On Sept. 7, 2010, Richard M. Daley touched off the political equivalent of a Chicago earthquake.
After breaking his father’s longevity record, Daley chose political retirement over the quest for a seventh term. That touched off a game of political dominoes that saw Rahm Emanuel succeed his political mentor and Daley’s brother, Bill, replace Emanuel as White House chief of staff.
Nearly eight years later, Emanuel is approaching that point of no return himself.
He needs to decide whether to walk away or make the uphill climb toward a third term — and stick to that decision, no matter how difficult the campaign gets.
If Emanuel waits much longer, he will risk looking like his political future is being dictated by the outcome of the trial of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald.
The trial, scheduled to start next week, is certain to dredge up ugly memories of Emanuel’s decision to withhold the McDonald shooting video until after the 2015 election and release it only after a judge ordered the city to do so.
“I would make the decision before the trial starts. If the cop is acquitted or there’s a mistrial and he then decides not to run, he looks like he’s responding to something,” one political operative said.
“It’s an easier decision to run than walk away. But he needs to remember that third terms are a bitch to win and even harder to govern. Even if he wins, everyone will know it’s his last term. Whatever fealty or fear people have now will be gone. It’ll be a miserable four years.”
A mayoral confidant agreed that it’s time for Emanuel to fish or cut bait.
“It’s complicated. He’s just got to make a decision. You don’t want to wait and make it look like the trial caused it,” the mayoral confidant said.
On Tuesday, candidates for mayor started circulating nominating petitions to gather the 12,500 signatures needed to get on the ballot.
Emanuel joined them by asking 1,400 volunteers — including Democratic ward committeemen, labor and community leaders — to pass his petitions.
But even though he’s raising money, gathering signatures and putting a campaign infrastructure in place, Emanuel has yet to formally declare his candidacy for a third term.
“We’re not getting hung up on an event that won’t really have a bearing on the outcome of the race,” campaign spokesperson Caron Brookens wrote this week in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Asked if there’s a chance Emanuel may not run, Brookens said: “I’m definitely not gonna answer that. I would not comment on that at all.”
It’s that kind of fuzzy response that has fueled speculation that Emanuel was keeping his options open.
“Until someone says that they’re running, there’s always a chance they may not,” David Axelrod, the mayor’s friend of 30 years, told the Sun-Times in late May.
The decision comes at a time of transition in the Emanuel household.
The mayor and his wife, Amy Rule, will spend Labor Day weekend taking their youngest child to Princeton to start her freshman year.
“As we’re [becoming] empty nesters, I try to convince my wife, ‘This is what we’ve worked our whole life for. We should be proud of this.’ Then I go upstairs in a fetal position and cry all by myself,” the mayor said Tuesday at a police graduation ceremony at Navy Pier.
Whether Emanuel would want to choose that same emotional moment to start a new professional chapter in his life is anybody’s guess.
“Sure, there’s a chance. He could wake up one day and say, ‘Forget this.’ I don’t see that happening, considering how focused he is. But I don’t think anyone can say for certain. There’s a lot going on in his life,” said an Emanuel adviser, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I think Amy is committed to it. But that relationship is complex. Her husband loves the life. She wants him to be happy.”
Although the mayor’s nominating petitions hit the streets Tuesday, they don’t have to be filed until Nov. 26.
“You can pull them. It wouldn’t be the first time,” the Emanuel adviser said.
Last week, the Emanuel campaign chose to release results of a $153,500 poll bankrolled by Michael Sacks, the mayor’s close friend, business adviser and largest campaign contributor.
Despite an avalanche of tax increases, persistent violence and deep distrust among black voters tied to his handling of the McDonald shooting video, it showed the embattled incumbent strongly positioned to win a third term — contradicting recent polls done for competitors that showed otherwise.
The timing of the release was curious.
“They’re either trying to pump him up to run or make the case that he could have won, even if he doesn’t run,” one political operative said.
During an interview last month with a close friend, Economics Club Chair Mellody Hobson, Emanuel was asked “how long it’ll be from now” when he can envision himself no longer being mayor of Chicago.
“I’m not here to do this and only this. … We’re all writing a story. There’s many more chapters to Chicago’s future. I’m writing my chapters,” he said.
“My goal as mayor is that, whoever … comes [next] as mayor, they’ll have said, ‘Thank God that mayor did that so I don’t have to do it.'”