The U.S. Congress has an NU District

Kimra McPherson

The cell phone crackles and Rahm Emanuel’s on the line, somewhere between a parent-teacher conference and a restaurant reservation.”I’ll tell you, we’re going to make this quick,” he says. “I’m meeting my wife for dinner.”

So we make it quick, right to the point — does he, a Northwestern graduate, former adviser to President Clinton and current managing director of an investment banking firm, plan to get back into politics?

Why, yes. Unofficially.

Emanuel plans to announce “shortly” that he will run for Congress in Chicago’s 5th District, vying for the seat that will open thanks to Rep. Rod Blagojevich’s decision to run for governor of Illinois.

Were Emanuel to win the race, the district would stay in NU hands for a fourth term. Blagojevich, who has been serving since 1996, is also a NU alum, graduating with a history degree in 1979.

Blagojevich, evacuated from Capitol Hill because of this week’s anthrax scare, could not be reached for comment.

But Emanuel was not concerned with maintaining an NU legacy in the 5th Congressional District. “What do you know?” Emanuel scoffed upon learning of his institutional ties with the current congressman and gubernatorial candidate. “There’s a similarity.”

One difference: Blagojevich typically fronts his own campaigns. But Emanuel has made a name for himself directing the campaigns of others.

After receiving a master’s degree in Speech and Communications from NU in 1985, Emanuel became national campaign director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, moving on to work on the Richard M. Daley mayoral campaign in Chicago in 1988 and 1989.

From these behind-the-scenes positions, he claimed a higher-profile spot in 1991, becoming national finance director of the 1992 Clinton-Gore Presidential Campaign. And he continues to strengthen ties with the former president.

In 1995, he was named assistant to the president and special projects coordinator, a post he held throughout the duration of the Clinton presidency.

But even after his years in the White House, Emanuel said he’s still skittish about having the spotlight turned on him.

“There’s always an adjustment to being a candidate,” he said. “It’s different from advising because the stakes are different and they’re more personal. They’re about you.”

But Emanuel says he’s ready to deal with the Chicago public — and the Chicago press.

“Having had six years in the White House, I’m more comfortable with the questions and the set of issues,” he said.

For the last few years, Emanuel made what may seem like an unlikely transition into the financial world, serving as a managing director for the investment firm of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.

But advising a president and assisting a financial corporation require the same basic skills, he said.

“These are not easy choices about strategy and negotiations and positioning,” Emanuel said of his job with DKW. “Strategy is the same thing, negotiations are the same thing, and counseling someone as a CEO or board member is the same thing.”

He says his time at NU prepared him well.

“It gave me a sense of critical thinking,” he said. “I worked on speeches, I worked on communications strategy. But I also worked on policy.”

During Spring Quarter 1999, Emanuel returned to NU to share what he’d learned about speechwriting and strategy with students in a class called The Presidency and the Press.

Speech Prof. David Zarefsky, who brought Emanuel to campus during his tenure as dean of the School of Speech, said Emanuel was a “dynamic and engaging speaker” who shed light on the sometimes turbulent relationship between the presidency and the press.

“His experience in politics was directly related to the area we wanted him to teach,” Zarefsky wrote in an e-mail. “Additionally, since he has an M.A. from our Communication Studies department, we were interested in his perspectives on the relationship between the academic study of communication and its practice in politics.”

And some Northwestern students may work with Emanuel again, not as students but as campaign volunteers.

“If anyone can win the 5th, it’s Rahm,” said Colin Proksel, president of NU College Democrats. “With Rahm’s background and Rahm’s connections to NU, we’d be very excited to get current NU students involved.”

But Emanuel said he will have to adjust to letting others direct his campaign.

“It’s going to be a trick,” he said — but he hardly seemed concerned.

“I’m sure I’ll be successful,” he said. nyou