CHICAGO — Rahm Emanuel leaves the Chicago mayor’s office defiant toward his critics on the left and encouraged — though noncommittal — about Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden’s campaign.
Emanuel, who passes the reins to Lori Lightfoot Monday after an often-tumultuous second term, sat down last week with POLITICO for an exclusive interview as he prepared to exit City Hall. Emanuel joins a long list of former Obama soldiers saying it’s “way too early” to endorse a 2020 candidate. But he said Biden is “focusing on Trump, ignoring Democrats and not making a mistake where his prior lack of discipline in prior races” comes back “to haunt him. He’s learned that lesson by being disciplined.”
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Among the nearly two dozen Democrats in the presidential hunt, including first-timers like Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, no one has a political resume longer than the former vice president. “The problem with Biden, expectations are here,” Emanuel said with his hand high in the air. “For Mayor Pete, Beto and others, expectations are down here. So far, Biden’s biggest challenger is Joe Biden.”
Emanuel, who served as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 following a six-year tenure in the House, says that progressive concerns about Biden’s record are proving overstated. “Joe Biden was being told three months ago by activists, ‘You need to apologize for the Violence Against Women Act, for the assault weapons ban, for community policing, for the biggest investments in the crime bill,’” Emanuel said.
Instead, Democrats need to “focus on ideas, not on the ethnicities and backgrounds,” he said. Voters, Emanuel said, are “focused on winning. And whoever can help them win, that’s their ideology.”
And he argues that attacks lobbed at Biden over his hand in crafting the 1994 crime bill have not actually undercut his standing among African-Americans in crucial primary bellwethers like South Carolina.
“All the activists are missing that voters are pragmatic. Activists aren’t pragmatic,” Emanuel said. “That’s what Joe Biden has shown. He’s shown that Democrats want to win. It’s not about ‘You’re not for Medicare for all.’ C’mon.”
Emanuel has had his own strained relationship with progressives in a city where he’s considered too moderate. Even after achieving a $13-an-hour minimum wage in Chicago, “I got yelled at for not getting $15 — meanwhile, Illinois was at $7.25,” he said. “I would just say to the left: It explains sometimes why you don’t win.”
As he wrapped up his work in Chicago’s City Hall, Emanuel said he doesn’t care about how critics assess his record as mayor.
“Sometimes all these people who talk about who they’re trying to fight for don’t even know them. They swirl their white wine, their Chablis, and they sit around and nibble little crackers and brie and they talk about what you have to do. And they’ve never been in the neighborhoods and communities,” he contends.
“Here’s what I do know about politics. Facts have weight,” Emanuel said — suggesting he cares more about his legacy than he might want to admit. He then ticked off what he called his successes. Graduation rates are up: “Fact!” Reading and math scores are up: “Fact!” High school teens enrolling in community college programs are up: “Fact.” Mentoring is up: “Fact.” And poverty is down, he said, waving his arm for the final “Fact!”
And while Emanuel drew criticism for closing underutilized schools, the corruption conviction of one of his schools chiefs and a seven-day teacher strike, he can still point to victories. The teacher strike resulted in securing his campaign promise to lengthen school days for Chicago public school children and full-day kindergarten and universal pre-K.
Later, in the midst of the state’s years-long budget morass and cuts, Emanuel and his Chicago Public Schools chief led a successful campaign to get state lawmakers to boost education spending that ultimately helped underfunded schools across Illinois. It was a hard-fought battle with former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, once a friend to Emanuel, but came at a time when it seemed possible that Chicago schools might not even open for one year.
“Income inequality — which is the biggest challenge we have — is really a diploma dive,” he said. “We’ve made education a bridge to a future, rather than a dividing issue. … We positioned Chicago for the future.”