The rumored prospect of a Cabinet seat for former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is threatening President-elect Joe Biden’s fragile peace with the left flank of his party.
So far, Biden, who had clinched the Democratic nomination by proudly defying pressure from his left, has managed to strike a balance with his personnel choices, eliciting praise and more than a few sighs of relief from progressives.
Progressives have applauded his pick of Janet Yellen for treasury secretary. Progressive Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio both backed Biden’s choice of Neera Tanden for director of the Office of Management and Budget. And the group Justice Democrats and the climate action-focused Sunrise Movement expressed cautious optimism about John Kerry being named climate czar.
“As the former Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has shown us that he is not a principled leader or person.”
But the idea of a top spot for Emanuel, who is being floated in news stories as a possible transportation secretary or U.S. trade representative, is causing a stir among key Democratic constituencies, including labor unions, progressive activists and Black leaders. The Biden transition team declined to comment on the speculation around Emanuel.
“As the former Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has shown us that he is not a principled leader or person,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, told HuffPost in a statement. “His time in public service proved to be burdened with preventable scandal and abandonment of Chicago’s most vulnerable community. How can we expect him to do better on a federal level? His actions and approach to governing are detrimental to the Biden Administration and, more importantly, the American people.”
Emanuel left his post as Chicago’s mayor in 2019, deciding against a third-term run. He became the least popular mayor in modern Chicago history after failing to explain why he blocked the release of a video of the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black resident, until after his 2015 reelection.
“I can’t find a stronger word than ‘disqualifying,’ but whatever that word is, that’s what it ought to be,” said former Georgia state Senate Whip Vincent Fort, a labor union lobbyist and ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), referring to Emanuel’s suppression of the McDonald video. “I can’t imagine a worse [Cabinet] nominee at this point.” Fort remains influential in Black progressive circles in the Peach State.
Emanuel’s record is the subject of polarizing debate among Democrats. In Chicago, his actions on transportation and infrastructure won him praise: He expanded safe bike options, added rapid transit stations and taxed ride-share service to fund public works. As White House chief of staff in 2009, however, Emanuel was reportedly a key figure behind the Obama administration’s decision to kill a massive transportation and infrastructure bill, which included a gas tax.
He has also faced skepticism in some Democratic circles for his brand of pro-corporate policy-making, embodied by his role in shepherding through passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 as an adviser to President Bill Clinton, and his internal objections to President Barack Obama’s pursuit of comprehensive health care reform in 2010.
One test of the anti-Emanuel opposition is whether it can make inroads with more rank-and-file Democrats. Two mainstream Democratic senators spoke positively about Emanuel to HuffPost on Tuesday.
“I have no issues with Rahm,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “He has a history of rubbing some folks pretty roughly but I think he brings some good ideas to the table.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia had even kinder words for Emanuel.
“I think very highly of Rahm. He could do that job very, very well,” Kaine said speaking of the transportation secretary post.
But already, organized labor, which Biden has made a central part of his coalition from the beginning, is joining the anti-Emanuel chorus.
“It would be perceived as a slap in the face to labor ― across the labor movement.”
Nominating Emanuel “would be perceived as a slap in the face to labor ― across the labor movement,” according to Shane Larson, senior director for government affairs at the 700,000-member Communication Workers of America. “It would be received very poorly.”
CWA is the parent union of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines and frequently interacts with officials at the Department of Transportation. Sara Nelson, president of the AFA, voiced her opposition to Emanuel on Twitter, noting that the Transportation Department is “effectively the labor department for aviation.” The department includes the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates safety and working conditions on airplanes.
“We do not need a union buster setting the rules for workers in aviation,” Nelson wrote. “That just doesn’t reflect Joe Biden’s deep commitment to workers & our unions.”
CWA, which endorsed Biden and counts some 200,000 members in trade-vulnerable manufacturing and call center jobs, has long opposed trade agreements, such as NAFTA, that enabled greater offshoring. Larson cited Emanuel’s role whipping votes to enact NAFTA as reason enough to not want him as U.S. trade representative, warning that it would “send the wrong message” to working-class voters of all races.
“Rahm Emanuel would be a nightmare. And a betrayal,” John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, which represents 150,000 workers in more than 100 local unions and endorsed Biden, told the Intercept.
The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of labor unions, declined to comment for this story, as did the United Steel Workers, which represents workers in manufacturing sectors heavily affected by international trade, and the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a group funded jointly by the USW and the steel industry.
It’s unclear how real the rumors of a Cabinet post for Emanuel are. Biden’s transition team has been tight-lipped about their deciding process. And skeptics note that Emanuel may be being mentioned as a diversionary tactic.
Most recently, progressive activists raised the alarm bells that senior Biden adviser Bruce Reed, whose record on the deficit, welfare programs and the 1994 crime bill has aged poorly in the party, was under consideration for director of the Office of Management and Budget. The nomination went to Tanden, the president of liberal think tank Center for American Progress, this week. While not a friend of the left flank of the party, Tanden is also not a pro-austerity ideologue, which progressives took some solace in.
Emanuel, however, has had a more publicly polarizing career than Reed. He oversaw a record 50 public school closures in Chicago, expanded the use of charter schools and presided over the city’s teachers union strike in 2012.
Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a former middle school principal who ousted Rep. Eliot Engel with a campaign that emphasized addressing racial inequity, contrasted the prospect of an Emanuel pick with Biden’s selection of Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chairwoman, for treasury secretary.
The Yellen selection was “a really good move,” Bowman said. “A name like Rahm Emanuel is not. It’s terrible. His name is only being floated so, hopefully, it doesn’t go any further than that.”
“You would see the unity on the left break down in a way it hasn’t yet.”
An Emanuel appointment would not be received calmly, according to Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, which advocates for expanding Social Security.
“You would see the unity on the left break down in a way it hasn’t yet,” said Lawson, predicting a round of condemnations from progressive elected officials.
A spokesperson for Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not respond to a request for comment.
With Democrats fighting two high-stakes Senate run-off elections in Georgia in January, some Democrats are arguing that any drama over an Emanuel nomination is just not worth the political risk. As it stands, Biden’s candidacy did not revive the enthusiasm of Georgia’s Black voters to the heights it reached during Obama’s two runs.
One prominent Georgia Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wondered whether, given the need to increase Black turnout for the January Senate runoffs, Emanuel’s appointment could be a modest drag on Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaigns.
“I don’t know that the juice is worth the squeeze there,” the Democrat said. “For a number of reasons, it would probably be best to stay away from Rahm Emanuel for something like that now.”
Fort, the former Georgia state senator, offered a similar assessment.
“It could very well be a razor-thin margin,” he said. “So why do we need a wild card at this point?”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting from Capitol Hill in Washington.