodates his 20,000-member congregation.

Joe Jordan, a mechanic down the street, said Meeks is "active in the community," but added that the president's preference matters.

"If the president picked him," Jordan said, "he's probably a good guy to think about."

Can he go local?

The same day of Obama's and Emanuel's affectionate farewells, members of Chicago's Finance Committee held a routine meeting in City Hall's Council Chamber. The chairman cracked gum and banged his gavel and asked for explanations about "Item 5," a request for approval for funds for the "Montclair senior residence." Distracted aldermen swiveled in their leather chairs.

And yet Emanuel is determined to go local and add his familiar sly grin to the rows of black-and-white head shots of past mayors on display in the mayor's fifth-floor waiting room. They begin with men sporting woolly beards and end in 1989, the year Daley took over. Emanuel has been working the phones to remove as many obstacles as possible.

About a month ago, Emanuel started showering attention on Rep. Mike Quigley (D), who replaced him in the House and has flirted with the idea of running for mayor. After years of talking to Emanuel less often than he talks to the president, by his count, Quigley recalled that Emanuel initiated their fourth extended conversation in as many weeks on Wednesday. In almost all the discussions, Emanuel eagerly talked about Quigley's pet project to bring transparency to the city's Tax Increment Financing.

"Rahm calls and asks all the right questions," said Quigley, as he reclined under the rumbling L train near Wrigley Field. Quigley understood Emanuel's sudden interest owed to the fact that he "wanted to be mayor," but nevertheless found him serious about the tax issue.

The upshot of the talks, he said, was that Emanuel would champion the issue even if he didn't run. "It made me more comfortable that I don't need to worry about who the next mayor is."

Earlier last week, Emanuel rang up Marilyn Katz, a local Democratic activist, to remind her of his commitment to the housing problem.

Emanuel has also reached out to prominent leaders of the gay community, but with limited success, according to one gay donor who hasn't bothered to return his call.

While the famously thorough politician has torn through call lists, he has been just as studied in his decisions about whom to avoid.

"It has not hurt my feelings that he hasn't called," Dart said. "I'm not going to be intimidated."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company