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Rahm Emanuel Wed Feb 09 2011

Rahm Versus The Man: An Origin Story

What follows is a wildly fictionalized retelling of events based on campaign finance disclosure documents. The donations below all came in between October 11th and 14th, 2010. Emanuel officially announced his candidacy on November 13th.

On October 3rd, 2010, Rahm Emanuel broke his silence. It was time to step out on the stage and make his announcement: he wanted to be mayor. Well, not quite. He said he wanted to hear from Chicagoans as he prepared to run for mayor. Barely a month after Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he'd be fading into retirement, and Mr. Emanuel could not just sit passively by and watch the city be torn apart by geographic, class, and racial division. He loved this city.

Daunted by the idea that, no matter what his natural inclination to retire to a quiet life of the mind, only he could speak for the people, he could wait no longer. Average Chicagoans were hurting. While some neighborhoods were gentrified into unaffordability, others continued to decay into violence, joblessness, and misery. Meanwhile, income inequality sharpened. Rent by declining revenues, services to the neighborhoods had been declining. The public school system frustrated students and teachers with high-stakes testing that had not proven their value; organized street crime had worked its way into the schools via a form of interpersonal capillary attraction, making reforms difficult if not impossible. Public transportation suffered from a lack of imagination, even while the city began relying on regressive policies--increased ticketing, market-priced parking meters--to stay afloat and confined people to the neighborhood.

Public workers who worked for decades on the assumption they would be able to retire saw their pensions squandered by politicians, only to have those politicians, and the enormous corporate concerns that underwrite local civic groups, turn around and blame them.

Daley and Emanuel Trib Photo-thumb-400x225-220528.jpg
Brother Outsider.

Mr. Emanuel had no choice. For too long, Chicago government had operated for the few who could afford to park wherever they felt, buy and sell homes for profit, and, by definition of their economic class, prosper while so many had nothing. People who saw public services as opportunities for profit, because they wanted for nothing.

He had to do something. He was a Democrat, after all, and a liberal. In America, the Democrats fight for the working class. And life in Chicago was hard for working families. Homes are expensive. Schools are crumbling. He's a fighter for working families.

Oh, how he'd fought.

As America's middle class mourned the hollowing out of the manufacturing base it had relied on, he helped lead the charge to pass NAFTA and move the mourners from denial to acceptance. It was an act of clear-eyed fearlessness in the face of great grief.

As Americans saw deportations and exploitation of undocumented workers explode, Mr. Emanuel refused to allow years of government policy myopia get suddenly, properly addressed. Bravely making a political calculation, he urged his party to not act on principle and to boldly ignore the problem for the time being.

As October rolled around, speculation was high: will he or won't he? Surveying the city he loved on the precipice of institutionalized bifurcation between have and have-not, Mr. Emanuel picked up the phone.

"Chicago's working class needs a mayor who not only hears them, but speaks in their timbre," he said. "Only I can do that. Will you help me?"

On the other end of the line was Anne Griffin, a simple managing partner of Aragon Global Management married to an even simpler principal of Citadel Investment Group.

"If not you and me, Anne, who will fight for the single mother of two who works the night shift washing sick bodies at Cook County Hospital?"

Mrs. Griffin, with a single tear streaking down her cheek, didn't need to hear another word. Like any normal Chicagoan, she checked the balance in her checking account and calculated what she could give. It was the easiest $100,000 check she ever wrote.

It'd be an uphill fight for sure. But if Chicago's firefighters, the types of men and women who haul trapped babies out of perilous situations in frigid blizzard conditions are willing to fight everyday to protect their neighbors, the least he could do is pick up the phone and demand his fellow champions of the working family step up and join his fight.

His next call would be tougher. Staring out the window, he thought hard about those men and women who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him years ago as he answered the call from America's poor and ended welfare as we know it. He summoned that same courage.


His eyes fixed with grim determination on his reflection in the glass, he dialed the number from memory.

emmanuel-chief-of-staff.jpg"Ken, this is Rahm Emanuel. The people of Chicago have had to sit by and watch as, for a generation, billions of dollars in property taxes have gone to wealthy corporations to beg them for jobs. But unemployment is still rife in our communities. Will you stand with me on the Fifth Floor? Will you pledge, tonight, to give to my campaign to start a new era in Chicago where it isn't the connected who win, but the working mom?"

Ken Griffin, president of Citadel Investment Group, LLC, didn't say a word. A minute passed.

Then two.

"Rahm, times are tight. Also, dude, my wife just wrote you a check for $100,000."

"I know."

"But I believe in your vision of a city by the little guy, for the little guy. Let me see what I can do."

Mr. Emanuel was used to this kind of brush-off. He didn't win his reputation as a brawler for the working class by shrugging at vacillation.

"I need to know right now. I know I haven't announced my candidacy. But if you want to be there with me, you need to make a commitment right now. Tonight."

Griffin nodded solemnly. Mr. Emanuel could hear the surrender over the phone.

Without another word uttered, Mr. Emanuel just listened as Griffin, his hands weary from a long day at the job site, pursed his lips, and wrote his commitment in figures: $100,000.

"Promise me one thing," Griffin said. "Never surrender. Remember who we're fighting for."

"I promise," Mr. Emanuel said, meaning it. His eyes closed and his chin sunk into his chest, he replaced the phone. This next call would be hard.

After all, it had been a tough year for real estate firms not unlike GEM Realty Capital. The real estate market was at the center of an economy that had wiped out retirements, bankrupted families, thrown children out in the street in a wave of foreclosures. How could he ask his friend Barry Malkin to give now?

But Mr. Emanuel grew up on the streets, fighting power. He knew the first rule of organizing: never project your limitations on others. You never know what others are willing to give until you ask.

"Barry, this is Rahm."

"Don't say another word, Rahm. We have to be fiscally responsible here at GEM Realty Capital. But I am as tired as you are of the connected and powerful running this town. One set of rules for the little guy, another set of rules for the big law firms, the construction companies, the real estate investment firms like GEM Realty Capital."

"You ready for a brawl?" Mr. Emanuel asked, feeling the fight in him stir.

"I am. And you've got a check for $50,000 coming your way. I'm sorry that's all I can afford."

"This isn't about the money," Mr. Emanuel corrected him, a lifetime of organizing kicking in. "It's about the commitment."

Looking down at his notepad, he did some quick math. Three phone calls already, and he'd only raised $250,000.

But he didn't feel down. Instead, he laughed. "Good. I love being the underdog."

Just as he said the word, a name came to mind: Paul Meister. Before he even realized he was doing it, he heard the phone on the other end ringing.

"Meister here."

Mr. Emanuel stumbled. "Paul. Rahm. It's time. It's time to take my city back from the cocktail party set, the well-born and better-paid. It's time that the people who work so hard every day just to survive have a real say in how this city is run."

"We were just saying that," came the voice at the other end. But it wasn't Paul.

"Thomas? Is that Thomas F. Meagher?"

"You got us both here, Rahm. On speaker phone in our platinum snow leopard nursery."

"Well, frankly, I'm glad I got you both. So you guys were talking. Well, the time for talk is over. It's time this city--"

"Worked for the little guy? For the guy who has to duck his head and say 'Yes sir' and 'No sir' to a boss who doesn't respect him, for little or no pay, just to make sure he keeps his daughter's MS interferon flowing?"

Mr. Emanuel's spirit soared. Finally; someone who got it. "So? What're you gonna do?"

"Look, Rahm, we'd love to help you--but times are lean at Grosvenor Capital Management. Even for the chief operating officer and director of business development."

Not good enough; after all, when things are tough for laborers, who else can you count on but (Grosvenor) Capital? "If you won't act now, then when? If we aren't willing to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally knock the connected and wealthy out of the Fifth Floor--then what good is all your talk?"

Silence. What felt like an eternity.

"We can't do anything crazy. We have a business to think about."

"Do what you can," Mr. Emanuel responded, crossing his fingers. "Only me, you, and your God will know. Also people who know how to use the state's campaign disclosure thing. But only nerds use that."

A moment later, and each man promised to scrape together $50,000. Each.

Four calls and still only $300,000. Nobody ever said it'd be easy to fix a city.

"Guys, I appreciate it but--"

Just then, another voice broke in on the line.

"Hey, whatchy'all talkin' about?"

He recognized the voice. "Sacks? That you, you old so-and-so?"

"It's me! This Rahm?" Michael Sacks. No soft touch.

"It is. I was just telling the boys that I'm gonna run for mayor--before you laugh, just know: I'm willing to out-work all the hot-shot, highly-connected candidates. I'm just a kid from Wilmette, but I'm a brawler."

There was one thing he could count on, though: Michael Sacks didn't get to be managing partner of Grosvenor Capital Management by letting the COO and the director of development show him up.

"What'd these knuckleheads give you?"

"Fifty each."

Sacks stuttered for a moment, but wouldn't be cowed. After all, Sacks wasn't just the man's last name.

"Put me down for 50. And I'll tell you what: I'll bet the managing director of Grosvenor Capital Management to go in for at least $12,500."

Mr. Emanuel hung up, happy but still hungry. He knew he could count on high-powered pols like Miguel Del Valle to raise $400,000 in his sleep. If he wanted to win in a scrapper's town like Chicago, where the Machine grinds up and spits out guys like him, he'd have to work a lot harder.

It was a cold night. As he thought about surrendering to fatigue and going back to his temporary residence in D.C. for an Old Style and some leftover meatloaf, he steeled himself with thoughts of a public school teacher, earning $40,000 a year, struggling against sleep to finish putting together a lesson plan. If she can do it, he must do it.

"Not a wink until I get to half a million."

He knew who to call, though he dreaded it. As it was, John L. Morgan, the chief executive officer of Winmark Corporation, had done so much for him. When his car got booted outside a Cubs game and he was skint, it had been John L. Morgan who showed up with a pre-paid debit card to get it out of the lot. And when he'd needed a tailored leasing solution for technology equipment and creative structures, flexible terms and competitive rates for hardware and software financing, John L. Morgan of the Winmark Corporation was there.


"Rahm. How'd I know I'd be hearing from you."

"I'm not calling to beg. I'm calling to give you a chance. A chance to help your fellow Chicagoans."

"I'm from Minneapolis."

"I know, but I know how much you love occasionally being in Chicago and staying at the finest hotels downtown. I know how, when you're staying at those fine hotels downtown, you worry about the woman who has torn her rotator cuff turning down bed after bed for years at a time without any meaningful health benefits. I want you to think about her when you're writing me a check."

Morgan was no soft touch either.

"You got some balls, Rahm. But you're right. It's time the neighborhoods I've never been to and couldn't name ran Chicago. You'll get your check. But don't you expect me to be generous. Not after what you did at last year's Underwater Ice Hotel Ball. One hundred thousand dollars--not a penny more."

"What if it goes to a run-off?"

"Well, obviously, yeah, if it goes to a run-off, gimme a call."

As he hung up the phone, all he could think about was his wife's meatloaf waiting for him at home. A working man's meal after a working man's night. It'd been a tough ninety or so minutes, but he'd done it: he'd raised half a million dollars.

From these humble beginnings, a movement could begin. From this tiny $500,000 acorn, a great oak would grow.

It'd been a long almost two hours. He needed a friendly voice from home. He needed to talk to Sammy.

"Sammy! Sammy Mencoff. How's Chicago?"

"Not quite sure, Rahm. I live in Evanston."

"How's things at Madison Dearborn Partners?"

"You know, it's a grind. But like we always say at Madison Dearborn Partners, You don't need any special training to be a good banker. Just been grinding out the synergies all day. It's getting late and I gotta put up the Swarovski storm windows. What can I do for you?"

"It's time we did something about the well-connected big money in politics. The connected big money similar to, but not specifically, Madison Dearborn Partners. I think I'm just the--"

"OK, I'll give you $50,000."

"Cool, thanks, bye."

Standing up and pulling on his gabardine Faberge coat, he looked out the window, westward, at his home city so many miles away.

"Watch out, special interests," he seethed. "Rahm Emanuel is coming home."

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anthony / February 9, 2011 7:14 PM


Mike / February 10, 2011 10:05 AM


John Morgan / August 22, 2011 9:34 AM

Just a couple of comments since you mentioned my name and company in your article. By the way it was very funny, my company Winmark corporation in the last 18 month has started over 100 new businesses and created full and partime employment for over 1300 people. Over 150 direct and 150 indirect emloyes of our company reside in the great state of Illinois. Our Brands: Platos Closet, Play it again Sorts, Once Upon a Child and Music Go Round recycled over 100 million items in that 18 month period. Your mayor understands the value of a company like Winmark and has always shown his # one interest is to get people in Chicago back to work.

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