Rahm Emanuel, four days removed from the second most powerful job at the White House, learned yesterday that coming home to Chicago isn’t always so sweet.
Rivals to the throne of retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley sent supporters to challenge the former White House chief of staff. Protesters jeered his role in President Barack Obama’s support for Wall Street banks. And black voters criticized him for what they said was the administration’s inability to help Chicago communities suffering from unemployment.
Emanuel, 50, crisscrossed the nation’s third-largest city to talk to residents ahead of a potential mayoral bid, a tour that gave him a fresh reminder that any campaign will test his reputation for deal-making, stamina and political toughness.
“I’m a middle child,” he told three men seated at a south side restaurant long frequented by vote-courting lawmakers, explaining that his own upbringing prepared him for political fights. “You know what our motto is? War or peace, we can do either one.”
As Emanuel tried to leave, another man made it clear the day wouldn’t unfold to the tune of the blues standard “Sweet Home, Chicago.”
“You are going to be asked some hard-ball questions, and get your bat out,” said Paul Johnson, 49, who complained to Emanuel that the Obama administration has failed to deliver enough economic stimulus dollars to his south-side neighborhood. “Welcome to Chicago.”
Emanuel responded: “Great. Thank you.”
He also received hugs, words of support and requests for autographs as he traded Air Force One for a Dodge minivan. Emanuel shook hands on a train platform, greeted diners at restaurants, strolled past storefronts and visited a bowling alley during his first day on the campaign trail after resigning his White House post Oct. 1.
His tour took him to neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Latino, both groups critical to political success in a city where non-Hispanic whites constitute 32 percent of the population.
Daley said Sept. 7 that he wouldn’t seek re-election to a seventh term. The city, with a 10.8 percent unemployment rate in August and an estimated $654.7 million deficit for 2011, has been led by the current Daley or his father, the late Richard J. Daley, for almost 43 of the past 55 years.
Emanuel declined to answer most questions from reporters. While he hasn’t formally announced that he’s running, Emanuel told reporters that he anticipates voters will consider him qualified for the job.
“Yes, I am,” he said. “But look, they’ll judge that.”
Among the commuters he happened to shake hands with at the day’s first stop was Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.
“I think his chances are the same as the other 18 to 20 candidates,” Roper later said. “We feel it’s critical that we have a candidate who totally understands the fiscal responsibilities of running a corporation that’s probably north of $25 billion, someone that can produce a jobs agenda.”
Emanuel represented parts of Chicago’s north side and northwest suburbs as a Democratic congressman from 2003 until his appointment by Obama.
If he enters the race, Emanuel could tap the $1.1 million he has in his congressional campaign fund, and he knows the Chicago donor community well. He earned at least $17 million a decade ago during three years of investment banking, after leaving President Bill Clinton’s White House, where he was a political director and senior adviser.
Emanuel can’t live in his own home in Chicago while exploring a mayoral bid because he hasn’t been able to persuade the tenant in his 2,719-square-foot home to move out before the lease expires in June. A reporter asked if this would raise residency-requirement issues for him.
“I think the main issue, really, is not my residency, but the residents of the city of Chicago and their concerns,” he said. “People are enthusiastic, energized. They love their city. They know it’s got challenges. And I think that’s what they want to talk about.”
A growing list of candidates is exploring bids for the office following Daley’s announcement that he wouldn’t run again. Gery Chico, a former Daley chief of staff whom the mayor appointed as chairman of the City Colleges of Chicago Board, announced his campaign last week.
Other potential candidates include Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart; state Senator James Meeks, minister of one of Chicago’s largest churches; Democratic U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez; and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who conducted her own listening tour yesterday.
Danny Davis, a black congressman from Chicago who is considering a mayoral bid, said he wouldn’t support Emanuel.
‘Not the Center’
“Rahm is not the center of our interests in the mayoral election,” Davis said. “If you’re going to be mayor of Chicago, there are segments of the community that are always interested in having the most progressive mayor we can find.”
Nov. 22 is the last day to file nomination papers for the Feb. 22 election. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be an April 5 runoff for the top two vote-getters.
Before leaving the train station yesterday morning, Emanuel was approached by a motivational speaker from Chicago named Nathaniel Henry, 40. He handed Emanuel an autographed copy of his book.
The title: “Never Anything Too Easy.”