The Rahmfather Makes an Offer Chicagoans Can’t Refuse

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Photo: John Gress/Getty Images

Rahm.

The name stops you as you rush to make your morning train. Rahm Emanuel has just slid his hand into your own and wants to know what's on your iPod. Or how you got that cast on your leg. Or when your baby is due. He wants to know and he won’t let go until he gets an answer.

"It’s an intimacy thing," Emanuel explains.

He is on the fast track to get intimate with Chicago. We are standing outside the Addison L stop on a Wednesday morning in late October, and Emanuel is reminding Chicagoans that he's back in town and wants to become their mayor.

So far, Emanuel — or The Rahmfather or Battering Rahm, as the Chicago media is starting to call him — is on a roll. He has been shaking hands in bowling alleys, cafés, and bingo halls nonstop since early October after two years as White House chief of staff. He has a reported $1 million campaign war chest, the best-connected friends in Washington, and the bulldog personality to neuter an already docile city council.

But in the insular world of Chicago politics, Emanuel is not seen as a true native son. Even though he spent seven years representing the city’s Northwest Side in Congress and owns a home one mile from Wrigley Field, Emanuel is perceived as more Beltway, less Machine. Part of that is simple geography — he grew up in Wilmette, a North Shore suburb. And instead of spending years toiling away at tweaking zoning-law ordinances and getting garbage picked up in the alleys, Emmanuel was crafting a Democratic majority in the House (thoroughly destroyed in this week's election, in part because Republicans used Rahm's own tactics) and fixing problems for Obama.

Alderman Bernard Stone, who has run the 50th Ward for 37 years, likens Emanuel to “a stranger coming home.”

“Even though he’s known on the North Side, he was never really known in the rest of the city. He is a Chicagoan, regardless of what anybody says, but he’s got a lot of ground to make up,” Stone says.

The opposition is already making it clear they plan to highlight Emanuel’s national pedigree and expose him as a carpetbagger who wants to waltz into the city’s top seat without paying dues.

“I’ve been in the trenches,” says candidate Gery Chico, a former chief of staff to current mayor Richard M. Daley. “Actions speak louder than words. The job of the mayor is getting things done, it’s not about promoting your image.”

But even if Emanuel couldn’t locate Chicago on a map and made his stump speech in Klingon, his odds look very good. Besides Chico, City Clerk Miguel del Valle, and State Senator James Meeks, he faces only tumbleweeds on the horizon. When Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart stepped aside, a heavy sigh of relief could be heard emanating from Team Rahm.

“When someone of [Dart’s] quality gets out, that has an impact. But on the other hand I’ll leave the interpretation to others,” Emanuel told reporters the day of Dart’s decision.

Still, potential obstacles remain. A “Stop Rahm” campaign by Alderman Edward Burke, an old-school South Side ward boss, argues that because Emanuel relocated to Washington for two years, he fails to meet the residency requirement of one year set by the Chicago Board of Elections. The issue gained traction when the local media reported that Emanuel’s house renter refused to break his lease early, forcing Emanuel to rent a condo downtown.

Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga says the residency charge is “bogus,” but explains that local identity is so deeply embedded in the city’s political character because it’s a throwback to how immigrant generations established their power base.

“The most important question in Chicago is ‘where did you go to high school?’ That pins you to a social class, religion, and ethnicity. That kind of thing remains important in this city,” he says.

At the L stop, Emanuel greets each passerby with conversation that start midstream. “Who’s your pediatrician?” he asks a pregnant woman; “What happened?” he asks another woman who hobbles in with a leg cast.

This, of course, is a kindler, gentler version of Rahmbo, the pinstriped enforcer of the Democratic Party who famously mailed a dead fish to a pollster, flipped a congressmen the bird in a steam room, and was subsequently described as “the son of the devil’s spawn.” Antics like those might keep D.C. players in line, but no one likes a bully in Chicago unless his last name is Daley, which Emanuel knows too well. [He recently told the Chicago Sun-Times the steam-room bit isn’t true.]

Emanuel tells me he is reaching out to a “nuanced” voter: “tax-sensitive, service-demanding, but socially progressive,” encompassing lakefront liberals and multifamily broods in the bungalow belt.

“That’s what I call ‘a new progressive,’” he says. “And if I win, this will be the emergence of this voter as a dominant political force. That has never been defined in Chicago.”

When commuters hear the call (“Rahm”) they do a double take or smile. Pacyga says after 21 years of Daley rule, an Emanuel win could be “a sort of watershed in Chicago history” in pushing its political culture onto a more global stage. For a city where local TV weathermen receive the red-carpet treatment, that’s significant.

Emanuel says the guerrilla meet-and-greets are meant to break tradition, and that people are receptive only because they’re not used to engaging their elected leaders in the flesh.

“The old-school guys don’t do this,” he says. “They play an inside game. This is an outside game.”

A fifty-something woman named Diane in a raincoat and rainbow-colored rims beelines toward Emanuel. “I got off the bus to shake your hand,” she tells him. They hug and visit for a few minutes until the next bus arrives and she has to leave.

Emanuel seems genuinely touched. “Got off a goddamn bus to shake my hand,” he says. “Isn’t that weird?”