Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Jewish problem and why it could be the least of his worries

I’ve been intrigued by stories that Chicago voters won’t vote for Rahm Emanuel for mayor because of Obama administration Middle East policies.

What makes the story interesting: that’s probably the least of the now-former White House chief of staff’s political problems.

First the Jewish problem: as some reports have suggested, Emanuel is taking the blame for Obama administration Israel policies detested by the Jewish right and a good part of the Orthodox community. That faction is a tiny proportion of Chicago’s diverse electorate, but it’s a loud and influential one.

But there’s more, something most of these stories has missed: the city’s big progressive Jewish community isn’t exactly enamored of the trash-talking Emanuel, either. They knew him and worked with him back when he was a local political activist and fundraiser, then a member of the House representing portions of the North Side.

To GOP spinmeisters, Emanuel is one of those socialist-leaning liberals; to a lot of Chicago’s Jewish liberals, he’s a political manipulator without any real commitment to their priorities.

“There’s absolutely no love for Rahm in our community,”  a progressive Jewish activist in the city told me recently.

That doesn’t mean the city’s Jews will vote for a Republican; this is Chicago, after all, and the Democratic nominee has about as much chance of losing the mayoral election and the Jewish vote as Lake Michigan has a chance of turning into salt water.

And there’s an expectation Emanuel will cut a deal with mainstream Jewish leaders in the city – political support in return for financial support for their institutions. Sort of like Israeli politics. That could go a long way toward solving his "Jewish problem."

His bigger problem is pulling together a diverse coalition to survive in a field crowded with up to ten contenders, some of them with strong connections to the Daley machine and its web of patronage, the mother’s milk of Chicago politics, and with a stronger on-the-ground presence in Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.

Emanuel was weaned on Chicago politics, but he’s been away from it for a while. This is a city of strong neighborhoods where precinct captains, aldermen, ward committeemen and neighborhood organizations are the vital arteries of the political organism. Despite his origins, Emanuel is something of an outsider to that rough-and-tumble world..

More importantly; will he be able to beat his rivals in the battle for the huge African American and Hispanic votes?

He does have one big advantage: the cash factor. Emanuel is a champion fundraiser, and his national connections could provide access to enough campaign money to help him outlast his rivals.

His connection to Barack Obama may hurt among the minority of Jews who are right of center, but you can bet it won’t hurt on the city’s heavily black South and West sides, although he’ll first have to beat out at least one prominent black contender for the job.

I grew up in a neighborhood whose alderman was universally known as “Fast Eddie.” (in fact, my first journalistic assignment – as a high school newspaper photographer – landed me in his office). That’s the kind of city Rahm Emanuel has to conquer.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.