CHICAGO—Bernie Sanders wants the people of Chicago to think that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Rahm Emanuel.
The Senator from Vermont has been laying the groundwork for this line of attack for months - and as the Illinois voters head to the polls today, the Sanders campaign hopes that this strategy pays off.
It began back in December, when Sanders flanked by a young man wearing a shirt with the words “Rahm failed us,” - an increasingly familiar line in a city with a growing scandal surrounding the mayor’s attempt to conceal the details of a shocking police homicide - raised his finger in the air at the lectern and said he did not want or need the support of Emanuel in his bid to secure the Democratic nomination. (Good thing. It was never going to happen anyway.)
Nevertheless, almost three months later, with the wound of LaQuan McDonald’s senseless death still open in the city, Sanders is using the vitriol against Emanuel to wage a proxy war against Hillary Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton proudly lists Mayor Rahm Emanuel as one of her leading mayoral endorsers,” Sanders said in a press conference on Saturday, at which his backer Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who narrowly lost the mayoral election to Emanuel last year, was also present. “Well let me be as clear as I can be: based on his disastrous record as mayor of the city of Chicago, I do not want Mayor Emanuel’s endorsement if I win the Democratic nomination.”
Sanders’ campaign is also airing an ad in the city which features Chicago school principal Troy LaRaviere saying “if you have a presidential candidate who supports someone like our mayor, you have a candidate who’s not willing to take on the establishment.”
The contempt for Emanuel is tangible in Chicago’s air.
It’s discussed in taxis, worn on the t-shirts of pedestrians and enveloped in protests like the one at a Trump rally on Friday night, where members of the crowd roared “16 shots,” signifying the amount of times McDonald was hit by bullets from Chicago police department officer Jason Van Dyke.
“Bernie Sanders has been very strong in condemning the Emanuel administration, Secretary Clinton has stood by him over the interest of the people of Chicago,” Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver told Politico last week.
This is not entirely true.
In December, Clinton called for a Department of Justice investigation into Chicago’s police department, a tacit indictment of Emanuel’s ability to handle the situation.
Ever the political pragmatist though, she said at the time that Emanuel “loves Chicago” and that he would “get to the bottom of these issues.” Since then, things have gone from bad to worse as Emanuel was implicated in an attempt to keep the gruesome video of McDonald’s murder from the public eye in order to ensure his win in a close election last year.
Sanders, for his part, stopped short of calling on the mayor to resign during a press conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Saturday morning.
“That’s the decision of the people of Chicago,” Sanders said when pressed by reporters. “I think he has done a very bad job. If I lived in this city, I would be active in that effort.”
Clinton isn’t exactly welcoming Emanuel’s presence with open arms though, avoiding public appearances with him and saying that it was up to him to prove himself to the people of Chicago in a January appearance on “Meet the Press.”
It’s easier said than done.
Emanuel served as her husband’s senior advisor for 6 years in the Clinton White House. He then took on the role of chief of staff in Obama’s administration, when Clinton was Secretary of State. The two of them retained a close friendship, publicly supporting each other’s political aspirations and privately exchanging emails about meeting up during Clinton’s visits to Chicago following Rahm’s departure from the West Wing.
While he wasn’t present at a Monday morning rally at the Chicago Journeyman Plumber’s Hall, where Clinton and her Chicago surrogates tried to give her a last minute boost as the race tightens ahead of Tuesday’s primary, he still loomed large.
"The mayor's going through a rough patch, there's no question about it," senator Dick Durbin, Clinton’s warm-up act, told CNN after the event. "But when it gets right down to it, Hillary and Bill Clinton are well known in Chicago -- in the African-American community and the Latin community."
In a city unfortunately often closely associated with gun violence, Clinton’s campaign is hoping that her staunch anti-gun stance will compensate for any of the negative ramifications of her family’s history with a mayor who is seen as entirely ineffectual and dishonest when it comes to the very people most closely affected by the bullets.
“At a time when gun violence is devastating African-American and Latino communities in Chicago, it is distressing that Senator Sanders is still using NRA talking points to defend his troubling record on gun violence prevention,” Congressman Danny Davis, a Clinton supporter, said in a statement on Monday.
For her supporters, it seems entirely possible to both condemn Emanuel and to see Clinton as their best hope to stem an epidemic which claimed the lives of 19 people in the first 10 days of this year alone.
Scott Brunscheen, a 31-year-old white musician in Chicago, told The Daily Beast that he’d vote for Clinton despite her past relationship with the mayor.
“Oh man, that’s rough,” Brunscheen said when asked about Sanders’ recent line of attack. “I understand what they’re saying about the connection but she’s been not involved in Chicago politics at all. So I don’t understand how you can make the connection to his decisions as someone who is actually in office. At no point, did the Clintons come in and have anything to do with Rahm’s actual decision-making.”
The other thing Clinton has going for her, especially on this turf, is that voters here see her as the likeliest continuation of the legacy of hometown hero President Barack Obama.
And in dangerous times, with a populist demagogue dominating the Republican party and national political discourse, more of the same seems like the safe bet for many voters.
Olufemi Owiku, an accountant in Chicago, looked up admiringly at Clinton as she took the podium on Monday morning, surrounded by members of a plumbers’ union decked in denim.
‘I’m supporting her primarily because she says she’s going to follow what President Obama has done so far,” Owiku told The Daily Beast.
But if the winds of change and the Rahm rage are too powerful on Tuesday, Clinton’s Chicago homecoming could turn into another day of reckoning like her loss in Michigan a week ago.
Another potential hurdle for Clinton is the presence of Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez, the top prosecutor implicated in clearing killer cop after killer cop, on Tuesday’s ballot.
If ousting her is the closest voters can get to ridding themselves of the scourge that is Emanuel, a new crop of voters could find themselves looking for an outsider at the presidential level as well. As if to hammer that point home, Alvarez’s opponent Kim Foxx, who is supported by MoveOn.org, attended a sit-down between Sanders and Jesse Jackson on Saturday.
“Rahm is an A-hole,” Craig Wimberly, a 60-year-old manager of a consulting firm told The Daily Beast. “I believe the administration was happy that he came to Chicago but unfortunately we inherited him.”
While he plans on voting for Clinton, Wimberly suggested she could and should blast Emanuel in the last hours before people go to the polls.
“I would if I were Hillary,” Wimberly said when asked if the presidential candidate should shirk the endorsement of the unpopular mayor.
“This is the time that you go for it. But I don’t know if she would.”