If Rahm Emanuel wants to run for Chicago mayor, the White House chief of staff will have to persuade voters to do what the couple leasing his Chicago house apparently would not: Welcome him home.
Emanuel, widely expected to announce a decision about his candidacy within days, recently called the tenants renting his home on Chicago's North Side and asked them to move out so he could move back in, spokesman and close friend Rick Jasculca said Tuesday.
But the couple said no. They extended their lease until next year just days before Mayor Richard Daley announced he wouldn't seek re-election, Jasculca said, and told Emanuel they don't want to leave.
The unsuccessful pitch is a concrete on-the-ground signal Emanuel is leaning toward leaving President Barack Obama's administration for a mayoral run, and points to a key hurdle he'll face if he does. The one-time congressman needs to convince Chicago voters he's not just a Washington big shot with a reputation for ruthless politics, but still one of them.
"There is nothing in his history to show he wanted to be mayor or that this was his dream job. If there were ... he would have been involved in local activities, organizations, spoken out about violence," said political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who was press secretary for the Democratic National Convention in 1996 and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential bid.
While Emanuel has been at the center of major national issues, that's not what brings voters out for local races, said Chicago-based national pollster Michael McKeon.
"Rahm negotiated with Israel but if the other guy is the one who got your alley paved, what do you think is more important?" McKeon said.
Emanuel could announce whether he's running as soon as Friday, a person familiar with his thinking said this week. But prospective opponents already are hinting at plans to exploit his reputation as an outsider more comfortable in Congress than City Hall, an abrasive take-no-holds political operative who once sent a dead fish to a pollster and peppers his sentences with profanities to make a point.
It's a reputation that has been celebrated in Washington, famously so in 2005 when at a roast of Emanuel, Obama joked that an accident in which Emanuel lost part of his middle finger "rendered him practically mute." But it could draw derision at home.
The stories of Emanuel's hard charging tactics, particularly after he led the national Democrats' campaign to win back a majority in the U.S. House in 2006, have distorted his image, Jasculca said.
"Sometimes a folklore emerges about people that sort of takes on a life of its own," he said. "I've known Rahm for pretty close to a quarter century and this is a solid Chicago family guy who is as Chicago as the Chicago Bears are."
Nobody argues Emanuel would not be a formidable candidate give his experience, name recognition and fundraising capabilities, but he has no ready-made army of volunteers ready to hit Chicago streets on his behalf.
"He's never had a personal organization," said political analyst Don Rose, who noted Emanuel's election to Congress in 2002 he aided by political organizations loyal to Daley. In effect, Emanuel borrowed them, Rose said.
"Most of those don't really owe him any loyalty," he said. In fact, "He knows many of these people but they don't necessarily like him," Rose added.
It's those people Emanuel has to reach out to, and fast, if he really wants to get in the mayoral race.
"He has to meet with the core of people who don't like him and charm them and let them go out and spread the word that he's not that bad, he's very considerate (he's) got Chicago in his heart," said June Rosner, a public relations consultant long involved with Chicago politics.
And when confronted with Emanuel's hard-nosed reputation, Rosner said those supporters need to respond: "'Listen, we want a tough mayor.'"