Headlining in Chicago: Bill Clinton, stumping for Rahm Emanuel

Former President Bill Clinton visits Chicago to support Rahm Emanuel's bid for mayor.

By , Staff writer

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    Former President Bill Clinton (l.) injected star power into a rally for Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, Jan. 18. Emanuel, who worked in Clinton's White House and served as President Obama's chief of staff, is vying to succeed the retiring Mayor Richard Daley. The election is Feb. 22.
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Former President Bill Clinton injected star power into the Chicago mayoral race Wednesday, delivering a speech in downtown Chicago to support candidate Rahm Emanuel. He said that his former fundraiser and top advisor would become “a gale force of leadership” for the city if elected.

Mr. Clinton called the involvement of Mr. Emanuel in his first presidential campaign one of the “pivotal” reasons for his election and said he possessed “the skill set and the values and the sheer raw determination” to be mayor.

But did Emanuel need the help? He is already polling in the double digits ahead of his competition, he has the greatest name recognition and war chest, and the challenge to remove his name from the ballot due to residency issues appears to be languishing in the state court system.

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US Rep. Danny Davis (D), an early candidate in the race who dropped out to endorse former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, warned Clinton in late December not to come to Chicago on Emanuel’s behalf, saying it would jeopardize the former president’s goodwill within the black community that had supported him for nearly two decades.

“Some of that relationship may be fractured and perhaps even broken should [Clinton] … participate overtly in efforts to thwart the legitimate political aspirations of Chicago's black community,” Davis said in a statement.

Clinton ignored the call and arrived in town anyway. His appearance shows both the resilience of his support within Chicago’s black community, and also Emanuel’s need for credibility within those circles.

“The combination of Clinton and [President] Obama is overwhelming” in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, says William Grimshaw, professor of political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, so it’s no surprise that Emanuel is exploiting his White House connections: six years as Clinton’s political director plus two years as Mr. Obama’s chief of staff.

But Dr. Grimshaw, author of “Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931-1991” calls Clinton’s connection to the black community dubious, a perception born in 1998 when writer Toni Morrison dubbed him the nation’s “first black president” and that he embraced thereafter for political advantage. The reality about his relationship with black voters is more complex than what Grimshaw calls “superficial links.”

“[Clinton] was kind of duping them,” Grimshaw says. “He would go to church and then reform the welfare system in a way that put them at a disadvantage.”

Emanuel’s commitment to Chicago’s mostly black and low-income South and West sides has been questioned, as he has made few public appearances at forums and other public meetings there. For instance, over the past weekend, as other candidates participated in candidate forums or made speeches at local churches and halls in mostly black neighborhoods, Emanuel stuck to the West Loop near downtown, where he greeted diners in a local restaurant.

His opponents frequently use his absences to suggest a lack of accountability. “It’s very important that [Emanuel] be held to account to he fact that [he is] not here tonight and we are to answer your questions,” Ms. Braun told a group of about 300 people at a public forum Saturday morning.

Emanuel’s “rose garden strategy,” a preference for controlled, as opposed to open, forums, will not put his campaign at a disadvantage, Grimshaw says, because he is outspending his competition with advertising. “His money is the key, his connections are the second key on the South Side. So he’s reaching a lot of people but he’s using money more than public appearances,” he says.

While no other candidates have had an endorsement as high-profile as Clinton’s, most have enjoyed single-issue support from local and even national leaders. For example, US Rep. Luis Gutierrez is endorsing the immigration reform of Gery Chico, former chief of staff to departing Mayor Richard J. Daley. Mr. Chico’s education agenda is similarly backed by former Chicago Public Schools President Paul Vallas, who is now the superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District. The National Organization for Women Equality PAC endorsed Braun for her work with women’s issues.

Vying for endorsements that have national visibility is new in Chicago, says John Mark Hanson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “This is the first celebrity election in a good while. [Chicago] has tended to be a place with pretty well-defined career paths and you just sort of waited your turn,” Mr. Hanson says.

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