Is Rahm Emanuel as popular in Chicago as he is at the White House?

Amanda Carey Contributor
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When, after 21 years as Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley announced last week he would not seek another term, all speculation immediately swung to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. But if President Obama’s closest adviser runs – Emanuel has yet to come out publicly either way on the subject – chances are he won’t win.

At least, that’s what one longtime Chicago pollster and political strategist told The Daily Caller. While the conventional wisdom may be that all Emanuel has to do is say the word and he’s got the race in the bag, Mike McKeon, who worked with Emanuel in the 1980s, says not so fast.

For starters, a run by Emanuel would put his boss in a difficult position. Would Obama endorse Emanuel for mayor over a candidate from, say, the African-American community in Chicago? That seems to be the central question right now. Sure, a president makes tough decisions every day, but this one would hit a little too close to home and would be, in the words of McKeon, “very touchy.”

The Daley political machine has ruled Chicago for as long as most residents can remember (Daley’s father was mayor for 21 years before his son took over in 1989). And now that the job is open for the first time in two decades, Emanuel is not the only one with mayoral aspirations.

“All 50 wards in Chicago have power – the Hispanic community, African-American, even the white Irish – they all think it is their time,” said McKeon. Moreover, the wards know who they can and cannot trust. “Rahm doesn’t have that relationship,” said McKeon.

Not only that, but Emanuel never had much influence in Chicago politics to begin with. A scan of his resume shows that Emanuel has spent far more time in Washington involved in national politics than anything at the local, Chicago level. The biggest role Emanuel has had in the city was when he was an adviser to Daley during his 1989 mayoral campaign.

In other words, it is not likely politicians and leaders in the local level of Chicago politics will allow a Washington insider to sweep in and claim the job of mayor.

Yet according to Phil Molfese, president of Chicago-based political consulting firm Grainger Terry, Rahm’s candidacy would not be for nothing. “He’d certainly be one of the stronger candidates in the field. And I’m sure he would seek the president’s endorsement,” Molfese told TheDC. He also said that it is questionable whether Obama would be willing to get that involved in the race.

“So it is accurate to say Rahm is a front-runner, no one is a shoe-in in Chicago,” added Molfese.

The other reason – and the more complicated one – why a bid from Emanuel would end in defeat is because it is likely he will be called to the witness stand in the next corruption trial for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in January or February of 2011. That means he would have to campaign from D.C. in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 22 election.

NEXT: ‘The last thing Rahm needs is to be in a high-profile race when all this is going down’

Details about Emanuel’s involvement in the Blago scandal have, for the most part, been murky. But one thing is for sure: He is involved. Phone calls between Blagojevich and Emanuel released during the trial reveal that Emanuel did try to convince the governor to appoint longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to the vacant senate seat.

That contradicts a memorandum that was released by the White House on Dec. 24 that denied any involvement from members of the Obama administration.

The trial is likely to be compounded by another scandal involving the Chicago Tribune and the sale of Wrigley Field. In 2007, Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell bought the Tribune, which included Chicago’s landmark baseball stadium.

The key to the deal, however, was Zell convincing Blagojevich to take Wrigley Field into the Illinois Sports Authority, and then lease it back to the Chicago Cubs. The deal fell apart when Blagojevich wouldn’t cooperate and Zell threatened to have him impeached. It was a $250 million failyre for Zell.

The whole mess, of course, revolves around Blagojevich. But Emanuel is now caught up in it, and chances are, will have to explain his involvement in court early next year.

“When you’re on the stand, you’re subject to anything,” said McKeon. “It’s dangerous … The last thing Rahm needs is to be in a high-profile race when all this is going down.”

Molfese has a different take, however, and told TheDC that there is no reason to think a Blago trial would have much of an impact on the mayoral election, or that Emanuel would necessarily be called to the stand. “What this race will come down to is who will have the best solutions for Chicago’s problems,” Molfese said.

The bottom line, according to McKeon, is that Rahm won’t win any race in Chicago without Obama’s endorsement and support. Asking for backing would be putting the president in a tricky spot.

“I have great respect for Rahm,” McKeon added. “He’s a great strategist, which is why this doesn’t make sense.”

Could the mayoral race go on without any involvement from Obama? In a word: No. “The African-American community would call him out,” said McKeon. “Nobody gets off the hook – especially the president!”

When contacted by TheDC for comment, a spokesman for rumored mayoral candidate Rep. Luis Gutierrez said he could not discuss the race.

Other expected challengers – State Sen. James Meek and attorney and former Senate candidate Gery Chico – could not be reached. A recent Chicago Tribune poll had Meeks as one of the leading candidates, should he decide to run.