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Out of the Loop

by Daniel Foster

Rahm Emanuel stages a homecoming parade

Chicago — Rahm Emanuel has juked me again. I let him out of earshot for the first time all day — to debrief a young couple who’d just finished chatting with him between bites of scrambled egg at the Lincoln Restaurant, a greasy spoon with purple vinyl booths and an Honest Abe theme in Chicago’s North Central neighborhood — and, just like that, he was gone.

I have spent much of the last week trying to massage his press flacks, to acclimate them to the idea of a National Review reporter trailing their candidate and assure them that this isn’t to be a policy piece so much as a look at the circus surrounding his homecoming after two years in the White House. They are polite enough, but aloof, and seem to be perpetually trying to shake me.

So I bid goodbye to the couple, quickly track north in the direction I think I saw Team Rahm driving, and after a few minutes spot him greeting shoppers outside a supermarket. There is something ridiculous, if not a little endearing, about Mr. Dead Fish, the most fearsome man in the Obama White House, glad-handing old ladies with their bags full of high-fiber cereal and cantaloupe.

Of all those angling for the mayoralty in the city that’s pulled the lever for Daley for the better part of a half century, Emanuel is the most formidable operator and the best fundraiser by far, and yet in the nebulous but already crowded field, it’s not clear that he’s the favorite. Immigration activists are greeting him with protest signs. Aldermen are skeptical. Labor hasn’t forgotten his perceived betrayal on the public option or his “F –  the UAW.” And the simple fact is that Rahm was out of town during the worst of the recession as Chicago’s budget shortfall widened and violent crime went up. So these supermarket flesh-pressers, these diner stop-and-chats that compose his “Tell It Like It Is” listening tour, are about grabbing front pages and getting his name back out in the wards, about reconfiguring himself as both a native son and a reformer — as both the logical successor of, and the antidote to, the Daley dynasty.

All politics is local, but that doesn’t make local politics any less tedious, a fact that doesn’t seem lost on Emanuel when he gets bumped by a derelict shopping cart, turns, and shoves it off just a little harder than necessary toward the collection area.

Rahm has hitherto avoided any acknowledgment of my existence, as if there were an NR-reporter-shaped hole in his space–time continuum. But when his eyes shift from the offending cart and he sees I’ve caught up with him again, he looks amused. As he walks past me, he gives me a punch on the shoulder — playful, begrudging.

“You can’t be having that much fun,” he says. I don’t say, Neither can you.

The flacks told me that once I was in Chicago I’d get evening alerts about where Emanuel would be campaigning the following day. Mysteriously, the e-mails never come. I nag early and often — I’m on the clock here. They say something about them “bouncing back” from my address. It must be a peculiarly selective glitch, since I’ve been having no problem getting the perfectly useless recaps they send out after each day’s events.

So on the Friday morning of Week One of Rahm’s homecoming, I find myself at a downtown coffee shop, trying to get some research done and waiting for a response to my umpteenth request for information. When I finally get word, I’m already too late for one appearance and have less than an hour to get to the next one, clear across town in Chicago’s western hinterlands. If I were any farther away, I’d be in Lake Michigan. Still, after a lengthy, expensive, and highly improvisational cab ride, I manage to beat him to the spot, pen and pad in hand, by a good five minutes.

The Home Run Inn, a pizza shop in North Lawndale — on the edge of the city near the border with Cicero, where Al Capone set up shop when Chicago got too hot — is a family joint. Dark brick walls, wood paneling, the homey smell of pepperoni grease, wall mirrors etched with Budweiser emblems, cola sloshing in big frosted plastic glasses.

The workday lunch crowd at the inn is mixed: majority working class, plurality black; oxford shirts, retail uniforms, jerseys, and stenciled T-shirts all well represented.

Emanuel pulls up a little after noon, riding shotgun in a black minivan, eyes hidden behind a pair of dark Wayfarers. He’s dressed politician-casual — smart dark suit, no tie, shirt open at the collar — and he has a small contingent of staffers in tow.

He’s done a number of these already: north to his old 5th congressional district strongholds in Lakeview and Edgewater, west to Austin, south to Bronzeville and Hyde Park — Obama country. A staffer calls them “retail stops,” a phrase that could with equal accuracy apply to the locations or the politics.

The first thing you realize watching him work the room is that he’s good at this. As good as Obama, and maybe better. Most of the patrons recognize him by sight even if not by name. They smile as he shakes hands, bumps fists, gives low-fives and claps on the back. Here’s a Marine vet with his wife and two daughters. There are a couple of young dads whose kids are playing soccer at the field across the way. His tone is familiar. He’s easy with jokes. He pauses from the conversations just long enough to direct a couple of bright-eyed twentysomethings with clipboards who are collecting signatures.

He approaches a trio of barrel-chested, vaguely Slavic-looking middle-aged men who could have been understudies for the guys who did the “Da Bears” sketches on Saturday Night Live. “Now this looks like a four-pizza table,” he says. “This does not look like anyone is worried about their carbs.” The men, who work for the water department, are good sports. But they also want to know what Emanuel is going to do about taxes. They’re too high. Emanuel runs through the clichés: Got a lot of challenges . . . can’t stay on our present course . . . difficult choices to be made . . . got to square the circle. The vagueness makes sense. At this point, there’s not much to be gained by specifics.

He moves on to the next booth, three telephone linemen: Cedric, black, 43; Julian, Hispanic, 38; Marko, white, 33. Cedric, a self-described “political junkie” who can rehearse the pros and cons of a half dozen would-be mayoral candidates, came into the encounter sharing the many union men’s suspicion that Rahm is no friend of labor. “I heard he was rude and abrasive,” he says, “but he couldn’t have been more congenial.” Most impressive of all, Cedric says, is that Rahm cursed only once.

All week, Emanuel’s tour has been chewing up real estate on the front pages of every paper in the city, and it’s drawing ire from some of the city’s political elites.

The aldermen are taking shots in the press. One calls Rahm’s attempted “rebirth” as a reformer pure “marketing . . . the same package [with] some different colors on it.” Another hits him for hewing to “clichés.” A third refers to him as “the consummate insider.” And perhaps most damningly of all, Ricardo Muñoz of the 22nd ward calls him a “wine and cheese” guy in a “beer and brats town.”

And even before Emanuel left the White House, Jerry Morrison, the Service Employees International Union’s top man in Illinois, was signaling that he’d just as soon take his labor votes elsewhere. Emanuel, Morrison told the Chicago News Cooperative, was a NAFTA-supporting former investment banker who would be the Chamber of Commerce’s pet candidate, ensuring that the government spigot continued to flow for Chicago’s big businesses at the expense of the little guy.

Which raises the question: If not Rahm, then who?

The name most frequently mentioned is Cook County sheriff Tom Dart — a former prosecutor and state legislator who earned a heap of little-guy cred when in 2008 he unilaterally suspended foreclosure evictions in the wake of the subprime crisis. Though Dart has yet to declare (he’s running for reelection as sheriff in November), the conventional wisdom is that he’ll enter the field. His base in the working-class neighborhoods in the south and southeast is distinct and autonomous from Rahm’s north-side constituency, and he can compete for the support of the disgruntled unions.

The other big South Side name is James Meeks, a state senator and the pastor of the Salem Baptist megachurch’s 20,000-plus flock. If the black community were to rally to his cause, he could prove every bit as formidable as Emanuel and Dart. That’s a big “if.” The black vote in Chicago is wont to fragment. U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr., and former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun, are also popping up on straw polls throughout the South Side ministries.

Then there is the West Side’s Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon, a member of the state-senate leadership team perhaps most famous for a near fistfight in a senate cloakroom — with then-colleague Barack Obama. Though Hendon backed Obama’s presidential run in 2008, he’s never quite sheathed his dagger. On a recent radio-show appearance promoting his own mayoral candidacy, Hendon “guaranteed” that if Obama “endorses Rahm or [Tom] Dart, he’ll never be president again.”

The city’s Hispanic vote is just as fragmented. There’s far-left Rep. Luis Gutierrez, whose ardently liberal positions on immigration will surely prove popular with many Latinos. But he’ll compete for votes with Chicago City Colleges board president Gery Chico, a former aide and key ally of Daley, and current city clerk Miguel del Valle, a Puerto Rican from the northwest side who as a state senator was a member of both the Latino and black caucuses.

Mayor Daley was a master of neutralizing identity-politics-driven opposition with strategic appointments and appropriations. But now every constituency is up for grabs — a balkanized political landscape in which Rahm finds himself ping-ponging from one side of the city to another, searching for votes.

It’s Saturday morning, and Emanuel is back on the pavement. This time it’s a farmers’ market in North Center, an old German neighborhood of detached houses and store-top apartments between Wrigleyville and the Chicago River. This is his backyard, near his house in Roscoe Village, and its growing population of young-professional gentrifiers is a juicy political target.

Rahm’s gone even more casual today. He’s lost the jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and the dress shoes have been replaced by a pair of off-white Chucks peeking out from under the frayed cuffs of his khakis. He makes a little circuit of the market stands — apple cider and honey and goat cheese, marmalade and fresh-baked focaccia and, yes, organic arugula.

It’s here that I see my only fleeting flash of “Rahmbo.” He’s leaving the Lincoln Restaurant — that greasy spoon with the Honest Abe theme — and a reporter from Time and I are flanking him. So far he hasn’t taken a single question from the press, but now he’s giving the Time girl the world’s safest answer on an education question: blah blah parental involvement and blah blah too much TV.

As soon as he finishes, I want to ask him where he stands on immigration, and about how he’ll mend the rift with Big Labor. I want to ask him what he thinks of Tom Dart, or his old colleague Gutierrez, or of Rickey Hendon’s prediction that an Obama endorsement would doom his old boss’s reelection bid. I want to ask him if his homecoming has been everything he expected it to be.

All I get out is “Rahm, real quick — ” and then Emanuel grabs my writing wrist with his right hand — which is short half a middle finger from a teenage meat-slicer accident — and tells me, “We’re not doing a press conference right now, so be good.”

And with that, Rahm the former ballet dancer pirouettes around me and into his black minivan, off to the next stop.

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