Emanuel's Legacy Double-Edged Sword In Mayor's Race

A dozen politicians are eying the Chicago mayoral seat vacated by Richard M. Daley. Rahm Emanuel is the highest profile candidate, but columnist Clarence Page says the former White House Chief of Staff is no shoo-in — and his legacy may win him critics as well as fans.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, The Opinion Page. When Richard Daley announced he would not stand for reelection in next year's race for mayor in Chicago, the political repercussions extended from the lakefront to the West Wing. Today, if you're looking for Rahm Emanuel, look in The Loop, not in the White House. The president's former chief of staff is back home on a listening tour. And in a moment, Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with The Chicago Tribune joins us to explain what he's hearing.

And we want to hear from Chicagoans in the audience. What do you make of Rahm's return? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Clarence, nice to have you with us.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Clarence Page with us here in Studio 3A. And Rahm Emanuel made an unorthodox move. Today, he declared his intentions with a YouTube video.

Mr. PAGE: Yes. We are now in the era of YouTube, and he wants to get out there in front of the people. And I think of it as an impressive gimmick to impress us people in the media. But Chicago is still a town for good retail politics. What'll be more impressive is to see him out in subzero weather shaking hands at the L stations.

CONAN: And he's already been out doing that.

Mr. PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: And of course, Chicago being Chicago, he had some fans and some detractors, as I understand it.

Mr. PAGE: Well, yeah. And, you know, it's a hot contest. It's a different kind of an atmosphere than in D.C., where you have, you know, right versus left. In Chicago, we have 50 wards. I do believe that's more than any city, perhaps on the planet, let alone the United States. But each one is its own power fiefdom.

You've got fairly - almost fairly, evenly - massed ethnic, racial balance, you know, black voters, white voters, the Hispanic voters, the fastest growing group. You have perhaps a dozen formidable possible candidates for mayor throwing their hats in the ring or sitting poised, ready to do so. It's going to be a runoff for the first time in - in Chicago history. And so everybody is vying to be those last two to run in the runoff. Cause probably none of these preliminary candidates will get 50 percent.

CONAN: Well, there was an interregnum. But the Daleys have been running Chicago for a very long period of time, and it seems almost unusual. This is - this seems to be wide open.

Mr. PAGE: Well, it is wide open. What we're seeing, first of all, Mayor Richard M. Daley is finishing up like 22 years in office. During that time, there has been a lot of unbridled ambition pent up on the part of a lot of people, including those 50 aldermen and various other folks. And now, we're seeing that ambition literally explode onto the streets now, with people saying that they're either in the running or thinking about running. So it is wide open in that sense.

I think Rahm Emanuel - he has excellent fundraising abilities. He leads on that score. He probably has the narrowest base of the most talked about candidates. He's got to build that up. That's why he's off on that listening tour, to let people know the real Rahm, not the one they've been seeing on the media.

CONAN: And he, of course, represented the north side for six years in Congress.

Mr. PAGE: That's right. And, you know, successfully so. He was a popular congressman. He surprised me, frankly. I've known him, you know, as a news source and a fellow talk show panelist, that kind of thing, here and there since the late '80s, when he was a rising fundraiser in the Democratic organization there in Chicago and on the periphery of the organization.

He was a fast-rising star then. And I, frankly, was surprised when he ran for Congress because I knew him as an inside player. But he got the most votes. He - and was very well liked. And I think that's what's going to surprise people in this mayoral race. A lot of people say, what, Rahm, the guy who sent a fish wrapped up in a newspaper to a pollster who's results he didn't like? Yeah, that same Rahm Emanuel knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to.

CONAN: And can turn the Aaron room bluer than anybody in political history from what we hear.

Mr. PAGE: He turns it into poetry, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And your column focuses on his legacy in the White House. You talked about his legacy in Chicago and...

Mr. PAGE: Right.

CONAN: ...his time as a member of Congress. But he's also got some baggage that he takes with him from the West Wing that people are not going to forget. This is the Democratic Party primary that we're talking about.

Mr. PAGE: Yes, it is. And there are a lot of members of the party's base, the progressives, a lot of folks who wanted to see, say, single-payer included in the health care overhaul. Rahm Emanuel is blamed for being one of the voices that said, hey, we got to go for what we can get. And so he would go for the middle ground. He sacrificed the - well, President Obama never supported single-payer. But the private - the public option was sacrificed by, well, Rahm Emanuel, among other folks.

And issues like that have caused a lot of folks in Chicago who are more progressive than Rahm to say, no, that's not the guy we want. They started an anybody but Rahm movement.

CONAN: They consider him a sellout.

Mr. PAGE: That's right. That's - well, that's politics. I mean, youve got other folks like, well, Jesse Jackson Jr., possibly. Although he's had troubles lately with - a possible investigation in connection with Rod Blagojevich. You've got Reverend James Meeks on the south side, a popular clergy man and state legislator, but also a social conservative. You got Sheriff Dart, who's a leading potential contender, very popular for deciding not to kick people out of houses whose mortgages had been foreclosed.

CONAN: And I guess we can't forget that all of this is going to unfold in the retrial of Rob Blagojevich.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. In that - with that in the background, we must remember Chicagoans have a higher tolerance for corruption than a lot of folks do around the country. As long as you're not currently under indictment or formal charges, it's not that unusual to have somebody whose name has been linked with investigations, including Rahm Emanuel. He may be called in to testify in the Rod Blagojevich retrial. But that's kind of - you know, that's not that unusual in Chicago.

CONAN: Clarence Page with us on The Opinion Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Lee(ph), and Lee is on the line with us from Chicago.

LEE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

LEE: Good. I just have a question. If, you know, you think that Mr. Emanuel will continue in his policy of selling off the city assets like the Taste or the skyway or the parking meters, and I just want to hear Mr. Page's comment about that. Thank you.

Mr. PAGE: Oh, well, thank you for the question. We don't know yet. I'm sure he'll be questioned about that. But you bring up a very good point, which is the city is broke. The city is in deep deficit right now. The early Daley years, it was much more fun for him to be mayor when he could make big changes in the lakefront - move Lake Shore Drive, build a new Soldier Field, this sort of thing.

Nowadays, the city is broke but still has to pay its workers. They can't lay off people like private corporations. All these public worker contracts have to be honored, so the city is going deeper into debt. Some drastic measures will undoubtedly be necessary to balance the budget. And they're going to be unpopular, I don't care who the mayor is. So I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't see further privatization of some of those franchises no matter who the new mayor happens to be.

CONAN: Lee, thanks very much for the call. Let's see, we go next to - this is Sean(ph), and Sean is calling us from Denver, which is one of Chicago's more southerly suburbs.

SEAN (Caller): A lot of former Chicagoans here in Denver. I live in Chicago, and in 2001, when Rahm Emanuel was running for Congress, he came to a local Labor Day event and he was campaigning, trying to get votes. And I asked him -I didn't know who he was - I said, tell me about your background. And he went on to describe his role in the Clinton health care efforts. And after he described all that, I said, that sounds a lot like Josh Lyman from "The West Wing," meaning the TV show.

CONAN: Yeah.

SEAN: He looked at me and he said, I know Josh Lyman. If you like him, you will like me. Please vote for me. And I think this idea of a listening tour is ridiculous because he simply said something he thought I would like, not even have any clue who Josh Lyman was in the context of the conversation.

CONAN: I see.

Mr. PAGE: Well, there are rumors that Josh Lyman was modeled after Rahm Emanuel, in fact, so that may have been what he thought you were thinking about.

SEAN: Yeah. He thought - somebody in the White House and he said, if you like him, you'll like me. So very typical politician, saying what they think you want to hear.

CONAN: Sean, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate the story.

SEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Do you think - been a member of Congress where it is difficult to get your bill passed, well, not impossible.

Mr. PAGE: Right.

CONAN: He's been the White House chief of staff, where it's not your policies, it's the guy in the room next door. Do you think he'd have more fun being mayor of Chicago?

Mr. PAGE: I can't see it being fun right now, doesn't matter who you are because I remember a congressman told me years ago during hard times like these, we can't raise taxes and we can't spend any money. What fun is it? You know, if you really can't do anything but manage disaster that's sort of unfolding each day. But I think that for Rahm, he himself says he's always wanted to be mayor since he was a kid.

In my column, I quoted a teacher who's been quoted before, who gave him a first grade evaluation years ago saying that he "looms large," quote, unquote. Even in the first grade, he was looming large. Somebody...

CONAN: He was building the log cabin he was born in.

Mr. PAGE: That's right. But, you know, as far as the fun, it's going to be rough. Just like, you know, anybody who wants to run for Congress right now or to be president in these kind of times, it's going to be - you're going to make a lot of hard decisions. You can't do a lot of the wonderful things. A lot of gifts you'd like to give to the voters, you can't afford it.

CONAN: Now you mentioned a few names of other people who might be interested in that seat and...

Mr. PAGE: Right.

CONAN: ...other than Jesse Jackson Jr., there's not too many of them that those of us who are not from Chicago have heard of.

Mr. PAGE: True.

CONAN: Would Rahm Emanuel be considered the favorite in the Democratic primary?

Mr. PAGE: Only the best known because of publicity just like Jesse Jackson Jr.'s name, as he himself told me years ago, was both a blessing and a curse for him depending on which constituency he was trying to reach out to. But also, Luis Gutierrez, congressman from Chicago whose constituency was largely gerrymandered in order to carve out a Hispanic district. It is predominantly Mexican-American and Puerto Rican-American as he's Puerto Rican by background.

Luis Gutierrez is very well-known not only in the city but he's been a leading voice in favor of immigration reform nationwide. So that gives him something of a lead, but I don't think he'd be the only Hispanic in this race if he decides to run.

CONAN: And if there is a runoff, it's the top two?

Mr. PAGE: Be the top two, that's right.

CONAN: And the Democratic primary is the only election that counts?

Mr. PAGE: Well, there's no primary. They stopped having Democratic primaries in the late '90s because - they stopped having primaries because the Republican primary had been virtually - well, it just wasn't productive. Let's put it that way.

CONAN: Lightly attended.

Mr. PAGE: Lightly attended but still expensive. So they've decided let's have a runoff, a non-partisan runoff and let everybody try to give the voters a better choice.

CONAN: Clarence Page, as always, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Clarence Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Chicago Tribune, who joined us here in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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