On a recent Saturday morning, a middle-aged man worked the produce and deli sections of a South Side Chicago supermarket, ambling past signs touting a half-pound of honey ham for $2.49 and a bulletin board with photos of three teen runaways. In tan chinos, a sports shirt and a well-worn brown leather jacket, he walked up to the African-American shoppers and employees with brisk efficiency, engaged in amiable but brief chats, then turned and headed down the bread aisle, a universe away from the West Wing meeting he'd have been in were it not for a career decision unprecedented in political annals.
"Rahm Emanuel, running for mayor" he said, thrusting out his hand to Chiquita Robinson, 48, a deli clerk who didn't need the introduction. "I'm gonna vote for you," she said, later explaining her preference: "Obama asked him to work for him. He's from Chicago. He's really involved in things, knows a lot of people and will be great."
He doesn't shout, doesn't curse, doesn't tell anybody they're stupid or wrong. For the moment, at least, that vividly profane side of Barack Obama's former chief of staff has been replaced by a disciplined campaigner with some overwhelming advantages: a national profile, a prodigious Rolodex, shock-and-awe fundraising, a triathlete's stamina and a hit man's resolveplus, of course, the reflected glow of the President of the United States, himself a hometown hero. All of which is upending conventional wisdom about the city's Feb.?22 mayoral election, in which Emanuel is the clear front runner. The change in leadership comes at a perilous moment. The next mayor could either reinstate Chicago's status as a world-class city, or leave it another postrecession victim.
Chicago politics being a blood sport, front-runnerdom has made the slim Emanuel a fat target. Critics wonder if a man known for dropping F bombs like a B-52 has the temperament to be mayor. Emanuel's prime rival raises daily the threat of a "Rahm tax" on services from gym memberships to haircuts. The cops and firefighters pointedly are not endorsing him. People are still muttering about the more than $18 million he earned in less than three years as an investment banker after he left the Clinton White House. And Emanuel had to summon every ounce of his finite patience to endure nearly 12 consecutive hours of public interrogation over whether he even qualifies to be on the ballot as a legal city resident. (He does, according to the state's supreme court.)
In this odd adventure, Emanuel, 51, is something of a trailblazer: there are 17 living former presidential chiefs of staff, yet none have departed the White House for anything quite so humble as a bid for municipal office. James Jones, an Oklahoman who held the job under Lyndon Johnson, went on to serve a few terms in Congress; Dick Cheney, who staffed Gerald Ford, represented Wyoming in the House; and Erskine Bowles, who steered Bill Clinton through the Lewinsky saga, lost two U.S. Senate bids from North Carolina. But it's something different to walk away from Situation Room crisis meetings, visits to foreign capitals, high-stakes budget negotiations and the Sunday-morning talk-show circuit for a rough-and-tumble world in which speedy garbage pickup can make you a hero and unplowed snow can ruin you.
And we're not talking about just any White House chief of staff. We're talking about Rahm, among the most famous and influential occupants the job has seen in years. A man who helped elect Clinton and to shape his White House, then won a hard-fought North Side congressional seat from which he, in turn, recruited and advised the candidates who restored a Democratic House majority in 2006. A man who mused about becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House, before leaving Congress to work beside America's first black President. And yet here he is this morning at a strip mall in a black working-class neighborhood, fist bumping little kids as surprised shoppers snap cell-phone pictures. The candidate is warm, if not effusive, good with eye contact, then exiting conversations to quickly corral another shopper as if he were a hustling parking-lot attendant paid per car. Emanuel is a decisive man, and he is campaigning in the pursuit of a decisive win on Feb. 22not just a victory but one big enough to avoid a runoff election.