POLITICS:

Ties to environmental groups could aid Emanuel mayoral bid

Last of a two-part series on the environment -- and the political environment -- in Chicago now that longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley is retiring.

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is being warned as he returns to Chicago and begins plotting his mayoral campaign that if he doesn't lay out a bold environmental agenda, like retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley, his campaign could be stillborn.

During his six years in Congress, Emanuel racked up a sterling record on environmental policy, earning him a lifetime rating of 95 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. He also worked closely with environmental groups to engineer the Democrats' takeover of Congress in 2006.

But since taking office, the Obama administration has had a complicated relationship with environmentalists over the fight to pass a climate change bill. And Emanuel has been accused of steering the administration away from pushing a comprehensive clean energy policy in favor of smaller, politically safer measures.

Now, Emanuel must chart his own course quickly, reacquaint himself with city affairs and make the case that he deserves to replace the environmental hero Daley, who transformed the city in myriad ways.

Charles Dunn, a political analyst and former professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, who now works at Regent University, said Emanuel must deal with environmental issues if he hopes to retain his natural liberal base and attract independent voters.

"It is one of two or three things that Rahm Emanuel must do to get his candidacy off the ground," Dunn said. "If he can't do that, he can kiss his campaign goodbye."

At the same time, Dunn and other political watchers said that matters of the environment will surely take a back seat to more pressing issues, like the city's projected $650 million budget deficit and job creation.

Whatever role Emanuel may have played in Washington's legislative fight over clean energy, Dunn dismissed the notion that his performance during the climate debate will have any bearing on the 2011 race for mayor.

"That is what I call insider talk, and that is not Chicago street talk," Dunn said. "It is insider Washington, D.C., talk, and it is legitimate criticism, but Rahm Emanuel has sharp elbows, and he's a power broker and he can change quite quickly and deal with this issue."

Economy trumps environment

Dick Simpson, a former city alderman who now heads the political science department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the environment "is not as important as jobs and economic recovery, the crime problem or the school problem, but it does follow close behind those other issues."

But Carl A. Zimring, an assistant professor of social science and sustainability studies at Roosevelt University, said "the city has a lot of pressing crises that will relate to what kind of green policies do and don't get enacted."

"Getting candidates to talk about water, energy, transportation and waste management are all things voters should hear about between now and the election," he said.

Emanuel heads into the mayoral race as one of the front-runners in what could be a very crowded field.

Some of the other potential contenders are: Carol Moseley Braun, a former one-term U.S. Senator and former ambassador to New Zealand; Gery Chico, Chicago's City Colleges Board president; Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff; and James Meeks, a state senator and prominent minister. Reps. Danny Davis, Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr. are all also said to be eyeing the contest.

Candidates must submit nomination forms by Nov. 22 to be considered by voters in the city's general election, which will be held Feb. 22, 2011. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, a runoff between the top two will be held on April 5.

In the meantime, Zimring said voters should be asking all the candidates what relationship they will have with industry versus the environment and how they plan to balance the two.

But Zimring said Emanuel isn't the only possible candidate with environmental credentials. On the day in early September that Daley made the surprise announcement that he would not seek another term, Dart, the county sheriff, held a news conference to talk about organic farming at prisons.

Dart wouldn't be the only candidate versed in organic farming. Moseley Braun, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, has spent her time away from politics running an organic tea and coffee company -- Ambassador Organics.

With so many names in the mix as possible contenders, it is nearly impossible to determine who will be on the ballot come February. Many would-be candidates represent very different constituent bases reflective of the Windy City's sometimes combative melting pot of various races, ethnicities and classes.

Dunn said the more contenders there are who can split apart the various voting blocs, the better it is for Emanuel.

"The more the candidates, the merrier, because of the age-old strategy of divide and conquer," Dunn said. "They will divide up the vote, and Emanuel will come in with a larger base."

And while Simpson said Emanuel is "a front-runner, but not the front-runner," he comes to the race with some distinct advantages and disadvantages.

No machine

Perhaps his biggest disadvantage is that he's been away in Washington these many years and is considered something of an outsider by many Chicago pols and voters. Emanuel is currently dealing with a flap over his residency that will be surmountable but underscores his outsider reputation.

Additionally, Emanuel doesn't possess the same type of political machine or popular support as the popular sheriff or Meeks, the senator and minister. And in a city like Chicago, the importance of a political machine can't be overlooked.

While there are 20 names being bandied about as possible candidates, Simpson said only about five or six names will make it to the ballot. To get there, he said candidates must hire first-rate campaign staffs and raise at least $4 million to be competitive -- in addition to gathering thousands of signatures by the end of November.

To that end, Emanuel certainly arrives with the deepest pockets. Coming into this race, the former Obama fundraiser has a great many political IOUs to collect, Dunn said.

He also comes with a large war chest of $1.2 million left over from his congressional campaign account and a huge network from which to raise money. The state is changing its election law to place limits on donations, but that won't go into effect until 2011, which means Emanuel may be able to outraise his opponents by tapping into his national fundraising base before Jan. 1.

But Dunn said that Emanuel must walk a fine line, because if he raises too much outside money, it will underscore the narrative of the outsider Washington candidate.

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