On his last day at the White House staffers feted Rahm Emanuel and presented him with a dead Asian carp, the perfect gag gift for the outgoing chief of staff who once sent a pollster he was angry with a dead fish a la "The Godfather." But the carp was more than a gag. It was an obsession for Emanuel.
White House officials and allies on Capitol Hill tell National Journal that the former chief of staff was intensely involved in molding federal policy on combating Asian carp, the fish native to China with a ravenous appetite that has been spotted in waterways connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Michigan and is thus a huge issue of concern in Chicago, a city where Emanuel has more than a few political aspirations.
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Going back to his days as a congressman, Emanuel hectored the Bush administration until it relented and poured millions of dollars into building an electric fence along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep the Asian carp from sneaking into Lake Michigan. "If this voracious eater enters the lakes, the ecosystem will be dramatically altered," Emanuel groused in an Op-Ed piece he penned in 2004 for the Chicago Sun-Times after the Bush administration held up funding to finish building the barrier. "We don't need a study; we need $1.8 million to finish construction."
Eventually, the funding came through, but Emanuel's interest never let up. Even as the White House chief of staff, he continued to take a keen interest in the issue -- which is why staffers didn't just present him with any old dead fish. Indeed, Emanuel is credited with helping steer millions more to cleaning up the Great Lakes and creating the White House appointment of an Asian carp czar. An EPA official told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel earlier this year that Emanuel was getting twice-weekly briefings on the issue. (The official and the White House now deny that Emanuel was spending that much time on the issue.)
"He's kind of a green guy," said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who won a special election to succeed Emanuel in the northwest district and is considering taking him on in the mayoral race. "He's a policy guy. He's seen as the architect of taking back the House, but what's lost in some people's mind is the guy really understands policy and he's a quick learner."
His zeal on the Asian carp issue notwithstanding, any passion Emanuel might have on local issues is lost on Chicago's voters, said Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant.
Ultimately, voters regard Emanuel as the guy who helped elevate Nancy Pelosi to speaker and played a key role in the first two years of Obama's presidency, Rose said. Both are impressive achievements, Rose noted, but also a reminder to voters that Emanuel is a creature of Washington.
Potential rivals have already started to try to brand Emanuel with the scarlet W. Earlier this week, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, widely regarded as a frontrunner, took a swipe when asked by reporters if Emanuel's candidacy would affect his own plans to run.
"The people in this city...seem to be very much focused on the realities, not what Washington's telling them," Dart told reporters.
But Emanuel might be better off embracing his inside-the-Beltway credentials than downplaying them, said Dick Simpson, a Chicago alderman. The city of Chicago is in dire straits with a $650 million budget shortfall. Who is better qualified to lead the city of Chicago than the guy who was just the right-hand man to leader of the free world?
"If anything, he can make the case that he's qualified as the type of chief executive officer that can help get us out of this mess," Simpson said.
Both Rose and Simpson said there are few votes for Emanuel to win on the Asian carp issue alone. But they noted it can't hurt him to use the issue as something to help him reconnect with voters, to show that he never forgot Chicago even when he was in the White House
Either way, it's probably better than being known as the foul-mouthed politician, who the president once joked, was familiar with only one word that should follow mother.