When President Biden announced last Friday afternoon that he would nominate Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan, the timing just before the weekend was clearly intended to minimize attention to the swift rebukes that were sure to come.
The White House described Emanuel as having "a distinguished career in public service," but several progressive Democrats in Congress quickly went on the attack. "This is a travesty," Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., tweeted. "Senators of good conscience must not vote to confirm him." Another African-American representative, Cori Bush, D-Mo., said that Emanuel "must be disqualified from ever holding an appointed position in any administration. Call your Senator and urge them to vote NO."
The response from Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., was pointed: "If you believe Black lives indeed matter, then the Senate must reject his appointment immediately." Tlaib accompanied her tweet with a link to an article that The Nation published in the fall of 2018, when Emanuel was nearing the end of his eight years as Chicago's mayor, with this sum-up: "The outgoing mayor's legacy will be defined by austerity, privatization, displacement, gun violence, and police brutality."
All three congressmembers mentioned Emanuel's responsibility for the notorious cover-up of the Chicago police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. For 13 months, during his campaign for re-election in 2015, Emanuel's administration suppressed a ghastly dashboard-camera video showing the death of McDonald, an African American who was shot 16 times by a police officer as he walked away.
After Emanuel emerged as Biden's likely choice for the ambassador job a few months ago, longtime Chicago journalist and activist Delmarie Cobb wrote a scathing assessment of his mayoral record. While mentioning that Emanuel "closed 50 public schools in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods," Cobb also pointed out that "he closed six of 12 mental health clinics in these communities." She added: "Now, who needs access to mental health care more than Chicago's Black and brown residents who are underserved, underemployed and under constant threat of violence?"
Emanuel's dreadful record as mayor of Chicago was in keeping with his entire career, spanning several Machiavellian decades that included stints as a member of Congress, a high-level aide for Presidents Clinton and Obama, and an investment bank director using his connections to make $18 million in two and a half years. Emanuel cemented his reputation as a combative and powerful player in the Clinton White House, pushing through policies that harmed the working class and people of color, including the NAFTA trade deal, the infamous 1994 crime bill and punitive "welfare reform."
That Biden has now chosen Emanuel to be the U.S. envoy to Japan — the world's third-largest economy — is, among other things, a distinct presidential middle finger to the constituency that gave him the highest proportion of support among all demographic groups in last year's general election: Black voters.
High-profile corporate Democrats were quick to lavish praise on the Emanuel nomination. Both Democratic senators from Illinois helped lead the testimonials. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Emanuel "has a lifetime of public service preparing him to speak for America." Sen. Tammy Duckworth chimed in, saying that the ex-mayor's "years of experience make him well suited to represent the United States of America in this important role."
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blew hazy blue smoke to an absurd degree, declaring: "In the House and, indeed, across the nation, Rahm Emanuel is known and respected by all for his relentlessness and track record of success. His great experience, from the U.S. House to the White House, will serve our nation well, as he works to deepen one of our nation's most important alliances, champion American interests abroad and advance regional security and prosperity."
After the nomination announcement, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that "the Biden administration is apparently willing to spend some domestic political capital with an Emanuel nomination," noting that "progressives mounted a drive to block the nomination of Emanuel." That drive, coordinated by my colleagues at RootsAction.org, has already generated several thousand individual constituent emails to senators urging them to oppose the nomination. As RootsAction co-founder Jeff Cohen told the Sun-Times, "the #RejectRahm/'NoToRahm' campaign has virtually organized itself."
A coalition of 20 organizations, mostly national while including several Chicago-based groups, has launched a grassroots campaign to ensure that every senator will hear from their constituents urging a no vote on Emanuel's nomination. In June, 28 victims and relatives of victims of police violence in Chicago released a joint statement, along with a poignant video, denouncing Emanuel and decrying the prospect that he might be rewarded with an ambassador post.
Despite the pressure for party-line conformity, Democratic support for the nomination could fracture in the Senate. Replying to letters from constituents urging him to oppose Emanuel for ambassador, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon — who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — seemed responsive.
"I have heard from Oregonians who are concerned about certain aspects of Mr. Emanuel's record during his tenure as Chicago's mayor, in particular his administration's response to the tragic shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was killed by Chicago police in 2014," Merkley wrote. He added that "at a time of a national conversation about police accountability and combatting systemic racism, there is so much more that we can and must do to address racism and discrimination in our law enforcement practices. … Please be assured that I will keep your views in mind should Mr. Emanuel's nomination come before the Senate for consideration."
Merkley is one of 11 Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, which will convene a public hearing with Emanuel before voting on his nomination. Whether Merkley and other senators will be open to preventing Emanuel from going to Tokyo with a new title is unclear at best. But it's possible.