Emanuel’s tough-guy strategy for success

Chicago Tribune

Rahm Emanuel was seething.

The head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was hurtling down an asphalt road in upstate New York on the 47th trip of his ferocious effort to win control of the House. A lecture, even from political consultant James Carville, was the last thing he needed.

In just 12 days, his campaign would end either in a historic victory -- a triumph that almost no one believed possible when he took the job nearly two years ago -- or in colossal failure.

And here were Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg telling him he had to make each of his handpicked candidates shift from attack mode and strike a conciliatory note in their final campaign ads.


“James. No, James, YOU LISTEN,” Illinois Rep. Emanuel barked into a cellphone before releasing a string of profane invectives more intense than usual. “Can you listen for one ... minute? I’m working these campaigns all the time. The campaigns all have different textures.”

His wiry body tensed, his voice breaking with stress. Emanuel shouted, “If you don’t like what you see, I highly recommend you pick up the ... phone and do it yourself.”

The moment captured Rahm in full, a portrait in power of a brutally effective taskmaster.

During the last year, the Chicago Tribune had exclusive access to strategy sessions, private fundraisers and other moments that helped shape the victory. It agreed not to print details until after the election.

Emanuel helped end an era of GOP rule in large measure by remaking the Democratic Party in his image.

Democrats had never raised enough money. Emanuel, a savvy fundraiser who honed his skills under Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, yelled at colleagues and threatened his candidates into generating a record amount of campaign cash.

Democrats had a history of appeasing party constituencies. Emanuel tore up the old litmus tests on abortion, gun control and other issues. With techniques that would make a Big Ten football coach blush, he recruited candidates who could mount tough challenges in some of America’s reddest patches.

Democrats had blanched at hardball. Emanuel, jokingly called “Rahmbo” even by his mother, muscled weaker Democrats out of races in favor of stronger ones, and ridiculed the chairman of his own party.

In January 2005, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco asked Emanuel to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, experts predicted the party would take perhaps three seats. On Tuesday, it picked up at least 28.

In a world where lawmakers refer to one another as “my distinguished colleague,” Emanuel, 46, is sometimes unable to get through a single sentence without several obscenities. His politics are centrist, but his style is extremist. The top of his right middle finger was severed as a teen, adding to his air of toughness -- especially when he extends that middle finger, which he does with some regularity.

For all his forcefulness, Emanuel was not responsible for the political climate, in which public sentiment was turning against the conduct of the war in Iraq and in which sex and corruption scandals were racking the Republican Party.

But with creative recruiting, unremitting fundraising and a national message, he positioned the Democrats to exploit that climate.

The Republicans have had on their side ruthless closers like Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and Lee Atwater, the late mudslinging mastermind credited with getting President George H.W. Bush elected.

In Emanuel, Democrats had their counterpart, a tactician of a caliber the party had not seen since the young Lyndon B. Johnson converted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee into a power base.

Emanuel’s thin, unimposing frame still hints at the teen and college years devoted to ballet; his voice sometimes screeches, and his words can get jumbled in public speeches.

But his political style isn’t gentle or uncertain. Some Republicans cope by using humor.

In the House gym in July, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) told Emanuel he knew he’d been targeted. Emanuel was planning to spend $3 million to defeat the popular moderate.

“I’ll tell you what,” Shays said. “Just give me the $3 million, and I’ll retire voluntarily.”

Emanuel’s strategy was to keep the opposition uncomfortable. If a House Republican took a vote that he hoped no one in his district would notice, such as supporting a Bush budget cut, Emanuel immediately came up with a news release that he sent to the Republican’s hometown newspaper. Then he sent it to the lawmaker’s office to, as he said, "[mess] with their heads.”

He had the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee designate one Republican the “rubber stamp of the week” and another the “crony of the week.” Republicans who received money from drug makers or oil companies were ridiculed as lackeys of special interests.

No-holds-barred politics comes naturally to Emanuel. In the 1980s he joined the campaigns of Daley and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), proving adept at raising money. (Daley would later return the favor by fielding city patronage workers to help Emanuel win his first congressional election in 2002; that get-out-the-vote operation is now part of a federal investigation.)

Political consultant David Axelrod remembers Emanuel as a young Chicago political operative. “The first word that comes to mind is chutzpah,” Axelrod said. “He redefined the term.”

Emanuel brought that chutzpah to Clinton’s improbable presidential run. “He was then a little more brash and less polished than now, but he clearly had loads of ability and drive,” Clinton recalled in an e-mailed response to questions. “My first impression was, ‘This guy is going to help us win.’ And he did.”

When Clinton won, Emanuel became his White House political director. But he clashed with other staffers and was quickly demoted. The humiliation tempered his sharpest edges.

All of Emanuel’s scolding, cajoling and profane outbursts would have meant nothing if he fielded weak candidates. After yet another devastating loss in 2004, he and other Democratic leaders quickly determined that the party needed a machismo implant. Emanuel looked for candidates with strong backgrounds, from sheriffs to soldiers, to counteract a Democratic image of softness.

This is why he badly wanted Heath Shuler, a former football star, to run for Congress as a Democrat in North Carolina. A Christian who opposes abortion, Shuler couldn’t easily be caricatured by the GOP.

But Shuler was worried that if he ran and won, he would never see his two young children. To prove that lawmakers could spend time with their children, Emanuel started calling Shuler in early 2005 whenever he was with his own family.

Shuler would pick up the phone and hear: “It’s Rahm. I’m at a soccer game with my kids. Just wanted you to know that.” Or: “It’s Rahm. I’m at a kindergarten play now.” Shuler received perhaps 10 such calls.

Persuaded, Shuler became one of the Democrats’ hottest candidates in his successful challenge of a 16-year incumbent.

Emanuel’s goal was to recruit 50 credible challengers. He had one criterion: They had to be people who could win. That may sound obvious, but many Democrats did not believe in recruiting unusually conservative candidates, no matter how promising.

Democrats always trail Republicans in fundraising, but in his fight for the House, Emanuel was determined to keep the money race close. No matter how good candidates were, it meant little if they did not have cash to advertise and pay their staff.

Emanuel’s first goal, as he traveled the country asking for money, was to raise $95 million. But as Democrats gained momentum, contributions surged and Emanuel raised his target to $105 million. By the campaign’s end, the Democrats had brought in close to $120 million.

Emanuel’s hair turned whiter during the campaign and he lost 14 pounds. As election day neared, he awoke every morning at 3, agitating and strategizing. By day’s end, his fingers would be trembling from fatigue.

On election night, a large erasable board, divided into some 80 squares for various House districts, dominated one wall in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offices. Interns rushed to update results, prompting cheers or moans from staffers.

For Emanuel -- ensconced in an office with friends and family -- the board represented the culmination of two years’ work. Every number reported the fate of a candidate he had recruited, cultivated and come to know.

Televisions were scattered throughout the offices and common areas. At 11:08, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer intoned, “We can now project that the Democrats will be in the majority in the House of Representatives.” Emanuel seemed momentarily dazed, kissing his wife, Amy, and hugging his brother Zeke.

In a few minutes, in front of the cameras, he would strike a conciliatory note about his opponents, and in the days that followed he would stress how both parties needed to work together for what was best for the country.

But at that moment, Emanuel would not, could not censor his glee, or restrain his distaste for the defeated Republicans.

For weeks they had been boasting that their program for turning out voters in the campaign’s final 72 hours would swamp all his work. The voters had made those statements look ridiculous.

“I’ll tell you this,” Emanuel shouted out to his staff. “The Republicans may have the 72-hour program. But they have not seen the 22-month program!”

“Since my kids are gone, I can say it: They can go ... themselves!”