A Rahm for the Money

FROM OUR AUGUST 1992 ISSUE: Bill Clinton’s finance director—once the best professional fundraiser in Chicago—may be too good for his own good

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Rahm Emanuel in 1992
Rahm Emanuel in his Chicago office in 1992
Here’s how to be the most effective fund-raiser in politics today: Plaster a phone to your ear. Speak rapidly, in barely restrained tones of impassioned outrage. Tell the important person on the other end of the line that the large check he’s just written for your candidate’s campaign isn’t large enough. Say this: “Five thousand dollars!? You, you, you—I wouldn’t embarrass you by having it listed that you only gave $5,000. You’re a $25,000 person; better to give nothing and say you were out of town. If you want to give $5,000, fine, but don’t call me when people start asking you if you’re going bankrupt. People of your stature are giving $50,000.”

That’s Rahm Emanuel. Or, to be accurate, that’s the Rahm Emanuel impression that Phil Krone used to do when the two worked together on Mayor Daley’s campaigns in 1989 and ’91, Krone as a consultant and Emanuel as finance director. Emanuel is the kind of person who inspires mimicry: intense, aggressive, obnoxious, willing to turn down checks. Virtually anyone who’s worked with him for any length of time—on campaigns for Paul Simon, Daley, Richard Phelan, and now Bill Clinton, for whom Emanuel serves as national finance director at the hoary age of 32—has witnessed the scorning-the-check scene repeatedly, or at least claims he has. It’s vintage Rahm, topping his list of tactics for squeezing money from well-intentioned yet well-guarded wallets.

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Those tactics succeed spectacularly well. When Emanuel arrived in Little Rock last November to take over Clinton’s fund-raising operation, the campaign had raised about $600,000. By the first of the year, at the end of the crucial first-quarter reporting period, he had gathered a staff, pulled off 26 fund-raising events in 20 days, and brought in a total of $3.3 million. By the end of the primaries, before adding Federal matching funds, the total stood at about $17 million—a remarkable figure, even though the up-and-down Clinton campaign was still in debt. With a $55-million Federal grant paying for the general election campaign, Emanuel is now working in Washington as campaign director for the Democratic National Committee, overseeing the raising and the spending of money for other campaigns. The goal is $40 million.

Emanuel’s secret? He’s not embarrassed to ask baldly for the cash. “A good fund-raiser needs to be able to short-circuit that elaborate network of inhibitions that most of us have that would make us uncomfortable about asking,” says media strategist David Axelrod. “Rahm has mastered the art of tripping the circuit.” Forrest Claypool, the deputy state treasurer, who’s worked with Emanuel on several campaigns, puts it this way: “He talks tough to people—‘Here’s what we need, here’s why we need it, and we can’t take any less from you.’ A lot of these people are used to folks dancing around the subject and being overly polite, and no one’s ever accused Rahm of that.”

“It’s that sense of aggressiveness,” Emanuel says. “That’s an attribute people say I have—I’m ‘too aggressive.’ I don’t see it. I just keep pushing, that’s all.”

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Emanuel’s first exposure to politics came around the family dinner table on the North Side of Chicago, and, after he was ten, in Wilmette. His father, a pediatrician who teaches at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, had emigrated from Israel, where he worked with Menachem Begin’s underground group Irgun in the mid-1940s. His mother, a social worker, was active in the civil rights movement. And his maternal grandfather had been a union organizer. “So conversations were politics with a big P and social concerns with a big S,” he says. Growing up, Emanuel spent most of his summers in Israel; Hebrew was his first language.

It’s litter wonder, then, that Emanuel’s first campaign was an intensely ideological one. He was 20 years old, taking a semester off from his philosophy studies at Sarah Lawrence College to work for Democrat David Robinson in his campaign to unseat 22-year Republican congressman Paul Findley of Springfield. “Findley was the principal champion in Congress of the Palestine Liberation Organization,” says Forrest Claypool, who worked on the campaign. Emanuel started as the volunteer coordinator but rose to head up national fund raising. The campaign became the first in the country, Claypool says “to center its fund-raising appeal around the effort to unseat an explicitly anti-Israel candidate.”

With Emanuel’s help, Robinson eventually raised about three-quarters of a million dollars—and lost. “That was the last one we lost,” says David Wilhelm, who worked on the Robinson, Simon, and Daley campaigns with Emanuel, and now manages Clinton’s campaign. (Findley himself was later defeated by Democrat Richard Durbin.)

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Emanuel went to work for the Illinois Public Action Council, an organization that promotes “progressive” causes and candidates. By 1984, he’d been lured to Washington, to work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, eventually serving as national political director. “I had to convince him to move from cause-oriented politics to system-oriented politics,” says Tony Coelho, former Democratic congressman from California, who was then head of the campaign committee. “He has very strong ideals, but understands that the way to get there is to get a President in the White House who shares your ideals.”

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Photograph: Guy Moeller

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