July 30, 2003


Rare is the politician who actually embarks on a career in the U.S. House of Representatives. In a body with 435 members, power and visibility accrues only to the party leadership, and it usually takes 10 to 15 years to climb the ladder to the speakership or to the majority or minority leader's position.

A typical congressman is Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1996 and who immediately began strategizing and campaigning for statewide office. His congressional seat was simply a steppingstone, and he won the governorship in 2002. In any election year, a dozen or more sitting congressmen run for the U.S. Senate or for governor.

U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-5), first elected in 2002 to succeed Blagojevich in the Northwest Side district, is that rarity. He intends to make the House his career, and he reportedly intends to be speaker by or before 2020.

Emanuel, age 43, served a stint in the Clinton White House during the 1990s, with his day job being "senior counsel." His real responsibility was to raise Clinton campaign money, a talent for which he had previously acquired, having served as finance director for Mayor Rich Daley and for U.S. Senator Paul Simon. In Washington he developed a nationwide network of liberal, pro-Clinton donors, and he paid particular attention to Jewish contributors. Emanuel is Jewish.

When Blagojevich opted to run for governor, Emanuel ran for his open seat, tapped into his donor network and raised and spent $3 million, got Daley's blessing, and won a lifetime sinecure. Having been a Washington insider for almost a decade, and understanding that presidents and their aides -- not to mention senators, governors and mayors -- come and go, Emanuel astutely deduced that the way to true, enduring power is to become part of an institution like the U.S. House. And he further understood that there is a dual, but intertwined, path to power in the House.

First, there is the need for longevity. A congressman serves an average of approximately 10 years. Within a decade of being elected, more than half of all congressmen either retire, are defeated or run for higher office. The average committee chairmen have served at least eight terms (16 years), and they have great power over legislation in their domain. The Democrats lost their majority in 1994, so all chairmen have been Republicans since then, and the average member of the leadership has been in the House for at least 15 years and has spent most of that time raising funds for the party and cultivating fellow members.

Second, there is the need for audacious fund-raising activities. A party's House leaders must raise buckets of money to elect other members of their party and to keep their incumbents in office. That means that the leaders spend little time campaigning for re-election in their home districts, and that they spend the bulk of their time when Congress is not in session either on the phone soliciting contributions or on the road at fund raisers for incumbents and candidates.

Those in the leadership have safe seats, like Emanuel, who won his first term in 2002 with 66.8 percent of the vote. They also, as they work up the ladder, have key committee assignments, so as to facilitate fund raising from special interests. And all the leaders have political action committees that raise huge sums, and those sums are then redistributed to "needy" party candidates. Those who give money then get IOUs from the winners who they helped.

Democrat Nancy Pelosi, age 63, from a safely Democratic San Francisco seat, was elected Democratic minority leader in 2002 after more than a decade of prodigious fundraising for liberal and female Democratic candidates. She beat out Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who is more moderate, even though he and his PAC spread his largesse just as liberally. Hoyer, age 64, is now minority whip. The Democrats are now a 206-229 minority, but if they win the House at some future date, Pelosi would become speaker, Hoyer the majority leader, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, age 49, the whip. Menendez is a Cuban-American, and he is ambitious for the speakership.

After her triumph, Pelosi named Robert Matsui, a fellow Californian, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. His job is to raise money and recruit strong candidates. Thus far in the 2003-04 election cycle, he's done neither very well. In all likelihood, the Republicans will keep their majority in 2004, and maybe even expand it.

According to Washington sources, Emanuel is angling to succeed Matsui in 2005, and to run the campaign committee for the 2005-06 cycle. If President George Bush wins re-election in 2004, then 2006 could be a great Democratic year. Normally the "out" party wins congressional seats in the midterm election of a president's second term, and if Emanuel quarterbacks the Democrats to a majority in 2006, he'll have picked up a bunch of IOUs from winners and will have become a huge party hero.

The bottom line: Menendez, like Emanuel, is a House careerist. At some date, after 2012, they will battle for the speakership.

Unlike Emanuel, his North Shore colleague, Republican Mark Kirk (R-10), is biding time until a viable statewide opportunity emerges. As can be discerned from the adjoining vote chart, Kirk, who was first elected in 2000 and who is now safely entrenched, is a fiscal conservative and social liberal, especially on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Kirk reportedly aspires to the Senate, but an opening may be a long way off.

Emanuel is a social and fiscal liberal, as are both Jan Schakowsky (D-9) and Luis Gutierrez (D-4). Gutierrez, age 49, has ambitions to be Chicago's mayor, and he is certain to run in 2007 or 2011, if Daley retires. He's not a House careerist, but he'll stay in his seat until he gets elected mayor or is defeated in the primary. Schakowsky, age 59, passed on a 2004 Senate bid, and she is content to remain as a chief deputy whip and close Pelosi ally. She'd like to be speaker, but to do so she'd have to displace Hoyer and Menendez on the ladder before Pelosi retires. Schakowsky is a strong social liberal and a fierce foe of tax cuts.

Also featured in the vote chart is Republican Henry Hyde (R-6), from the western suburbs, who is chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Hyde, age 79, was formerly the Judiciary Committee chairman, and he managed the Clinton impeachment. First elected in 1974, Hyde never intended to be a careerist, but he never had the opportunity to win statewide. In 1998, when Newt Gingrich resigned, Hyde could have become speaker, but he stepped aside for fellow Illinoisan Dennis Hastert. Hyde likely will retire in 2006.