Out of the West Wing – and into City Hall?

On the eve of Chicago's mayoral election, David Usborne joins Rahm Emanuel's campaign team for the final push
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The Independent US

The black car with tinted windows turns off a forgotten road in Chicago's stunted south side and turns into a vast abandoned industrial site on the edge of Lake Michigan.

A man in an Italian suit with half of one of his fingers missing and a blunt nose gets out. He is small but taut with energy.

You don't have to be a gangster to run Chicago, but to be feared like one helps. Ask Richard M Daley, who has ruled it for the last 22 years as mayor, surpassing the 21 years served by his father Richard J Daley, before him.

Now he is leaving office and the man stepping out of the car hopes to replace him. We know he's tough; he once posted a dead fish to a pollster he disliked. This is Rahm Emanuel, who yesterday finished a marathon tour of every political ward in the Windy City – 50 wards in 50 hours – ahead of mayoral elections on Tuesday. One stop was here, at the site of the old USX Steel plant that was torn down 20 years ago. He is about to hear a pitch from a Chicago developer who envisions a new city-within-a-city on the site, anchored by the future Obama Presidential Library.

The deference of the developer and the few local politicians who are here for the visit betrays what most Chicagoans already know. Mr Emanuel may have struggled to meet the residency requirements to run for mayor – he spent the last two years in Washington as Barack Obama's Chief of Staff, resigning in October – and not everyone is a fan of him or his methods. But, barring a catastrophe, he is going to win.

If there is suspense ahead of polling on Tuesday it surrounds the hopes of his opponents to at least deny Mr Emanuel a 50 per cent share of the vote and force him into a run-off election in April. His nearest rival, according to opinion polls, is Gery Chico, the Chicago school board president and a Hispanic, while trailing in third place is former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the compromise pick of the city's African American political leadership.

This being Chicago, the race for mayor has resembled a bare-fisted brawl with occasional moments of cartoonish comedy. Behind all the storm and fury that fills the pages of the city's papers every day, however, are some sobering realities. New census figures released last week that showed the population shrinking underlined the economic challenges of a city awash in red ink with taxes no one dares to increase and revenues that nowhere near cover costs.

Providing some of the humour has been the War of the Tweets. Mr Emanuel and his aides relentlessly update their 7,400 followers on what they are up to. More popular by a mile, however, are the messages appearing on a different account called @MayorEmanuel, which purports to be official but is not. They are profanity-laced and feature the F-word at least once in every 140-character burst. One favourite theme – the misery of Mr Emanuel having to survive the entire campaign in the Honda Civic lent to him by his old White House colleague David Axelrod.

"Up all night last night and this coffee is not fucking helping at all. Five more days of this motherfucking campaign," the first faux Tweet of yesterday declared. The real Mr Emanuel told a radio interviewer last week that if whoever is responsible for the Tweets – with 26,000 followers – reveals himself or herself after Tuesday he will give them $2,500 to donate to their favourite charity.

He is less likely to be sporting about the assorted websites launched by left-liberal activists. They deride him as a man who significantly enriched himself on Wall Street and on the board of Freddie Mac, the discredited government-backed mortgage giant, before serving in the US House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009. They also criticise his time as a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton, when he helped steer through NAFTA, the North American free trade pact that they say cost America millions of jobs. The sites include rahmstoppers.com, backed by conservative political strategist Dick Morris, and fuckrahm.com, sponsored by the Alliance of Workers against Rahm Emanuel.

If Mr Emanuel wins outright next week, it will be because he has built strong support among whites, blacks and Hispanics, who each account very roughly for a third of the city's population. His apparent success among blacks, leaving Ms Moseley Braun struggling, is thanks in part because of who his last boss was.

"Rahm appears to transcend race," Sandi Jackson, a Chicago alderwoman and the wife of Representative Jesse Jackson Jr, said. "Most importantly he is Barack's guy so he's going to get a lot of goodwill. People here love the President. And the implied message from the President is 'I'm sending Rahm back to home to you and I am proud of what he's done and what he is going to do'."

But racial ugliness cannot be so easily exorcised. The few city reporters who have caught up with the candidate at the USX site are not interested in the plans for its redevelopment. They want a reaction to comments made the night before by city union boss, Jim Sweeney, at a rally for Mr Chico that some saw as anti-Semitic. "Rahm Emanuel is nothing but a Wall Street Judas," Mr Sweeney said, going further to suggest that by supporting NAFTA he had sold out the American worker "for a bag of silver".

Mr Emanuel, who is Jewish, could have taken note of Mr Sweeney's subsequent denial that he had intended to slur his faith. Instead he saw an opportunity to embarrass Chico. "We all know the history of that comment and the history of that reference, which is why I have absolute confidence in the people of Chicago and what they'll see it for and they won't accept it," he told us.

Mr Emanuel used the same press encounter to push home claims by his campaign that Mr Chico had accepted an endorsement by a local branch of the Tea Party, ignoring repeated assertions by Mr Chico himself that he had done no such thing.

It's not a soft man then who climbs back into his black SUV for the next stop on his city tour. Which is why Chicago is soon likely to deem him a worthy successor to the Daley dynasty.

"He's at least got the clout to make something happen. I don't know that any of the other candidates have the pull that he has," says Rick Pantoga, 50, a mortgage specialist from the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, who plans to vote for Mr Emanuel.

But what Chicagoans really like about Mr Emanuel is the smell of power that still lingers in the natty stitching of his Italian suit from his two years in the West Wing of the White House.

The Emanuel Brothers

Zeke, 53

The oldest Emanuel is teased for being the "least successful" because no one has ever thought to base a television character on him. Yet he is one of America's foremost oncologists and chair of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Centre. He is a strong opponent of euthanasia.

Ari, 49

If you know that Ari is a hyperkinetic top Hollywood talent scout, you may not have trouble guessing which television character he helped to inspire. Yes, that would be Entourage, the hit HBO series about a Hollywood talent scout, called Ari.

Rahm, 51

The best-known of the ultra-competitive trio, Rahm emerged first as a top political adviser to Bill Clinton and it has been rumoured that his bullish style was one of the models for Josh Lyman, the character in the West Wing. He thrived on Wall Street before election to the US House of Representatives in 2003. He resigned his seat in 2009 to serve as Chief of Staff to Barack Obama.