Rahm Emanuel's moment of reckoning: How he ended up in a fight for his political life

Emanuel had the money, the machine and the establishment behind him. So why is he in a runoff?

Published March 1, 2015 11:58AM (EST)

Rahm Emanuel              (Reuters/Jim Young/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-853072p1.html'>marchello74</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
Rahm Emanuel (Reuters/Jim Young/marchello74 via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

"Won’t you please come to Chicago
Or else join the other side"
-- Graham Nash

On Tuesday, an earnest, unassuming guy named Chuy Garcia did the unthinkable. He forced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff for election to an office Emanuel thought he purchased outright four years ago. Even better, he did it with the help of United Working Families, a grass-roots movement that with its close cousin, the Working Families Party, is forging a new model of progressive political action. What a week ago seemed a liberal fantasy, Rahm's imminent demise, is suddenly a very real possibility.

A Garcia victory would be a historic watershed not just for Chicago or for Democrats but for all progressives. It wouldn’t just frighten the Wall Street Dems who now reign over their national party. It would alter the terms of debate even beyond the party and prove, to cynics and to ourselves, that the power of ideas is still greater than the power of money and that grass-roots politics is not dead.

It’s a race progressives know how to win. It’s a general election, but with an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate and likely low turnout it will function more like a primary. If progressives grasp its significance they’ll invest the energy and resources it takes to win. Many are already doing just that. But to those who need convincing, allow me to make the case. It comes down to just two points. The first is all about who Rahm Emanuel is, and who and what he represents.

Even in elective office Rahm strikes people less as a political leader than what he is: a lifelong political operative. He was once executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. For a while he specialized in "opposition research," meaning campaigns hired him to dig up dirt on their opponents. But his forte was raising money, in large amounts, from people who had plenty of it.

By the time he was 30 he’d taken up permanent residence in the world of political high rollers he inhabits to this day. As Bill Clinton’s 1992 finance director he ran the biggest fundraising machine the Democratic Party had ever seen. While doing that job he was also on the Goldman Sachs payroll, a seeming violation of "black letter" campaign finance law that was never looked into.

Upon winning, Clinton named Rahm assistant to the president for political affairs, a job he soon lost due to the number of people he offended. His prior service made him a hard man to fire so he was kept on as "senior advisor to the president for policy and strategy," a job he seemed even less suited for, being no more a wonk than a diplomat. It did, however, prove a decent enough spot for a man skilled in palace politics to plot his comeback.

In 1995 I came to work in the Clinton White House and for a time dealt with Rahm on a daily basis. For a White House staffer he seemed strangely inarticulate. (It may explain some, though obviously not all, of the profanity.) When he spoke it was almost always about tactics; almost never about policy.

Two things about him stood out. One was the contempt he heaped on unions and liberals. I thought if he were ever caught on tape it would seriously damage the president and be the end of Rahm. Some later claimed to regard these rants as performance art but even at close range they seemed real enough to me. In any case I never heard him say an unkind word about the rich.

Most striking was the viciousness of his personal attacks, often over trivial things. He famously sent a pollster a dead fish wrapped in a newspaper— in lore a mafia death notice— for being late with a report. His behavior struck some as merely clownish but many feared him. Watching even senior staff exchange brief pleasantries with him in the White House mess was like watching townsfolk in a Hollywood western politely tip their hats to a gunslinger.

These traits have been on view since Rahm left Clinton in 1998. With no prior experience in finance he walked into a job at a Clinton-friendly investment bank. Two and a half years later he walked out with $16 million. He had no background in housing, either, but got appointed to the board of Freddie Mac where he made even more money while watching it slip slowly into ruin.

In Congress he hewed right on economic and fiscal policy and was a hawk on defense. As Obama’s chief of staff he purged Clinton-era liberals, which resulted in a team of economic advisers more conservative than that of any Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. Whether following their advice or his own instincts, Obama ditched ethics reform, aid to homeowners with bad mortgages, a minimum wage hike and the public option; a disastrous set of choices from which he never fully recovered.

Through it all Rahm cultivated his image as a ruthless operative. By the time he got to be mayor of Chicago he was the Keyser Soze of the Democratic Party, shrouded in legend, a guy who if you crossed him would slit your throat as you slept. It was a reputation he relished.

Rahm’s corporatist worldview, bruising personal style and stunted ethics made the city a testing ground for two major conservative agendas: corporate education reform and "privatization." His education agenda led to a bitter teachers’ strike and the closing of 50 public schools, many serving the city’s poorest residents.

Those closings are often cited as flash points of the current revolt but there were others. During last July 4 weekend, 82 shootings resulting in 14 deaths focused national attention on the murder rate among Chicago’s young black men. The crisis cried out for creative, sustained civic dialogue but Rahm hadn’t the patience, empathy or eloquence to provide that kind of leadership.

The X factor is a deepening discontent over Rahm’s privatization schemes, recently laid out in a superb article by Rick Perlstein in In These Times. Here's but one example plucked from a long, infuriating list:

In 2012 the transit authority commissioned a private contractor to issue transit cards that residents without bank accounts could use as prepaid debit cards. Buried in a 1,000-page agreement was an ugly array of hidden fees: $1.50 for ATM withdrawals; $2.95 to deposit money with a credit card; $2 to call a service rep; $10 for "research"; $6 to close an account. For designing a system to bilk the poor on such a grand scale, the company was paid $454 million.

Emanuel turned Chicago into a playland for people who, like him, mastered the art of spinning political influence into gold. If Garcia wins, it will reflect voters’ disaffection with a mayor who’s all bully and no pulpit, but also their revulsion to see such blatant profiteering at taxpayer expense. In an interview, United Working Families executive director Kristen Crowell said she was “astounded at voters’ rejection of corporate politics as a way of doing the city’s business.”

It is what Justice Kennedy in his willfully naive Citizens United opinion called "soft corruption": not simple bribery but the subtler corruption of modern pay-for-play politics. Citing no proof—there isn’t any--Kennedy wrote that soft corruption does little harm to the state and is of no interest to voters. In fact it is a cancer devouring our democracy and voters care deeply about it.

Rahm isn’t just a poster boy for soft corruption; he holds a patent on it. On the Democratic side of the aisle he stands with Tony Coehlo, Chuck Schumer, maybe Terry McAuliffe and, sad to say, both Presidents Clinton and Obama. It’s why his election means so much to the nation and it’s why he may lose.

Believing you can dial every day for Wall Street dollars and still stand up for the middle class is like believing you can smoke crack every day and still be a good parent. Left unaddressed, the contradiction between what Democrats do to get elected and what they promise to do in office will destroy them. We need a whole new model, which brings us to who Jésus "Chuy" Garcia is and who and what he represents.

Like Rahm, Chuy has spent much of his life in politics. There the similarity ends. Rahm is a longtime ally of Chicago’s fabled Daley political machine, Chuy is a member of the party’s reform wing and was a protégé of the late Mayor Harold Washington, who ran against and beat future Mayor Richard M. Daley. In a real sense, this is but the latest battle in a 30 years’ war between the city’s reform and machine factions.

From the first, Garcia was a leader, not an operative. At 28 he got elected to the city council, where he served seven years before moving on to the state Senate. He served six years there before losing a primary to a Daley-backed opponent. When he left politics he turned not to high finance but to the nonprofit sector, becoming director of a community development corporation. Four years ago he reentered politics by winning election to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In his staunch progressive record and subdued personal style he’s the anti-Rahm; a guy who proves he’s tough just by taking principled stands and then sticking to them.

Last Tuesday should never have happened. Rahm had a huge war chest, a vaunted machine, Wall Street and Hollywood connections and an endorsement from Chicago’s own Barack Obama. Rahm outspent Chuy 12-to-1. So what did he do wrong? Nothing really -- except, of course, for how he governed. The answer lies rather in who Garcia represents and in what they did right.

A month ago I wrote that progressives need a Tea Party of our own; not an Astro-turfed array of angry extremists but a grass-roots movement fueled by volunteerism and funded by small donors. Like the Tea Party, it would be independent, backing major party candidates who stay true to its values, and ousting ones who don’t. I said then the group closest to figuring it out was the Working Families Party. I wish I could say now I sensed how soon they’d do it.

The coalition taking Rahm to the mat works off the same model as the Working Families Party and even shares some of its DNA. It includes a dozen unions and community organizations, including the Chicago Teachers Union. Its basic tools are knocking on doors—it hit 153,000 in round one—and calling people up on the phone. Its members are rooted in their community and its message is rooted in its values. It may be about to topple one of the most powerful and least progressive Democrats in the nation. It is exactly seven months old.

The race confuses Washington. It’s a colorless town and for years Rahm was its most colorful figure, a source not just of news but of dark comic relief. Reporters imbibe the views of politicians who think the rules of the game immutable. This week even the astute E.J. Dionne compared Rahm to Bill de Blasio, “a hero to progressives,” calling it “mildly ironic” that “left of center voters” would give Rahm such a hard time.

Many progressives don’t get it either. If you put them all on Sodium Pentothal and asked if grass-roots politics can still beat big money, my hunch is they’d say no. Many pray the party will reform itself. Obama’s late awakening fans that flame. But if you want to know how likely that is, peruse the numbingly vacant report the DNC issued last week allegedly laying out its vision. Frederick Douglass said it best. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

On April 7 pay-to-play politics goes on trial in Chicago. The voters will be the judges. Crowell says holding Rahm accountable was a victory in itself, but she knows now it’s a fight they can win. For sure it’s an uphill climb, but then just last week it was impossible.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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Barack Obama Bill Clinton Chicago Editor's Picks Jesus "chuy" Garcia Rahm Emanuel Runoff Election