The presidential campaign should have been fun this time for Rahm Emanuel—not like in 2008, when he quipped that he hid under the table while his friends Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled for the nomination. This time, he endorsed Clinton before she even officially announced her candidacy and, thanks to their decades-long friendship, was poised to be a star on the trail.
How times have changed. Since the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was finally released in November, this election cycle has been anything but enjoyable for Emanuel. It’s been downright humiliating, thanks in large part to the rebuke from Hillary and Bill, who act, in public at least, as if they’ve never made his acquaintance. Hillary knows she needs the black vote to win the primaries and the general election. Post-McDonald, Emanuel’s approval rating among African Americans in this city has plummeted to 20 percent. And so over the past six months, his name has passed her lips publicly only twice.
There’s good reason for the chill. “A toxic figure,” Chuck Todd called Emanuel on Meet the Press the Sunday before the Illinois primary. If Clinton lost her home state, Todd warned, it would be “on Rahm.” Indeed, her lead over Bernie Sanders in Illinois was a staggering 42 percentage points the week before the primary, according to a Chicago Tribune poll. Then Sanders reminded voters about Emanuel’s spectacular fall. “I do not want the mayor’s endorsement if I win the Democratic nomination,” he bellowed. “We want the endorsement of the people who are fighting for social and racial justice.”
On March 15, despite her frequent, frantic campaigning in Chicago, Clinton squeaked out a win by a mere two percentage points—saved, says Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, by winning seven of 10 black votes. And in that, a flicker of hope for Emanuel: His history with Clinton has proved toxic to her lately, maybe. But not fatal.
Lately, it seems that the mayor’s political reputation has emerged from the ICU and is ready for rehab—and the Clintons could play a key role in his full recovery. On primary day, Emanuel boasted to the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that he talks to Bill “regularly.” The two old friends (Emanuel once referred to them as best friends) share a love for the minutest details of winning elections. Emanuel also said he’s tight with Hillary’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, reportedly chatting with him about the need to sharpen her messaging.
When Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, as she almost certainly will, Simpson sees Emanuel grabbing onto it as a chance to return to Washington, possibly to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, given his urban policy experience. (Forget about him being her VP pick, which pundits posited in sunnier days.) “The budget condition in this state and city is just so massive,” says Simpson, who is also a former alderman. “Rahm might just decide that going to D.C. is easier than staying in Chicago and having to raise taxes and cut services.” Or the Clintons could use Emanuel like the Obamas use Valerie Jarrett—as a highest-level aide whose actual duties remain a mystery.
These days, Emanuel is out and about more, exiting and entering through front instead of side doors, making cheery announcements of several corporate headquarters moves downtown. A couple of days after the Illinois primary, he had some of his strut back while announcing a new Whole Foods distribution center in Pullman, stolen from Munster, Indiana. Emanuel has busied himself touting his slick Building on Burnham vision for the city’s parks, which would revitalize green space in all parts of the city. As he works with his Police Accountability Task Force and settles in with his new interim police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, he can try to portray himself as focused on fixing the precarious relationship between African Americans and the Chicago Police Department.
Then there’s the role he could play, behind the scenes, in helping U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth defeat incumbent Republican Mark Kirk. Getting back the Senate for the Democrats is almost as important as keeping the White House. As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rahm helped his party take back the House in 2006. Could he rally them again 10 years later and return to the party’s good graces along the way? Should Republican front-runner Donald Trump win the nomination, Emanuel is less likely to be a liability in the general election. Not that the human spin machine Trump could give a care, but he isn’t exactly agnostic when it comes to Emanuel, either. Trump donated $50,000 to Emanuel’s first run for mayor and last September sold the Miss Universe Organization to his former agent, who happens to be Rahm’s brother, Ari.
At least for the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July, Emanuel will have to downsize his ambitions and stick to behind-the-scenes networking and strategizing, so as not to hurt Hillary. If he feels demoralized, he can recall working in the White House during Bill Clinton’s first term. Emanuel, then 33, noisy, crude, and nakedly ambitious, got on Hillary’s nerves. “Fire him,” she ordered Bill. But instead, the conflict-averse rookie president demoted him. Through hard work, discipline, and focus, Emanuel clawed his way back—into a senior adviser’s job and into the First Lady’s good graces.
From there it was up, up, and up for Rahm—until he decided he wanted one of the nation’s hardest jobs: mayor of Chicago.
Friends in High Places
A rundown of celebs with local roots who are backing the presidential front-runners
|Dennis Rodman The former Chicago Bull was Trump’s first high-profile endorser.||Kanye West Yeezy took a selfie with Hill and Kim (natch) at an L.A. fundraiser.|
|Mike Ditka Trump’s got “fire in his belly,” according to Da Coach.||Common A female prez “would be wonderful,” the rapper has said.|
|Ted Nugent The Nuge, who lived in the burbs as a teen, has said the Donald would “kick ass and take names.”||Shonda Rhimes She rounded up her ShondaLand crew for a series of campaign ads.|
|Frank Kaminsky Sorta. The Charlotte Hornets center (and Lisle native) tweeted his support—then deleted it.||Gina Rodriguez The Jane the Virgin star urged Latinos to #VoteForHer in a video.|