For Rahm Emanuel, this is the best and worst of times.
Thanks to a variety of factorsnot the least of which is name recognition, thanks to his years in the Clinton and Obama administrationsEmanuel is seen as the prohibitive favorite in the 2011 Chicago mayoral race, with various polls placing him squarely in the lead.
However, as practically everyone knows, Emanuel is also in the political fight of his life right now, as well over a dozen people have challenged his residency. If the electoral board votes against him, he will be out of the race. In addition, the LGBT community is split about Emanuel, with some people linking him to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ) policy that originated under Clinton.
On Dec. 10, Emanuel sat in the Center on Halsted for an exclusive interview with Windy City Times. He talked about the fight regarding his residency, DADT and his connection to the very building in which the interview was conducted.
Windy City Times: I remember hearing you talk about how if Mayor [ Richard ] Daley ever stepped down, you'd like to succeed him. What is it about the position that you find so attractive?
Rahm Emanuel: A couple things. One thing is that it's a great city. It's been my home; I was born here. My grandfather came to the city in 1917; he immigrated here from Russia and Romania. My uncle's a police officer and my father immigrated in 1959 to Chicago, to practice medicine, with my mother. My entire family has been here.
The mayor can get things done, put in place a set of policies. Sometimes I feel like, when I was working with President Obama or being elected to Congress from the North Side, all of those things prepared me for dealing with the greatest city with the greatest people in the country. But we're at a crossroadsand I think the folks know that we have to turn the page begin a new era, building on what's happened but maybe taking things in a different direction.
When I left the Clinton White House, I came home to Chicago. When I got done with college, I came home to Chicago. I want my kids to know that this is homeand the decisions we make will determine whether the city stays at that fighting weight with London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore. It's one of the greatest cities to do business in, one of the greatest cities to raise a family inthat's gotta be true going forward as well.
WCT: I don't want to get too deep in the residency bit. [ Emanuel laughs. ] But I do want to ask if these challenges surprise you, or do you feel it's "politics as usual?"
Rahm Emanuel: It's a little of both, but it's more surprise.
Here's the deal: Two years ago I got elected as a United States congressman with 75 percent of the vote. I pay property taxes here, I voted from here and the only reason I left the home we had just finished fixing up is because the president of the United States asked me to be his chief of staff, and I was raised in a family where there's only one answer to that question. When the president of the United States asks you to do something, you do it.
It never crossed my mind thathaving just gotten elected to Congress, owning a home here, being in a place where my family's roots go back to 1917, paying property taxes here and voting from hereanswering the president's call was a disqualifier.
WCT: Well, we're going to time-travel back to those Clinton years. How much of a role did you play in helping to craft "Don't Ask, Don't Tell [ DADT ] ?"
Rahm Emanuel: Even as chief of staff, I want it to end as soon as possible. I was literally on the phone this morning with Susan Collins, the senator from Maine; she's a good friend of mine. This is no longer a question of "whether"it's a question of "when." If you go back into the history of the debate, there was always "how disruptive [ repealing DADT ] would be, etc." And one of the things the presidentwho wants this to end fastwanted was a study done; I remember that meeting. And now that the study's done, those who are opponents of ending [ DADT ] can't hide behindbecause there's data that relates to the armed forcesopinions [ or ] values.
The whole country is in a different place than it was in 1993 [ when the policy was introduced ] . And ... I've worked for a president who [ passed ] a hate-crimes bill on his watchan event that [ initally ] brought Mr. [ Matthew ] Shepard's incident to the country's attention, under President Clinton. But the bill finally got passed, under President Obama.
Number two: President Obama signed the executive order that I worked on because of a story David Boul from Chicago told me about the visiting rights in Florida. He signed the executive order, making sure hospitals that were getting AIDS funding could no longer discriminate.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" under President Clinton? Given where the country was, given where the armed forces were, given where the top brass of the armed forces where, given his policy priorities with ending discriminationin retrospect, it's what he could get done. And President Obama, like President Clinton today, wants to end that policy. They want to advance the country to a different place, and we are a different country than we were in 1993. In this role [ under Obama ] , I was chief of staff; when that happened, I was the political director under President Clintontotally different roles, totally different responsibilities.
WCT: Let's move on to another piece of legislation: DOMA [ the Defense of Marriage Act ] was signed in 1996. Do you feel that it should be repealed?
Rahm Emanuel: Yes. Always have. You can go back to my questionnaire when I ran for Congress that was in your own paper.
WCT: So, back in '96 do you think that Clinton should not have signed it?
Rahm Emanuel: Look: I'm loyal to President Clinton. I'm loyal to President Obama. What my advice was... I don't need to get into what I personally advised them or what my own sympathies were.
I believe that legislation should be repealed. I believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to get married. That's why I thought the civil unions [ are ] the right thing to do, but it's only the first step toward an ultimate goal.
If you look into my record when I was a United States congressman, I sponsored the legislation and I was clear about the legislation, and I worked with the leadership in moving legislation. What I did in the White House for the presidents is ... I've got to respect the privacy [ regarding ] how I give advice.
Let me give an example: I never wrote a book about my years with President Clinton. And I've announced that I'll never write about my years with President Obama. I do not believe a staff person should do that. And I've turned down millions of dollars. I don't think I'll publicize the advice I've given presidents, when they've asked for it. That's the advice they're asking me.
And people [ may think ] , "We should know..." That's life. I never wrote a book, [ and ] I won't write a book. I have to respect the privacy.
WCT: And what are your thoughts on ENDA [ the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ] ? Do you feel it should be inclusive of gender identity?
Rahm Emanuel: I worked to try to pass it, so that's what I believe. We first dealt with hate crimes and in Congress, when we first took over the majority, one of the things we tried to do was pass it.
WCT: There are people within the LGBT community who feel that President Obama is moving a bit slowly when it comes to issues that [ directly ] concern them? What would you tell those people?
Rahm Emanuel: At some point we're going to get to a forward basis. I'm honored that when I was a congressman, based on HRC's [ the Human Rights Campaign's ] record, I got a 100 percent. I'm honored that I got the largest grant ever from the federal government for a gay and lesbian entity, which is the building you and I are sitting in.
I don't know if you this, but this facility [ Center on Halsted ] wanted to honor me with a major dinner because of what I didand why? [ It was the ] $1.2 million, which, if it wasn't for a federal match, this wouldn't have been builtthe most modern facility in the country as it relates to gay and lesbian communities. People from around the world actually come to look at it, study and take lessons. [ Repeatedly slaps hand on table for emphasis ] Largest grant in the history of the country for the gay and lesbian community.
Last year, there were how many at the big gala dinner? That was exactly the time that [ wife ] Amy and I were taking Zachariah and the family to Israel for his bar mitzvah. So I couldn't do it, but I was honored that I was asked.
My own view is that a number of things were put into place. Landmark legislation was signed, hate-crimes legislation, landmark executive orders as it relates to visiting rightsall because a member of the Chicago community told me about a story, and I convened a meeting later that week ... to craft the executive order that, ultimately, the president signed. In addition, we dealt with immigration as it relates to the gay and lesbian community.
There is work to be done. Civil unions? Great victory, but there's work to be done. The president would be the first to say there's more work to be done. We have to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell;" we have to do other pieces of legislation as they relate to healthcare.
You assess the accomplishment, but you understand that our mission isn't done. I appreciate what the president has gotten done, but don't rest on your laurelsand that would be my approach. I'm proud to have been the chief of staff that helped marshal the votes that finally, after numerous tries, pass hate-crimes legislation. That said, you don't rest on your laurels. If you did, you would have never done the hospital executive order [ or ] change the immigration policy. I think the presidentI don't want to speak for him; that's not my rolewouldn't rest on hate crimes or the executive order. He's appreciative of his sense of progress in ending discrimination or making gays and lesbians feel like they're full citizens, but he would say, "One's work is not done."
WCT: There are some who feel Democrats take the LGBT vote for granted.
Rahm Emanuel: The best way I can answer this is [ that ] I just don't buy the premise. If you bought the premise, you wouldn't have to pass civil unions; you'd get it because it was right. I didn't ask Robert Kohl to co-chair my campaign just to garner favor in the gay and lesbian community. I don't think anybody takes anybody for granted; it's about your principles, OK? There are political benefits to having done work, but it's about who you are [ and ] what you are.
Robert is co-chair of my campaign. David Boul, a leader in the gay and lesbian community in Chicago, was treasurer of my congressional races and is treasurer of my mayoral race. ... These are people who are close to me and know my work, and I know their work and their love of the city.
[ At this point, campaign manager Ben LaBolt, noting that there are only a few minutes left, suggests that Emanuel talks about his LGBT platform. ]
The only thing I want you to take out of here is that there is a constituency council that deals with different communities. I'd put the gay and lesbian liaison in the mayor's office, because I think [ the office ] is such a central part of the fabric that makes up this city's communities.
There's diversity in staffing [ in the platform ] . You judge me by what I've done ... and it's not because I was getting ready for an interview.
You have to understand that is also personal. My dear cousin died of AIDS. One of the things the doctor said kept him alive was wanting to be around for the inaugural of President Clinton; he died four weeks after that. Times I came to Chicago I went to see him as he was dying. [ He was ] the best man at my wedding. He's gay, and his partner is a city council member in Seattle.
So why am I proud of my professional record? The issues that affect the gay and lesbian community have been part of my life. So I'm proud to do this interview here. In fact, it's one of the things Amy and I have made personal charitable contributions to.
The first community that ever did a "Draft Rahm to run for mayor" was the gay and lesbian community. The reason is, I hope, is because of my work as a member of Congress, my work as chief of staff and my work for President Clinton as senior advisor.
[ Referring to the platform ] There are other parts of this, but I want you to know that one of the other things is that we're going to deal with the bullying in schools. As you know, I wrote a piece for you guys, and you guys published it; I appreciate that.
WCT: You've been at a lot of different events: Vital Bridges' [ annual holiday ] brunch, [ AIDS Foundation of Chicago's ] World of Chocolate, etc. However, your opponents feel like you're shunning forums or debates? What is this whole mishmash about?
Rahm Emanuel: "Mishmash"that's a good Yiddish word. [ Smiles ] The first day when I was back in Chicago campaigning, where did I end my stop? I did 16 stops that daybut I was here at the center.
We've agreed to three debates. Every morning, I'm greeting voters, talking to them. This week alone? On Sunday, I had a press conference on job creation [ regarding ] conservation and weather, and I took six questions from reporters. I've visited schools, talked to teachers and principalsthat charter school, Woodlawn. Tuesday, I did another press conference at a Chicago academy that had a teacher program that I firmly believe in, and I took another six questions from reporters. Wednesday, I took about 20 questions from Greg at WGN Radio, and I visited [ another ] school. I visit "L" stops in the morning and in the evening. There's no shortage of my presence in the community taking questions from reporters and people in the city of Chicago.
And I have agreed to three debatesso my view is, "Don't worry about the debates about the debates." I've issued nine position papers, more than any other candidate. I'll arrange the subjects.
WCT: What's the biggest misconception about you?
Rahm Emanuel: There are a ton, I'm sure. [ Smiles ]
In the gay and lesbian community, they know my work here or I'm blamed for the creation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but they don't know anything about my personal life or personal stories.
When President Clinton came in to campaign for me, he said, "Rahm's a breath of fresh aira gale force." Dee Dee Myerswe had offices next to each other in the White Houseused to joke, saying I was Alan Alda with an Uzi. [ Laughs ]
I'm determined to get things done, but it's what motivates me. [ I don't want ] to drive just to drive. Whether it was passing the assault-weapon ban; creating the kids' healthcare bill and the insurance companies were trying to block it; [ or ] passing welfare reformI fight for things that I believe in, not just to fight for. And I think what people don't see is where the motivation comes from and what drives that.
So I got the hard image, but it's on behalf of a set of people for something I think improves their lives.
See www.ChicagoForRahm.com .