Profile: Emanuel rewrites narrative
Candidate driven to project calm, which is at odds with his image
Mayoral Candidate Rahm Emanuel campaigns at E&B Restaurant at West 111th Street. (William DeShazer / Chicago Tribune / February 19, 2011)
"All right, you guys wouldn't want to sit down would you?" the former North Side congressman turned White House chief of staff turned mayoral candidate pleaded as dozens of seniors crowded him and a piano ditty incessantly blared from speakers.
"I feel like I'm at a small little place in upstate New York with this music. ... I feel like I'm doing an opening act for somebody."
When Emanuel finally launched into his boilerplate campaign banter, he cut it short.
"Now, I was going to give a longer speech, but I gotta tell you something," he said. "A, you're closing in. B, it's warm in here and as we would like to say in the family, I'm schvitzing. I am hot."
The 51-year-old Emanuel is hands down the most famous of the six mayoral contenders, nationally known as a relentless and sometimes volcanic political operative who practically trademarked the F-word.
But the in-your-face side of Emanuel's personality has been greatly restrained as he runs to replace the retiring Richard Daley at the city's helm. Instead, Chicago voters have been treated to a candidate who is part borscht belt wisenheimer (his middle name is Israel, not Henny), part voice of calm in a raucous field, and part above-it-all office-seeker trying to project an aura of inevitability surrounding his bid.
That, too, is classic Emanuel. In an adult lifetime spent in and around Chicago and national politics, he has adroitly harnessed the discipline to do whatever it takes to succeed -- for his own career and those of Daley, President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
It is no accident that Emanuel's public fortunes have long been on a steady upward trajectory, just as it was no accident that a detour into investment banking after a stint in the Clinton White House made him a very rich man in a very short period of time.
Emanuel is a study in focus and hustle who leaves little to chance, whether it's setting up money-churning political fundraising operations for himself and others, spearheading the successful Democratic drive to retake the U.S. House in 2006 or coordinating a presidential response to the steepest recession in decades.
He even plots his workouts down to the precise number of laps swum, miles biked and run, sit-ups crunched, or time devoted to yoga on each day of the week.
As a candidate, Emanuel is the antithesis of his old boss, Obama, who could shift from electrifying to professorial to fit the audience and setting. Emanuel fires off remarks staccato-style and remains on message whatever the situation, inevitably circling back to a mantra about "safe streets, strong schools and stable finances."
Ask him a question and he's likely to preface the answer with a brusque, "Here's the deal." So here, in CliffsNotes fashion, is the deal on Emanuel:
Born in Chicago. Raised in north suburban Wilmette. The middle of three sons of an Israeli immigrant pediatrician. Trained as a ballet artist until he proved even more limber at political strategy and fundraising. Father of three. Avid scuba diver.
And, according to the Illinois Supreme Court, a Chicago resident in good standing, despite efforts to have him declared otherwise and booted from the ballot.
On the campaign trail, Emanuel makes much of the key policymaking roles he held in Congress as well as in two White Houses, and has trotted out Clinton in person and Obama on tape to woo voters in this Democratic city.
Other, more controversial, stops on his resume get much shorter shrift. Take, for example, that interlude as an investment banker between 1999 and 2002 that netted Emanuel at least $16 million arranging mergers and takeovers and set him up for life.
The biggest of those deals created Exelon, the Chicago-based power-generating behemoth. It stands out because Emanuel earlier had worked for an Illinois consumer group that cut its teeth on fighting utilities. Emanuel sees no inconsistency, arguing that his actions helped save a major corporate headquarters and lots of jobs for Chicago.
During his investment banking days, Emanuel also served on an array of civic and corporate boards. In February 2000, Clinton installed him on the board of the government-chartered mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Emanuel had served him as White House political director, and was a vocal Clinton defender during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.