Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm and Rauner Are Vacation Buddies in Montana—Fly Fishing, Anyone?

Political and personal connections led Chicago’s mayor to thrash about with a fly rod in a pristine Montana stream.

Photo: Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune
 

Montana. Big sky country. Beautiful. Hey, isn’t Rahm staying at Bruce Rauner’s place around here somewhere?

Now that Bill Daley has quit the governor’s race, my guess is that Rahm won’t be voting for Pat Quinn, not even while holding his nose. I bet Rahm pulls the lever for his buddy, Republican Bruce Rauner, former CEO of the private equity firm GTCR.

It’s Rauner, after all, who advised Rahm in the late ’90s to make his fortune as an investment banker and who hired him to represent GTCR in the purchase of a home-security company from SBC Communications. Proceeds from that deal, among others, put the Clinton operative, who had no prior business experience or education, on the fast track to earning $18 million in under 3 years. Fortune in place, Rahm sprinted down the road to elective office.

Rauner’s genuine chumminess with Rahm will not help the venture capitalist in the Republican primary, and neither will Rauner’s contributions to Rahm’s campaigns. Republican rivals Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard are already attacking Rauner for his cozy ties to Rahm. And those ties are not only cozy, they’re real—families-vacation-together real.

On April 17, 2012, before Rauner announced his exploratory committee for governor, the American Jewish Committee, at a dinner at the Ritz Carlton Chicago, honored Rauner with its Civic Leadership Award. More than 400 people attended, a AJC record. Mayor Emanuel introduced/roasted Rauner and presented him with the award. Two people who were there that night told me that Rahm was extremely funny and that he mentioned that he and his family vacation at Rauner’s ranch in Montana. (I asked Jonathan Schweitzer AJC’s assistant director, communications, for a video, audio, or transcript of Rahm’s remarks. I was not surprised when Schweitzer told that me that he did not have any of that.)

On his campaign website, Rauner waxes nostalgic about how his “Swedish-speaking…dairyman” grandfather taught him how to “shoot a rifle at 10” and how he “jumps at every opportunity to fish.” A Tribune reporter once described Rauner wearing a tie “printed with fishing flies.”

So Rauner’s a long-time, authentic fly fishing enthusiast, and so, on a smaller, shorter scale, is Rahm. Or, at the least, Rahm is a budding fly fishing enthusiast. The next time Rahm enjoys a getaway in Montana perhaps the buddies can fly fish together.

How do I know about Rahm’s surprising new hobby? Not from Rauner. When I interviewed Rauner last May, he would talk about Rahm only in the most general way—“We’re friends. We’ve known each other a long time.” He even avoiding my question of whether Rahm and Amy ever dine out with Bruce and his wife, Diana.

In a follow-up interview, when I asked Rauner about his Montana spread, he was obviously not going to share any of its charms. Rauner doesn’t mention Montana on his website, any more than he mentions his house in Winnetka or the penthouse at 340 E. Randolph Street, overlooking Millennium Park. Rauner does mention his Harley—later in the summer he would ride it to the state fair in Springfield—but he does not describe the joys of riding in Big Sky country.

It was Tom Brokaw, who loves to talk about his ranch in Montana—but, then, he’s not running for office—who revealed on-air that Rahm has taken up fly-fishing. The former NBC Nightly News anchorman came to Chicago in January to moderate, in the wake of Sandy Hook, a panel on “The Politics of Guns in America” for David Axelrod’s University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Rahm, a friend of Brokaw’s, was on the panel.

En route to Hyde Park, Brokaw stopped at WBEZ and told former “Afternoon Shift” host Rick Kogan and ESPN.com’s Lester Munson, a “personal” story about Rahm, and chuckled at the utter incongruity of our hyperkinetic mayor partaking of a sport that requires “patience, rhythm, and solitude.” Brokaw described Rahm as “thrashing” at the water and swearing at the trout. “Trout have never heard [such] language as they have from Rahm if they don’t cooperate with him.”

Searching for other ties between Wilmette’s Rahm Emanuel and the state of Montana, I discovered an article in the September 2010 issue of The Montana Pioneer by food critic David S. Lewis. (Rahm was then still working at the Obama White House.) The headline caught my eye: “A Rahm Emanuel Moment: White House Chief of Staff Threatens Food Critic.” Lewis describes sitting on the patio of the Paradise Valley Grill in “a lovely spot,” from which diners look out at fly fishermen “anticipat[ing] the day’s final catch….beneath a panorama that drops gently toward the [river] bank over a vast green plain then rolls skyward in the distance, climbing foothills toward the hovering peaks of the Absarokas.” The area, Lewis notes, is a favorite of fly fishermen and Montana-second-home celebrities such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Fonda, Robert Redford, Johnny Depp. Lewis observes a man carrying a bottle of red wine entering the patio with “his suntan and pearly whites” and decides the man—in reality Rahm Emanuel—might be Robert Downey, Jr.

For his story, Lewis needs a photo of a bottle of Napa Valley wine—the restaurant’s chef was born and reared in Napa and that region is a huge influence on his cooking. The bottle Rahm carried, which fits the bill, is set down next to him. Lewis discretely—he still hasn’t recognized the man as Rahm—snaps a photo, aiming at the bottle but, by necessity, also at Rahm, who warms Lewis, “You better not put that [photo] anywhere, or you’re in big trouble.” Lewis, who has finally realized that the man issuing the threat is Rahm Emanuel, writes that the COS seems so relaxed in “the aura of the mountains and river…[that] even Emanuel seemed to appreciate the folly of his remark…This is, after all, Montana, not Washington DC, or more to the point Chicago.”

Rahm as a fly fisherman is fun to contemplate, but, whatever you do, Bruce Rauner, don’t introduce our mayor to the joys of one of your other favorite outdoor sports, bird hunting. Rahm hoisting a rifle? Pointing it up in the air at some poor feathered creature—maybe—but what if he loses concentration and instead points it straight ahead?

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