He served as an aide to one U.S. president and chief of staff to another. He engineered the 2006 takeover of the U.S. House. His Rolodex and fundraising prowess were the envy of the political world.
But on Tuesday, Election Day in Illinois, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was no longer a kingmaker. He was strangely alone, just another voter awaiting the returns.
The furor over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video has turned Emanuel into a cross between a political pariah and a pinata — avoided by his friends, targeted by his enemies.
Hillary Clinton, the former first lady with whom he clashed during their days together in the Bill Clinton White House before making peace, was avoiding him like the plague.
Clinton has steered clear of Emanuel ever since she joined Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s call for a federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department that Emanuel initially called “misguided.”
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders has pummeled Emanuel as a Wall Street puppet who closed a record 50 public schools and kept the Laquan McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year.
Asked Tuesday how it felt to be a target instead of a player in this election, Emanuel tried to pretend it didn’t matter.
“I left Washington five years ago to be the mayor of Chicago. I got hired to focus on jobs, education, safety, the issues and opportunities that face Chicago and that’s where I’m going to stay focused. If I took my eye off the ball, the public would feel like I’m not doing my job as mayor,” he said.
“The campaigns left Michigan. Last night, they left Chicago and we won’t see them. But our opportunities stay here. That’s my responsibility: to move us forward. . . . We’re actively working with the Justice Department. It’s good for us to deal with certain issues as it relates to the police department. This is a national issue — not limited to Chicago,” he said. “There’s 20-plus cities all working to make fundamental reforms to better improve community relations and we’re going to do that.”
Emanuel rarely shows his emotions in public. But he was reminded Tuesday that he’s “only human.” Does it hurt to be shunned by Hillary Clinton, when he endorsed her, raised money for her and was among the first to encourage her to enter the presidential sweepstakes?
Does it bother him to go from powerhouse to target for Sanders and even state Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago?
“I feel very human,” he said with a smile.
Turning serious, he said, “I understand the campaigns everybody has to run. My job is to do what I was hired to do and do it well.”
Emanuel then hinted strongly that the big chill between himself and the Clinton campaign was for public consumption only.
“I talk to [Clinton campaign manager] John Podesta regularly. President Clinton was in town last week before Michigan. He and I spent an hour talking. We talk regularly,” the mayor said.
“Everybody knows where I stand, and where the Clintons are. We’re friends. My national career started with them. We continue to talk — whether it’s on the ideas of early childhood education or free access to college. I met just as recently as last week with President Clinton and continue to talk to him.”
But how does the mayor feel about being a pin cushion for Sanders, who endorsed failed mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in a 2015 mayoral runoff that Emanuel spent $24 million to win?
“I suppose Bernie Sanders and my annual Passover dinner won’t be happening together this year,” the mayor joked with trademark sarcasm.