Rahm Emanuel’s Liberal Problem Could Hurt Chicago Mayoral Bid

The man who once blasted the left as “f***ing retarded” needs their support to win election as Chicago’s next mayor. Adam Doster on Emanuel’s chilly reception from the city’s progressives.

Serving as the mayor of Chicago is Rahm Emanuel's "dream job," and President Obama's first chief of staff often gets what he wants. But if Emanuel hopes to replace the retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley at City Hall, he must overcome early resistance from a constituency he's consistently sparred with in Washington: organized progressives.

During his most recent stint in the White House, Emanuel was the bête noire of liberal activists; it seemed as if he took pleasure in abandoning progressive policy priorities during legislative negotiations and then colorfully dismissing related (and reasonable) criticisms from the left. Emanuel famously called health-care advocates who were planning to target conservative Democrats "fucking retarded"—not the type of comment that endears a candidate to voters in a heavily Democratic city.

With Election Day four months away and the enormous field still shaking out, few prominent members of Chicago's liberal community have dismissed Emanuel's candidacy, formally launched Sunday, outright. "Everybody has a right to run," says 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, chairman of the City Council's Black Caucus, in a typically diplomatic statement.

It's nearly impossible, however, to find a liberal pol or institutional organization publicly cheering the possibility of an Emanuel administration. Indeed, several have taken minor jabs at the candidate himself and the media circus that's followed his every move.

Take the City Council's Latino and Black Caucuses, which have each met regularly to pick a "consensus" candidate for the position. Rick Munoz, alderman of the 22nd Ward and an active Latino Caucus member, has called Emanuel a "political bully." Burnett, meanwhile, says his colleagues are looking at "everyone" in the field but emphasized that Emanuel "has an advantage with the media." U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who is collecting petitions for a potential run and lobbying the Black Caucus for its support, struck a similar chord in an interview with Chicago Public Radio. "The people I interact with ... they're not interested in Rahm being the Mayor of the City of Chicago," he said.

Chicago liberals aren't specifically disheartened by Rahm's moderating influence in the White House or the snide manner with which he has derided folks from "the professional left." Rather, activists and advocates in the Windy City fear that Emanuel is too closely aligned with Daley, whose domineering administration reinvigorated Chicago's business district and adjacent neighborhoods but left huge swaths of the city in serious disrepair and the budget deep in the red.

Dirk Johnson: Rahm’s Toughest HurdleJohn Conroy: Rahm’s Rough Road AheadComplete coverage of Rahm Emanuel"Hizzoner" gave Emanuel one of his first major breaks in politics, hiring Rahm to spearhead his 1989 campaign fundraising operation. (Emanuel wrung millions out of the region's top lawyers, developers, and executives on the way to victory.) After working in the Clinton administration, Emanuel returned to Chicago and took a position with the investment firm Wasserstein, Perella & Company. Leveraging his relationship with Daley and other Democratic heavyweights, he netted more than $18 million in just two years of work. That spurt in the private sector set the stage for his congressional career.

Since Daley announced his retirement, Emanuel hasn't done much to dispel concerns about his mayoral ties. White House visitor logs show that Rahm has met with a cavalcade of Daley allies during the past 18 months. They include the mayor's brother William Daley and officials from William Blair & Company, the architects of Daley's infamous parking meter lease deal. Big Daley donors like real-estate tycoon Neil Bluhm and billionaire Hyatt Hotel chair Penny Pritzker are friendly with Emanuel, too.

Emanuel's campaign won't be powered by small-dollar donations; liberals fear it will be financed by the same political players who have disproportionately benefited from Daley's tenure.

That worry is compounded by the fact that Emanuel has spent virtually no time during his 25-year career working on municipal issues. As he gets his feet wet at City Hall, he's likely to rely on Daley apparatchiks and influential donors for guidance. The election of Emanuel, in other words, could be tantamount to the ascendance of a third Daley.

"We can't do the same-ole, same-ole over and over again," says Rev. Booker Vance, an activist on the city's South Side.

It's too early in the cycle to predict exactly what form an anti-Rahm mobilization will take, but organizations have hinted they won't stand on the sidelines. Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez has said that organized labor will act in "lock step." Workers won't fall in line for Emanuel. SEIU, which spent $2.5 million challenging Daley-backed council members in 2007, has hinted that it's no fan of the former congressman. (The state council's political director declined to speak on the record about Emanuel's entrance into the race). Their army of members will be a particular asset in the first competitive mayoral race since the machine's patronage network was effectively disassembled. (The union does have solid relationships with two other frontrunners, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.)

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A spokesperson for UNITE-HERE Local 1, another politically-active union, reports that local rank-and-file leaders are just beginning their vetting process. Might Emanuel's courtship of Pritzker, whose hotel chain has been locked in a bitter, 13-month contract fight with members here, impact their choice? "Where and from whom candidates receive campaign contributions are factors that may affect our union's endorsement decision," the staffer writes over email.

On Monday, some of Chicago's most influential community groups launched a citywide coalition focused on the mayoral race. While they also would not speak about Emanuel's candidacy directly, their "community platform" was a laundry list of policies Daley has fought against or ignored while in office. High on the agenda were investments in affordable housing and substantial reforms of the city's tax increment financing system, a development tool intended to eradicate blight that Daley has treated—at the expense of taxpayers—as a mayoral slush fund. The coalition is planning voter registration and outreach drives in the coming weeks.

National activists seeking retribution for Emanuel's alleged sins in Washington are getting involved, too. All the way back in January, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee released a local television ad that blasted Emanuel for "undermining" the public option and urged Chicagoans not to vote for Emanuel in any future election. Although the group doesn't have a large presence in Chicago political circles, co-founder Adam Green says it's "very likely" that spot will hit the airwaves again before February.

If Emanuel wants to win over support of Chicago progressives, he'll have to take a cue from his former boss and make clear that he's prepared to "change" how business is conducted in the mayor's office. "We can't do the same-ole, same-ole over and over again," says Rev. Booker Vance, an activist on the city's South Side. "We need new folk with new ideas, new energy, and who are willing to use the people.

Adam Doster is a reporter-blogger at Progress Illinois, a Chicago-based news and commentary site. His work has also appeared in The Nation, In These Times, and The American Prospect.