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Rahm Emanuel Takes a Page From Adrian Fenty’s Playbook

Apologizing for being a jerk didn't work out for Fenty.
The jerk store called, it's running out of us. Screenshots via YouTube.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces an unexpected runoff vote in his bid for a second term, and in his first big move ahead of the April 7 finale, the former White House chief of staff is offering a message that might sound familiar to District residents.

“I can rub people the wrong way, or talk when I should listen,” Emanuel says in a 30-second ad that started playing in the Windy City this week. “I own that. But I’m driven to make a difference. When politics stood in the way of a full-day kindergarten or tougher gun laws, I charged ahead.”

Emanuel’s famously profane, hard-charging political style contributed to what his team expected would be a walk to another four years in office becoming a nail-biter that he could actually lose. About four-and-a-half years ago, then-DC Mayor Adrian Fenty did the same thing. In August 2010, with polls showing him plummeting against DC Council Chairman Vince Gray, Fenty cut an advertisement attempting to apologize for his own brash demeanor.

“I know I’ve made mistakes,” Fenty said in the minute-long spot. “Going forward, I’ll learn from them, and be more inclusive.”

Fenty’s ad wasn’t a simple message of “I’m a jerk, and I’ll be nicer in the future.” It was wrapped around a not-very-veiled suggestion that a vote for the other guy was a vote for the “bad old days” of high crime rates, shoddy city finances, and federal control board oversight. Emanuel’s current ad is a bit more dour than Fenty’s—the Chicago mayor delivers his mea culpa in a single take in a placid living room, compared to Fenty’s mix of action shots and newspaper headlines—but it hits the same beats: Vote for me, or the city will fall.

“I’m not always going to get it right, but when it comes to Chicago and Chicago’s future, no one’s going to fight harder,” Emanuel says.

But urging voters to go with the jerk they know instead of the challenger they don’t is far from a safe bet. DC’s voters in 2010 didn’t find Fenty’s message sincere, and sent him packing by a seven-point margin just a few weeks after the ad started airing. Emanuel is presenting his hangdog act with a bit more time to spare, but he’s still skirting awfully close to the edge of political sincerity. There’s no guarantee that, like Fenty, Emanuel won’t wind up being seen as backtracking or full of lame excuses.

It’s very rare for a big-city mayor to apologize for being a jerk and not get punished for it. The strategy worked for Philadelphia Mayor John Street in 2003, who despite a first term that brought lower crime rates and higher property values, was hampered by his reputation for having a “prickly personality.” Although popular in Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods, Street’s cool reception in white precincts nearly tipped the contest to Republican challenger Sam Katz. Street’s solution? His campaign, advised by future Barack Obama mastermind David Axelrod and future Fenty consultant Tom Lindenfeld, ran a commercial featuring an appearance by a well-known Philadelphian named Bill Cosby.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.