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The Smart Strategist

Democratic election architect Rahm Emanuel

A third term U.S. representative from Chicago's 5th District, Rahm Emanuel is used to being credited as one of the Democrats' major electoral architects. Emanuel, who is often seen running the streets of Chicago, attributes his aggressive, take-no-prisoners style to his activist parents. A Type-A-plus, Chicago Life caught up with Emanuel, the 4th highest-ranking member of the House Democratic Leadership, as he handled a maelstrom of phone calls and requests.

Is Iraq the only issue that propelled the Democrats?

A lot of people said it was only about Iraq--I think that is a total misunderstanding of the economic squeeze going on in the country.  Working and middle-class employees around this country want a Congress that addresses the economic hardships of health care, education and retirement security that are facing them. Iraq was key--it was not the only thing. You had the war, you had corruption, plus the economy was putting a squeeze on the wallet rather than expanding people's wallets. I do think people wanted change. They wanted change first and foremost both in Iraq and who Washington worked for. What I mean by that is the voters felt Washington was just an auction house for the highest bidder. On Election Day, they got a chance to say something. Three hundred and sixty-four days a year the special interests get their say, and so Washington Election Day 2006 was about refiguring that playing field. I always like to say, we did what we needed to do, and the White House did what we wanted them to do.

How did politics get in your blood?

I was fortunate enough in my political education to work with three people who I think are probably on the all-star team of this: Mayor [Richard M.] Daley, Senator Paul Simon and President Bill Clinton were all my mentors. At some point in your life, you're always fortunate enough to have mentors who mean a lot to you professionally, academically or personally. My father and mother will be that for me personally. But that said, on a professional basis, I think I've worked for three all-stars, who all in one way or another had a sixth sense about people and politics. 

How did your father being a pediatrician affect your views on health care?

On a personal level, we grew up around health care for kids, literally at the dinner table. When I was in the White House negotiating on behalf of President Clinton as his representative, we helped put together the first children's health care bill that covered 10 million uninsured children whose parents or parent were full-time employees, but had no healthcare. The S-CHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) is basically a Band-Aid for the failure of the other parts of the system. We unfortunately have a system that requires people to either be good parents or good employees. They have to make a choice, and I think that as a father and the son of a pediatrician, that's not right. Thank God I have a great health care coverage plan the taxpayers pay for. My kids have health care because of what we have here [in government]. No parent should ever be in a position where they have to pick between being a good employee where they work or a good parent getting their kids health care. This new bill (Healthy Kids Act) has the support of the American Medical Association, labor unions, AARP, major hospital organizations--everybody in the health care area--and it's bi-partisan. It's the only one that has major businesses and labor support. We have Medicaid to cover poor kids, we have private plans to cover children, but there are a lot of people who have no health care in employment, and therefore kids are without it, so they're caught in that gap. This addresses that. 

With more and more people going to college each year, why is it still such an important issue to you? 

I think a college education is to the 21st century what a high school education was to the 20th century, and we've done nothing to update our higher education financing goals to match the requirements. They'll talk about the importance of a college education, but we still have the programs and the initiative from yesterday. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for two things: love of my parents and access to a college education and graduate school. My view is three things are trying to do one thing, just let that one thing do one thing. Consolidate them into a simplified $3,000 deduction to help people pay for college. So when you go to college, graduate school or you're working and you want to go back and get a new set of skills to improve your income earning capacity or change careers, we've got to make sure we have a college assistance program that allows [you] to take advantage of that structure. 

You make yourself very accessible by actually setting tables at Chicago grocery stores, where people can stop and talk to you. Is accessibility really that crucial in the political world?

You really can't know politics if you don't know people. One of the things I loved when I ran for Congress was stopping at people's doors, at the grocery stores or on the streets. People teach you a lot about politics--how they feel about something. At a grocery store, it's random people. People come up and tell you about the war, health care, kids with disabilities [and] education acts, and you can get a feel for not only what's on people's minds, but how they're interpreting it and what they're feeling emotionally. I'd rather get 150 people unfiltered, not selected, to give me their views. Those meetings have led to major legislation push. Also your constituents get a chance to kind of pick up the hood and look inside you. So as much as you're getting a feel for what's on their minds, they get a chance to kick the tires, [look under] the hood and check out the engine.  

Can you give some examples on what those meetings have led to?

I met a woman at the Belmont and Cumberland Dominick's who talked to me about her father being abused in a nursing home, and it led to an elder gentleness act being introduced. I think we actually may get it out of the House this year. There was a firefighter, Patrick Kehoe, at one of the stations that I usually stop by at lunch. He and I talked about the dilemma he and his wife face in trying to pay for their daughter's college education, which led me to introduce legislation, part of which is a simplification of a form, taken from 108 questions down to half and put in consumer-friendly English. 

What do you think about the current field of Republican presidential candidates?

They've got their field. We've got ours, and I'd rather have our field than theirs.  

You're infamous for using a certain profane word frequently and have supposedly sworn off using it. How's that going?

Have I said it once in this conversation?  Did I even get close?

Published: August 07, 2007
Issue: Fall 2007