Rahm Emanuel Is Really Running Against Himself

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images

Two weeks before Chicago residents decide whether to reelect Rahm Emanuel as mayor, they’re starting to see a softer side of Rahmbo. “They say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness,” he says, sitting at a table in a V-neck sweater with no tie, in a TV commercial that instantly became the most talked-about ad of the race. “I’m living proof of that. I can rub people the wrong way, or talk when I should listen. I own that.” In a clever twist on this vulnerability play, Emanuel argues that his abrasive style is driven by his motivation to make the city better. But the tacit admission is not lost on anyone. The ad came a week after he failed to earn 50 percent of the vote in a five-way mayoral race, triggering a run-off with a progressive challenger who seriously threatens his chances at a second term. Opposition to Emanuel, which is at the heart of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s surprisingly effective candidacy, takes many forms, but there is one universal complaint among his critics: Emanuel is abrasive, and his reputation for insensitivity has come to color how people view his first term, fairly or not.

There have been three really major issues with Rahm and this campaign,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now teaches political science at the University of Illinois Chicago. “The first is the closing of 50 schools in minority communities. The second is crime in minority communities. The third could be characterized as Rahm’s arrogance … the sense is he doesn’t ask people what they want to have done and doesn’t involve people.”  

The same intensity that Rahm admitted is his “greatest weakness” made him legendary in Washington, a “heat-seeking missile,” as former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod once called him; a finger-pointing, desk-thumping, profanity spewing pragmatist who engineered the Democrats’ House takeover in 2006 and rammed through Obama’s early legislative agenda. There have been no stories about Rahm sending dead fish to his opponents in Chicago or confronting them in the shower (two mental-health advocates did recently accuse the mayor of blowing up at them in a closed-door meeting, but the mayor’s office denied that it happened, and a video posted from the event shows the mayor taking a tongue-lashing from his critics). But Rahm’s reputation precedes him so much that it now acts as a filter for how voters view the difficult decisions he’s made in his first term — and thanks to the financial situation left by his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, Emanuel has had plenty to make. “I had a theory on this and I’ve talked to a bunch of people and its validated my theory,” says Dave Lundy, a Chicago-based political strategist. “My theory was if he did not clear 50 percent the first time it was because a lot of people were angry at Rahm, a lot of people have found his style abrasive.” Before the election, Lundy started asking people whom they were voting for and was surprised at how many people told him they were voting for Garcia. “I asked why and they said, ‘because Rahm’s an asshole,’” he recalls. 

It’s not that Chicagoans expect their mayor to be warm and fuzzy — the Daleys weren’t known as touchy-feely types either. But the younger Daley presided over Chicago’s transformation from struggling rust belt town to the Midwest’s cosmopolitan capital. Rahm’s been left with the less enviable task of cleaning up the financial mess Daley left behind. “If there were no problems and everything was working perfectly in Chicago that might be okay,” Simpson says, of Emanuel’s personal touch, “but that’s not the situation.” It’s not just the voters who are viewing the political as personal, either. “He’s a walking personality disorder. But his audacity exceeds his accomplishments,” a Chicago Tribune editorial writer seethed last year, before launching into the argument that the mayor hadn’t tackled the city’s budget shortfalls quickly enough.

Rahm is consistent with the style Chicago mayor that people are comfortable with,” Lundy says. “There have just been such challenging decisions people have had to make and he doesn’t come off as empathetic.” Emanuel frequently describes the school closings as among the most difficult decisions of his term — the schools were under-enrolled and under-performing, he says, and moving the students would both save the city money and give them a chance at a better education. But the closings were leaked while Emanuel was away on a family vacation. His kids, the news stories almost never failed to mention, attend a private school, allowing critics to portray him as arrogant and out of touch. And his refusal to condemn the one percent in the language of the party’s populist wing has opened him up to a de Blasio–esque challenge on his left.

But as an insurgent candidate from the left, Garcia is not inspiring the level of confidence that Bill de Blasio did. Shortly after Emanuel ran the sweater ad, his campaign followed up with another spot highlighting Garcia’s refusal to say how he’d pay for his policy initiatives. In a city with already treacherous budget holes and a massively underfunded pension program, the mayor has been able to portray his opponent as too vague on the specifics to be worth the risk. He’ll probably be successful. Lundy says that lately when he surveys friends and neighbors, most who were on the fence are now leaning toward Rahm. “Lately it’s been, ‘Well, I’m going to vote for Rahm; I don’t think Chuy’s up to the task. I haven’t seen anything thing indicating this guy can handle it,’” he says. The polls, which this week started showing Emanuel up by consistent double-digit margins, seem to bear this out. Chicagoans may be resigned to the fact that Rahm is an asshole, but he’s their asshole.