Inside Rahm Emanuel's whisper campaign to get into the Biden Cabinet: 'Knowing Rahm, he's trying to will it'

  • Rahm Emanuel's behind-the-scenes push to get a Cabinet position in Joe Biden's administration is pitting the White House insider against outside forces hell bent on blocking him. 
  • A key player in Democratic Chicago politics this week said Emanuel's message — that his expertise in infrastructure is invaluable — isn't getting through to the Biden world. "I don't think the transition is answering his calls," the person said. "Knowing Rahm, he's trying to will it."
  • Emanuel has been calling members of the Illinois delegation to get lawmakers to vouch for his credentials — and to offer up what he could do for his home state should he become Transportation secretary.
  • Many who know Emanuel say the ex-mayor's goal is to leave the Windy City for another stint in Washington.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is working behind-the-scenes to shore up support for a position in Joe Biden's Cabinet even as progressives are waging a very public campaign to keep him out. 

It's a classic fight in the incoming administration's transition pitting an institutionalist who had legendary White House roles under the last two Democratic presidents and the outside forces that would very much prefer Emanuel gets nowhere near Team Biden.

It's also the case that Emanuel's efforts may not even matter as he tries to shape the discussion in his favor for scoring a nomination as Transportation secretary or another high-ranking job.    

"I wouldn't call him a leading or the leading contender," a source familiar with Biden's appointments and who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Insider. This person did say Emanuel is "in the mix" for more than one Cabinet position, including leading a Transportation Department that is responsible for overseeing federal transportation projects and setting the safety rules on everything from roads, to airlines, to railways.   

"People are recommending him," the source said. 

Another key player in Democratic Chicago politics this week said Emanuel's message — that his expertise in infrastructure is invaluable — isn't getting through to the Biden world.

"I don't think the transition is answering his calls," the person said. "Knowing Rahm, he's trying to will it." 

Many who know Emanuel say the ex-mayor's goal is to leave the Windy City for another stint in Washington. And he may know better than anyone given his roles building up the teams around both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama that there's no loss in floating his own name now. 

It just might work. 

One-man PR show 

For good or bad, the one-man PR attempt is gaining attention and riling up progressives and advocates for police reform, among many others. Emanuel has a reputation in the media of  working reporters behind-the scenes. He was frequently spotted back during his days as a member of the House of Representatives chatting up journalists in the Capitol. While mayor in Chicago, Emanuel traveled back to DC to talk national politics.

With Biden now about six weeks away from moving into the White House, Emanuel is at it again. Just consider the dozens of op-eds and articles written about him landing a potential Cabinet post. 

But all of the buzz is drawing a backlash because of his response as mayor to the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by a white Chicago police officer. 

The president of the NAACP, for one, has issued a statement warning that Emanuel's "actions and approach to governing are detrimental to the Biden administration and, more importantly, the American people." 

"Shameful and concerning that he is even being considered," New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Nov. 23. 

"What is so hard to understand about this?," she added in the social media post to her 10.7 million followers. "Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership."

Emanuel is an established Democratic power play who has the credentials to nab any number of Cabinet positions. He served as Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign finance director and then springboarded into a top job advising the Democratic president and meeting colleagues like Ron Klain, who is now the incoming White House chief of staff. 

In 2002, Emanuel won election to the first of three terms in the House representing a Chicago district. His last two years there included a stint running the party's House campaign operations, culminating in the 2006 midterm victory that led to Nancy Pelosi becoming the country's first woman speaker of the House.

He made it back to the White House as Obama's first chief of staff, a position that put him smack in the middle of heavyweight legislative fights to respond to the Great Recession and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. 

Emanuel then went on to serve two terms as Chicago's mayor. There, he was lauded for his infrastructure chops and advancements to the city's transportation system — including its airports, the Chicago Transit Authority and its biking system. 

But for many, his work as mayor was overshadowed by his handling of the 2014 shooting death of McDonald. McDonald, 17, was shot 16 times by a white police officer. The dashcam video was released after Emanuel won re-election, sparking massive backlash and throngs of protests on the streets of Chicago. And many Chicagoans haven't forgotten Emanuel's 2013 decision to shutter 50 public schools, many in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

Emanuel has apologized for the shooting, and said he didn't see the dashcam video until it was publicly released. 

"I own it. I take responsibility for what happened because it happened on my watch. If we're going to fix it. I want you to understand it's my responsibility with you. But if we're also going to begin the healing process, the first step in that journey is my step. And I'm sorry," Emanuel said before the City Council in December 2015.

Emanuel pitching big transportation plans for Illinois 

Emanuel has kept busy trying to make his case that he belongs in the Biden Cabinet.

He's been calling members of the Illinois congressional delegation to get lawmakers to vouch for his credentials — and to offer up what he could do for his home state should he become Transportation secretary. 

That's according to Rep. Danny Davis, who told Insider he will keep out of the matter and remain neutral, unlike some high-profile players in Illinois politics, like Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin. 

"I hear things in both ways," Davis said. "I hear people talking a great deal about awareness of the institution, of the work that he has done with three different presidents. He is intimately knowledgeable of the processes of making things happen." 

"And of course others have taken other positions," added Davis, a 13-term lawmaker from Chicago. "I really don't have a position on whether or not he will be appointed and cabinet denied. I have spoken with him. And, you know, of course we've always had good conversations as long as I've known him, but I don't really have a position."

Davis said Emanuel did not explicitly ask for his support but "expressed interest" in the transportation post. 

"He also shared the attributes that he thought he would bring to the position and what his experiences could mean for the city of Chicago and some of the transportation that exists," Davis said. 

Emanuel does, however, have the very public support of some high-ranking Illinoisans, including Durbin. The No. 2 Senate Democrat took to Chicago's WGN Radio airwaves on Tuesday to sing Emanuel's praises. 

"Selfishly, the best thing that could happen to the state of Illinois is if Rahm Emanuel becomes secretary of transportation," said Durbin.  

"We need help," the senator added. "We need investments in infrastructure, the jobs that they create and the businesses that can survive because of them, and he'd be in a prime position to be helpful to us. He wouldn't need an explanation of what the state needs or what the city needs. I'm supporting him." 

Durbin said he has spoken to Emanuel several times, but added, "I don't know if he's in the running."

Lobbying is also coming from Republicans. Ray LaHood, a former Illinois GOP congressman who crossed the party aisle to be Obama's Transportation secretary, has also repeatedly vouched for Emanuel. LaHood told Politico this week that he has personally called Klain to express his support.

Emanuel is currently a senior advisor for Wall Street investment firm Centerview Partners, but he is based in Chicago. Since opting not to run for re-election in 2018, Emanuel has joined ABC as a political contributor and this year appeared on high-profile primetime broadcasts, including Election Night and the Democratic National Convention. 

Asked whether he has been contacted by Biden's transition team, Emanuel on Friday declined to comment. 

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