It's Rahm Emanuel's mayoral race in Chicago, but Obama's record is the ammunition

Rahm Emanuel has been quickly building a network for his official entry into the Chicago mayoral race.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 12:00 AM

As Rahm Emanuel prepared to leave Washington last year to run for mayor of Chicago, President Obama gave his chief of staff an emotional send-off in the East Room. He praised Emanuel for his service and pulled him in for multiple hugs. Emanuel would be a "terrific" mayor, the president predicted in a television interview.

In the months since, Emanuel's close relationship with Obama - who is still enormously popular in his home town - helped to make the former congressman an easy front-runner in the race.

Now Emanuel's rivals are trying to turn those presidential ties against him. African American and Hispanic leaders inside and outside Chicago are lining up against Emanuel as a way to vent their long-simmering complaints that Obama has not done enough to help their communities. In recent weeks, Obama's record as president has become a major undercurrent in the campaign.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D), whose district includes Chicago's South Side and who defeated Obama in a bruising 2000 House primary, said many of his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus "harbor major resentment" against Emanuel for what they see as his lack of concern about minority issues. That, Rush said, has made Emanuel a "convenient target" for broader frustrations with the White House.

"For those who don't feel comfortable criticizing the king, it's the king's counsel that you aim your wrath at," said Rush, describing the tensions as "the wreckage around Rahm's ankles."

Obama remains popular among African American voters, but some in the Congressional Black Caucus have complained that in the president's quest to court white centrists, he has held them at arm's length.

The mayor's contest has become polarized along ethnic lines in the past two weeks as many black establishment politicians have coalesced around the candidacy of former senator Carol Moseley Braun. A Chicago native who served one term in Washington, in the 1990s, she is the only African American woman elected to the Senate.

Among Braun's supporters are Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who confronted Emanuel in a testy 2009 meeting over administration economic policies, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is based in Chicago.

Too quick to blink?

As White House chief of staff, Emanuel at times clashed with black and Hispanic lawmakers. He was Obama's lead negotiator on a range of issues, including the health-care overhaul. Many liberals complained that Obama and Emanuel were too quick to compromise with corporations and the insurance industry and did not fight hard enough for a government-run public option.

Citing Obama's support for the Wall Street bailout and his recent deal with Republicans to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy, Jackson said Emanuel's presence "will shine a spotlight in dark places."

Princeton University Professor Cornel West, another prominent Obama critic, said he was in "strong opposition to Rahm Emanuel," placing him on a list of close Obama aides whom he described as "too cozy with big business [and] not concerned about poor people, workers, homeowners, everyday people." West said he may travel to Chicago to campaign against Emanuel.

Emanuel faces similar challenges from two rivals: former Daley chief of staff Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who are trying to attract Hispanic voters' support. This week, Chico was endorsed by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D), a Chicagoan who has criticized Emanuel and Obama for not pushing more aggressively for a federal law that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

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