12.23.10

Rahm's Rose Garden Strategy

With city officials affirming his residency, Rahm Emanuel comes one step closer to becoming Chicago’s next mayor. Can he finish the campaign without showing his salty side?

He was humble and patient, an earnest man simply trying, by golly, to do his level best for others.

Rahm Emanuel, and not Mr. Smith, is running for mayor of Chicago. But patrons of the city’s political theater might have wondered otherwise during the hearings on whether Emanuel, a candidate for mayor, qualified as a legal resident of the city.

Emanuel won an expected victory in the ruling from the Elections Board Thursday. He also helped himself with an impressive display of restraint and good humor during a hearing that ranged from tedious to preposterous.

So this was the guy who was supposed to be such a foul-mouthed bully?

“He actually came off as sympathetic,” said political analyst Paul Green.

That was no small feat.

Given the Emanuel stories of dead-fish as gifts to opponents, locker room rants (while naked) and the signature half middle-finger salute, plenty of Chicagoans remain skeptical about his seemingly newfound gentle demeanor.

“Well, he’s a good actor,” said Don Rose, a longtime Illinois political strategist. “What we saw was the good Rahm, not the bad Rahm. We’re waiting to see the real Rahm. And we will surely see the real Rahm if he becomes mayor. There’s no question about that.” That is what concerns many Chicago ward bosses, according to Rose, who said they fear the prospect of bowing and scraping before a City Hall tyrant. Suddenly, the growling, demanding, red-faced Richard Daley seems almost mild-mannered by comparison.

Fear him or love him, or perhaps both, Emanuel is seen as the clear favorite in the early campaign to replace Daley, who stunned the city by deciding not to seek a seventh term. According to a recent Chicago Tribune poll, Emanuel is taking 32 percent in the crowded field, more than triple the 9 percent share garnered by each Congressman Danny K. Davis and former Chicago Public Schools chief Gery Chico. State Senator James Meeks was polling 7 percent (before he dropped out Friday). Former United States Senator Carol Moseley Braun was favored by 6 percent. City Clerk Miguel del Valle was taking 3 percent. Some 30 percent of voters were undecided.

If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the Feb. 22 contest, a run-off would be held between the top two vote-getters in April.

Joseph Morris, the hearing officer in the residency case, found that Emanuel “never formed an intention to terminate his residence in Chicago.” He said Emanuel’s temporary move to Washington to work for President Obama meant he should not be disqualified by the Chicago law requiring a mayoral candidate to live in the city for a year before the election.

During the hearing, Emanuel sat patiently as he listened to various residents ask outlandish questions—Waco and the Communist Party came up—and spoke in a soft, earnest tone.

“The only reason I no longer put my head down in that house,” he said during the hearing, “is the president of the United States at a time of crisis asked me to serve.” Emanuel today issued a statement that “Chicago voters should ultimately have the right to decide the election and to vote for me, or against me.”

The ruling by the Board of Election Commissioners will now almost surely go to the courts, perhaps culminating in a ruling at the Illinois State Supreme Court. Most legal experts say they would be shocked if Emanuel is ultimately knocked off the ballot.

While he seems the candidate to beat, with polls showing that Emanuel has a clear frontrunner status for now, some insiders say an upset is not impossible.

“The numbers are out there to defeat him,” said Monroe Anderson, a former press secretary for the late Mayor Eugene Sawyer.

While many analysts have argued that the presence of three black candidates—Davis, Moseley-Braun, and Meeks (who just dropped out)—will splinter the African-American vote and give the victory to Emanuel, Anderson sees it another way.

“In the first round, the more the merrier,” he says, suggesting that a larger field of candidates diminishes the chance that Emanuel would capture 50 percent in the February contest and avoid a run-off. In the second round, his opponents could unite against him.

If Emanuel falls short of 50 percent, says Anderson, “that means that more people voted against him than for him, and they could coalesce in an anti-Rahm movement.”

That would require all other candidates and their backers to mend any fences and unite to oppose Emanuel. While that might seem improbable, some also see it as unlikely that Emanuel will be able to sustain a warm, fuzzy image throughout the campaign and avoid saying anything that might be regarded as offensive.

Emanuel’s connections to Obama will largely be an asset in the president’s old town, where he remains overwhelmingly popular. But Davis and other African-American politicos scoff at any notion that black voters “will see Emanuel as some kind of surrogate for Obama,” especially if he faces a black candidate in a run-off.

Recent history shows that whites and blacks can be expected to cast about 40 percent of the vote apiece. Hispanic voters in recent years have tended to cast a bit more than 10 percent of the ballots.

“What we saw was the good Rahm, not the bad Rahm. We’re waiting to see the real Rahm. And we will surely see the real Rahm if he becomes mayor. There’s no question about that,” says Don Rose.

Daley has said he will stay out of the race. He has ties with Emanuel, who was a former top fundraiser for the mayor. He also appointed Chico as head of the schools.

Chicago is a city with a history of raw, racial politics. Relations have improved considerably since the bitter days of the infamous Council Wars in the '80s, when Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, was met with fierce resistance from white politicians. But few politicians of any color in Chicago consider it impossible for hostilities to surface. So far, Emanuel has run in the manner of an incumbent. He has limited his availability to the press. He has not taken part in any mayoral debates, although he has promised to do so.

“Emanuel is running this race as if he’s Daley and he’s been in office for 20 years,” said Anderson, a move he said many Chicago voters might see as a bit high and mighty.

Chicago, a city that regards itself as the capital of middle America, tends to have a low threshold for tolerating people who put on airs.

“There’s no question that Emanuel is head and shoulders above everybody else right now,” said Anderson. “It’s his to win or lose. But he could lose it, especially if he comes across as too arrogant.”

Dirk Johnson is former Chicago bureau chief for Newsweek and The New York Times.