Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The Definitive Rahm Dead Fish Tale, ‘Barry Obama,’ and More

Chris Sautter, who describes himself as Obama’s “first media consultant,” was in town this week. Our meeting came after Sautter’s name recently surfaced in one of the juicier parts of a new book I wrote about earlier this month…

Chris Sautter
Chris Sautter
Chris Sautter, who describes himself as Obama’s “first media consultant,” grew up in Wheaton, where he was a neighbor and buddy of John Belushi’s. Sautter, 62, eventually became a top strategist—he ran the Washington office of the David Axelrod’s firm from 1988 to 1991—and recount expert (an attorney, he co-wrote a handbook on the subject and, most recently, was one of the lead lawyers on the Al Franken recount). He was in town this week, and I sat down with him to talk politics and politicians at the Trump Hotel. The meeting came after Sautter’s name recently surfaced in one of the juicier parts of a new book I wrote about earlier this month. The book reports that Axelrod had floated the idea in 2009 of Sautter going to the Justice Department to help Attorney General Eric Holder with his political communications. The deal fell through, perhaps with negative consequences for Holder, who has just been voted in contempt of Congress.

On Monday, Sautter had breakfast with Axelrod, and he claims they talked mostly about “Axelrod’s passion,” the Bulls. Sautter declined to tell me what they really discussed, but he did offer “the never-before-told complete story” of Rahm Emanuel sending a rotting fish to the pollster Alan Secrest. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: So tell me the dead fish story.
CS:
It’s 1988. Rahm is working at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with the title of national campaign director. It was Rahm’s job to pick up seats, and Bush won that year. Usually when a president wins, [his party] picks up seats. Because of Rahm, really, the Democrats picked up [several seats]…. Hardly a landslide but going against the grain. Rahm [was] very active in recruiting candidates. He traveled all around the country. One candidate he recruited was the Erie County Clerk, a young guy in his early 30s, good-looking, nice family, former teacher. This is the old Jack Kemp seat. It was a Republican-leaning district but not impossible, and the Republicans nominated a state rep named Bill Paxon. We [Sautter was working the race with Axelrod] decided to go on-air right after the primary with a strong media campaign and then go into the field, do a poll so we could get more money. Secrest does his poll, it comes back that we’ve lost ground from the earlier poll. Makes no sense. Paxon wasn’t even on the air. The campaign manager who was a Princeton grad, smart guy, who was very detailed oriented, spent hours after it came back. He instinctively thought there was something wrong and he figured out that the samples had been switched because where we lost ground was in the Democratic part, picked up in Republican part. He tells Rahm what’s going on. Rahm says, “Okay I’ll get Secrest to do another poll.” Secrest sort of digs in, very defensive, denied screwing up the poll. Finally he admits, “Yeah, okay, that’s right.” Meanwhile we had to go off the air because we only had enough money to do one [round], and Paxon was on the air. For at least 10 days Rahm and Secrest are at a standstill. At the end, we lose. So then Rahm is comparing notes with his counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Republican says, “Why did you guys go off the air? Our tracking showed the race was even.” Rahm went ballistic. He and two staffers who had been involved in the race sent a dead fish in the box and signed it. 

CF: So Rahm signs the card attached to the long gift box, “It’s been awful working with you. Love, Rahm.”
CS:
Yeah, but the other two guys signed it, too. So Rahm was going back to Chicago and Secrest writes this really ridiculous letter…. Rahm knew that the letter was ridiculous so he sent it around to everyone. Rahm embraced it, and it became sort of a legendary story.

CF: Were you surprised when Rahm left Obama to run for mayor here?
CS:
I saw Rahm that day [the day Rich Daley announced his retirement] in the White House. I heard it in my car on the way over there. I ran into him and said, “You must be getting a lot of phone calls,” and he said, “Do you mind answering them for me?”

CF: Rahm for president in ’16?
CS:
No.

CF: Mayor for couple of terms?
CS:
Yes.

CF: So what happened to Bill Daley as Obama’s chief of staff? Was he shown the door?
CS:
I don’t know enough about it. My only contact with Bill Daley was during the 2000 recount because I was one of the lawyers on the ground in Florida.

CF: Was Daley outclassed by his Republican counterpart [former secretary of state] James Baker?
CS:
I agree with that. My counterpart  ….[was] Ben Ginsburg. He didn’t run it, but he had a lot to do with recount strategy. I think on our side [former secretary of state] Warren Christopher and Bill Daley ignored the advice of people who had any kind of experience. My first meeting with Bill Daley was the Wednesday after the election in a small room in Tallahassee, also there was the [Democratic] Attorney General of Florida. He knew what to do. If they weren’t going to listen to me they should have at least listened to him. I don’t think [Bill Daley] really understood the whole concept of the recount. The following morning there was a meeting when it was decided to just go after four counties. I had recommended a statewide recount.

CF: Did you ever call Al Gore and say, “They’re doing it wrong?”
CS:
No, but I had heard that Gore’s instincts were to do a statewide recount and he had been talked out of it primarily by Joe Lieberman, who had been an Attorney General. I don’t know that Daley had a strong opinion. He was, you know, whatever everyone decides. He had no confidence that we could ever win that. Warren Christopher was just out of his league. He was not in a zone that was comfortable to him. And he was just kind of telling stories… about the Johnson days, Carter days.  

CF: You mentioned a bond between Obama and Paul Simon?
CS:
The first time I ever met Obama [at breakfast at a downtown Chicago hotel during the 2000 primary race for Congress], at the next table, coincidentally, was Paul Simon, whom I had worked for [in his primary campaign for president in 1988]. Obama truly idolized him. I think the idealistic Obama saw the St. Paul in Paul Simon.

CF: You were polling for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary when he unsuccessfully ran against Bobby Rush for Congress in 2000. Did you think he could win? Did he think he could win?
CS:
I don’t think he would have run if he didn’t think he could. Several of the ward leaders [including Toni Preckwinkle] were urging Barack to run. And there was a sense that Bobby Rush’s time had passed, immediately after the mayoral race [Rush lost to Rich Daley in 1999]. That would have been August 1999 when I met with Obama.  When I came up a month later and we walked around the South Side, and we stopped at churches. We went to community events. It was obvious that except for leaders, nobody really knew who this guy Obama was. The turning point was the murder of Bobby Rush’s son. Rush was greatly aided tragically by the death of [his] son because people were willing to take another look at him after that. In the aftermath, what struck me even though Barack lost decisively, was that most people were saying, myself included, “This guy could be the first African-American on the national ticket.” I was thinking more vice president. We had lunch in 2001, and we had discussions about what next for him. I always thought the [U.S.] Senate because his hero was a senator, Paul Simon…. The great thing about that House race—and I truly believe he couldn’t have won the Senate without the House race—was, for one thing, he learned a lot about himself and how tough these races are. There were people who were encouraging him to run for Attorney General. I knew he wanted to be in Washington.

CF: You did what you call a “split sample benchmark poll” in the summer of 2002 to test the waters for a U.S. Senate race for Barack.
CS:
The poll showed us his biography just went off the charts. Having been a civil rights lawyer and been head of Project Vote, he did very well among African-American voters, and his Harvard stuff [played well] among white voters. There was some talk that Carol Moseley was considering running, and he would not have run had she run because that would have made that coalition impossible.

CF: Part of that poll was about whether it would be better for him to run as Barry Obama as opposed to Barack Obama?
CS:
Barry Obama won by not a whole lot, maybe 6 or 7 points.

CF: Would he have run as Barry if the poll showed a wider spread?
CS:
I didn’t know him that well, but I knew him well enough to know that he was never going to run as Barry Obama.

CF: When was the last time you talked to Obama?
CS:
During the 2008 Indiana primary. I was handling the governor’s race. He gave me a big hug and he said, “We’ve come a long way, brother.”

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