Rahm Emanuel: Chicago mayor swagger, but local sway?

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Monday he would like to run for Chicago mayor if Richard M. Daley doesn't seek reelection. How would his Washington credentials and caustic style mesh with Chicago's political machine?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, shown here April 11, said Monday that if Richard M. Daley didn't seek reelection, he would like to run for Chicago mayor.

Rahm Emanuel announced on Charlie Rose’s PBS show Monday that if Mayor Richard M. Daley decides not to run for a seventh term, he would like to take his place.

“That’s always been an aspiration of mine, even when I was in the House of Representatives,” he said according to a transcript.

Although the informal announcement was downplayed Tuesday by a White House spokesperson, it is already turning heads in Chicago, where political strategists say Mr. Emanuel’s bulldog style and Washington credentials might not sit well with the city’s deep-seated Democratic political machine.

A typical Chicago political career – especially one that leads to the mayor’s office – starts from putting in long hours in neighborhood ward organizations and working your way to city hall, a path Emanuel largely bypassed.

Before he became the chief of staff under President Obama, Emanuel’s single connection to Chicago’s tight-knit political infrastructure was as chief fundraiser for Mayor Daley’s first election campaign in 1989. He lives part-time on Chicago’s North Side but grew up in the city’s affluent North Shore suburbs, a pedigree which DePaul University political science professor Larry Bennett says makes him “rather different from your classic candidate” running for a Chicago office.

“A lot of the details of his background don’t square with Chicago politics,” says Mr. Bennett, which could make his candidacy vulnerable to Republicans looking for a foothold after lying dormant for years. His connections – to President Clinton as a senior adviser, and to President Obama – have the potential to galvanize Republicans to handpick a prominent business leader to challenge his credentials.

“It might produce a [Michael] Bloomberg or a [Rudy] Guiliani-esque kind of a Republican who can say ‘I know how to get things done, I know the system but I’m not a part of that system’,” Bennett says.

But others say Emanuel’s Washington resumé is a benefit, and could help in fundraising. “If he’s going to run for mayor he needs a political army and endorsements from the [Chicago] machine, and right now he has neither,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Does he have the temperament for the job? His reputation as a stubborn, cutthroat and, at times, foul-mouthed dealmaker – a combination recently lampooned in a hit sketch comedy show by Chicago’s famed Second City – is double-edged.

“He has to have a tough mindedness a mayor needs to run a city … but he’s not a coalition builder,” Mr. Simpson says. Emanuel ranks second to Obama in Chicago political circles, he adds. “Many more people like Obama than they like him. Obama has a more positive image with the press. Rahm doesn’t.”

Bennett agrees. “Emanuel is pretty smart but I think his ruthlessness might get in the way of being a chief executive,” he says, adding that in Chicago, the mayor also oversees the Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago Public Schools, two agencies that have suffered budget cutbacks and mismanagement in recent years. “I don’t know if [his] style is good in working with those boards and with those staff members … he’s not a good enough sweet talker.”

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