The subject of Monday afternoon’s Democratic caucus meeting was crucial: On the eve of President Bush’s release of his economic stimulus package, how could House Democrats make the public case that their package was better?
By the end of the two-hour meeting, the more than 175 Democratic members gathered in the stuffy, but regal meeting room of the Canon Office Building were getting restless. Members stirred and chatted, while colleagues took turns making comments. But when freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) approached the microphone, members quieted down and listened.
Emanuel, a longtime aide to former President Bill Clinton, formulated the argument with the clarity of a Washington pro: "The Republican program is all about the stock market, and the Democratic program is all about the job market."
"A few minutes later at the press conference, that phrase came up several times," fellow Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky said.
The next day, several news stories on the Democrat’s plan featured Emanuel’s line. Emanuel hadn’t even been sworn in yet, and he already was making an impact.
"There’s an acknowledgment since the last election that the Democrats need to draw a distinction between themselves and the Republicans, and Rahm is really experienced at doing just that," Schakowsky said.
With 20 years of experience in national politics, Emanuel, 43, who took the oath of office Tuesday, along with his 434 colleagues in the 108th Congress, is far from your ordinary freshman.
For many Democrats, with their party in the minority in both houses of Congress, the arrival of this Jewish rising star on Capitol Hill comes not a moment too soon. After winning the congressional seat left open when Rod Blagojevich stepped down to run a successful campaign for governor, Emanuel steps into the Washington spotlight as the only new Jewish member of the House of Representatives.
His father, a pediatrician still practicing near Chicago, immigrated to the United States from Israel and spoke Hebrew with his son, when Emanuel was a boy. Emanuel, whose first name, Rahm, means "high" or "lofty" in Hebrew, and his wife, Amy, are active members of a modern Orthodox congregation, Anshe Shalom B’nai Israel, in Chicago.
Members of Chicago’s Jewish community say Emanuel’s wife, who converted to Judaism around the same time as her wedding, is heavily involved with the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Lakeview, Ill.
The couple send their 6-year-old son, Zacharias, and 3-year-old daughter, Ilana, to the Conservative Jewish day school that Emanuel attended as a child. The family also includes 2-year-old Leah.
"Amy was one of the teachers for a class for children during the High Holidays two years ago," said Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Shalom. "It’s a very involved Jewish family."
Emanuel said of his Judaism: "I am proud of my heritage and treasure the values it has taught me." Like a true politician, he added: "Throughout my life, I have also had the privilege of knowing, working with and now representing people of all backgrounds and have learned a great deal from them and their various heritages as well. Hopefully, I will bring all of these experiences to this job."
Emanuel traces his political start from his days at Sarah Lawrence College, when he joined the congressional campaign of David Robinson of Chicago. Swiftly moving up the ranks of the Democratic Party in the Midwest, he went on to fundraise and direct a number of successful Illinois campaigns, before assuming a larger national role with the Democratic Party’s fundraising apparatus.
In 1991, he was drafted to join the nascent Clinton campaign in Little Rock. Toughness and good political instincts earned him Clinton’s respect at the beginning of his relationship with the president.
As a top aide on the 1992 presidential campaign at age 32, Emanuel sparred with then-Gov. Clinton over the campaign schedule, urging the candidate to focus heavily on fundraising, rather than campaigning in New Hampshire, former Clinton colleagues said. Clinton acquiesced, eschewing the New Hampshire trail for much of late 1991 in favor of feverish fundraisers. Emanuel’s gambit paid off, with the money providing a crucial cushion as the negative attacks hit Clinton hard later on.
"It was that million dollars that really allowed the campaign to withstand the storm we had to ride out in New Hampshire" over Clinton’s alleged relationship with Gennifer Flowers and the controversy over his draft during the Vietnam War, said Richard Mintz, a Washington public relations consultant, who worked with Emanuel on the campaign.
Emanuel’s knowledge of the top donors in the country, his rapport with the heavily Jewish donor community and his sheer chutzpah made the difference, as Clinton amassed a then-unheard-of $72 million, said those involved with the campaign.
"He schmoozed many, many millions all over the country, including money from traditional Democratic Party givers, who are disproportionately Jewish, and new Democratic givers," said Steve Rabinowitz, a political and public relations consultant in Washington, who worked with the White House throughout the Clinton administration.
Later, as a top White House aide, Emanuel’s take-no-prisoners attitude — he earned the nickname "Rahm-bo" — won him respect and enemies among co-workers, as well as political foes. In a story that has become part of Washington lore, Emanuel mailed a rotting fish to a former co-worker after the two parted ways. But longtime friends of Emanuel insisted the once-hard-charging staffer has mellowed.
"He kids me about it. He says, ‘You like the old me better,’ and I kind of do," said Bettylu Saltzman, who worked with Emanuel on the staff of former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).
"He is very self-effacing, and that’s what makes him tolerable," Mintz joked.
"Maybe it is a Chicago sport, where politics is a contact sport, but people have fun doing it," said former colleague John Podesta, who was Clinton’s chief of staff.
Running for the House last year, Emanuel got his first glimpse of politics as a candidate, and faced an immediate test. A nasty primary battle included a rare public case of anti-Semitism, when the president of the Polish American Congress, Ed Moskal, who was supporting candidate Nancy Kaszak, claimed that Emanuel was an Israeli citizen and served in the Israeli army. Moskal also called Emanuel a "millionaire carpetbagger who knows nothing" about "our heritage."
Emanuel had served a noncombat stint as a volunteer in the Israeli army during the Gulf War, but he never held Israeli citizenship. Emanuel responded coolly, supporters said, bringing a coalition of Chicago clergy together to denounce the incident.
"One of the proudest moments of my life was seeing people of my district from all backgrounds demonstrate our common values by coming together in response to this obvious attempt to divide them," Emanuel said.
As a member of Congress, Emanuel is expected to push for centrist Democratic positions on economics, trade and the war on terror. During the congressional campaign, he indicated his support of President Bush’s position on Iraq but said he believed the president needed to better articulate his position to the American people.
On domestic issues, such as health care, on which Rahm focused much of his campaign, he will be a vocal member of the Democratic opposition. Saying his interest in health care was inspired by his father, a pediatrician, Rahm said he is "determined to help make health care affordable and available for all Americans."
A defining moment for Emanuel during his White House stint was an event that touched his political sensibilities and his personal ties to Israel: the 1993 Rose Garden signing ceremony after the Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Rahm directed the details of the ceremony, down to the choreography of the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
"It was an emotional moment for him," Mintz said. "He’d like nothing more than to participate in another peace agreement signing."
These days, however, Emanuel is not optimistic about the chance of a Palestinian state arising from the current ruin.
"If you were to say up front, ‘We’re creating a state and then we’re negotiating the details,’" he told CNBC last summer, "not only would you be rewarding terrorism, you would be rewarding all the corruption that goes with it."