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A Rahm for the Money

Bill Clinton’s finance director—once the best professional fundraiser in Chicago—may be too good for his own good

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.

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.”

 

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.”

 

During his tenure at the Congressional Campaign Committee another, at least as prominent, side of Rahm Emanuel came out in its most infamous manifestation to date. The 1988 campaign had just ended, and the Democrats had managed to eke out a net gain of three congressional seats despite failing to capture the White House—the first such gain by either party since 1960. During the campaign, Emanuel had feuded with Alan Secrest, a well-known pollster. The Democrats had lost a close race for Jack Kemp’s old seat in Buffalo, and Emanuel blamed the loss in part on a faulty Secrest poll. When the campaign was over, he sent Secrest a dead fish, accompanied by a handwritten note: “It’s been awful working with you. Love, Rahm.”

Secrest responded with his own letter, six typed pages that began with the words “What a waste,” and went on to diagnose Emanuel’s supposed problems with “star-fucking,” “hubris,” “immaturity (personalizing conflict),” and “lying.” Secrest also accused him of wanting to cook the polls to bring back favorable results. The letter became public, though both Secrest and Emanuel deny leaking it. But, afterward, Emanuel was happy to show it to people who hadn’t seen it.

“Who can figure faxing that thing around?” asks a bewildered Alan Secrest, years after the fact.

But who can’t figure it? Picking such a high-profile fight—Campaigns & Elections magazine devoted a lengthy feature to the feud— has done nothing but enhance the Rahm Emanuel mystique: Anyone who can inspire that kind of passionate bile Secrest poured into his letter has got to be a force to be reckoned with. “I sent it around because if you read the letter you see how crazy the son of a bitch was,” says Emanuel, who plans to frame the Campaigns & Elections article and hang it in the Ravenswood house he shares with Amy Rude, an M.B.A. candidate at Northwestern. “It’s a great story, isn’t it? Probably the only thing I would  have done differently today would be to send him a jar of tartar sauce with the fish. The kinder, gentler Rahm Emanuel.”

 

One of the first important decisions the Clinton finance team made last December was to rely on fund-raising events rather than direct mail for the bulk of its contributions. Since at least the early 1980s, when the Republican Party turned direct-mail solicitation into an art, postmarked entreaties for cash have been a staple in political fund raising, particularly on a national level. You develop a stable donor base, keep sending letters, and keep reaping contributions, thousands of checks, all under $250, and all, therefore, qualifying for Federal matching funds. “But investing in direct mail requires putting out cash that you then don’t hold,” Emanuel says. “Any prospecting, you have to lay down the cash. So we decided not to use direct mail but do it all event based. We could hold the cash and use it for the TV we needed to win.”

The strategy worked. In New Hampshire, when the Gennifer Flowers flap hit and Clinton was assailed on the draft question, the campaign had the money to blanket the airwaves in reply. As Wilhelm puts it, “There’s no question that one of the major reasons that Bill Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee is that we had a little bit more money and even through some of the difficult times we were able to meet our objectives, and that in large part is due to Rahm’s persistence.” (Even so, Clinton’s rocky fortunes had put unexpected demands on the campaign budget. Heading into the convention, Clinton was holding emergency fund-raisers to help erase a $4-million debt.)

The only problem with all the accolades that so regularly come to him is that Emanuel is not particularly interested in being a fund-raiser. “He’s done such an astonishing job raising money for Clinton that he’s only augmented his image as one of the primary fund-raisers in the Democratic Party,” says David Axelrod. “In a sense he’s the victim of his own success, because I think that’s probably his least favorite thing to do in politics.” Indeed, Emanuel takes great pains to stress his other political accomplishments—the Research Group, for example, a company he cofounded in 1989, has quickly become one of the top campaign research firms in the country. “I don’t want to be known as a fund-raiser,” he says. “It ain’t what I’m going to be doing November the eighth, I’ll tell you that.”

But what will he be doing? In the past, Emanuel has taken time off after campaigns—to get a master’s in rhetorical theory at Northwestern, to audit a class on transcendentalism in American literature, to travel in Australia and New Zealand, and to get back on a regular schedule of ballet classes, which have been part of his fitness regimen since high school. This time, maybe he’ll do the same—depending, of course, on how the vote falls on November third. “I will say that this will be the last campaign for a long, long time,” he says. “It’ll be a long sabbatical or a job in the White House.”

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