Report from Capitol Hill: Food for Thought: Sarah Lawrence College Magazine
Reps. Kelly and Emanuel Work Different Sides of the Aisle in 108th Congress
He’s a scrappy, brash—and sometimes abrasive—first-term congressman from Northside Chicago’s rough-and-tumble 5th District.
She’s a soft-spoken, courteous—and extraordinarily knowledgeable—five-term congresswoman from the mostly affluent Hudson Valley suburbs of New York City.
They’re Rahm Emanuel ’81 and Sue Kelly MA ’85: the freshman Democrat and the veteran Republican.
When it comes to their political styles and their philosophies of government, these two Sarah Lawrence College graduates appear to be polar opposites. A former high-powered fundraiser and legislative aide to President Clinton, Emanuel (aka “Rahm-bo,” in some quarters) is famous for stepping on Washington toes in his relentless quest to achieve his political goals. Quiet, even self-effacing, Sue Kelly was a junior high-school teacher and emergency room nurse before seeking election to public office.
Differences? Sure, but that’s a Sarah Lawrence hallmark. Veteran journalist Tom Nugent seized the moment to interview both Emanuel and Kelly in their D.C. offices, capturing an insider’s view of the art of public service.
Ask Rahm Emanuel what it’s like to make the transition from high-powered White House fundraiser to first-term congressman, and the hard-charging Democrat from Chicago takes you aback: He laughs out loud.
“I do think I have some advantages going for me—but I’ve also got plenty of disadvantages,” explains Emanuel, 43, a political wunderkind who amazed Capitol Hill insiders by nailing down more than $107 million in contributions for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. “On the ‘advantage side,’ as a former Clinton aide, you’re a known entity, which means that you don’t have to spend your first six months [in Congress] introducing yourself to everyone.
“On the other hand, you quickly discover that they [other members of Congress] have a lot of presumptions about you—both positive and negative—and that you’re going to have to work hard to dispel the negatives.
“Those years I spent in the White House certainly complicated my role as a first-term congressman. Still, I’m very glad I had all that experience with President Clinton, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m also convinced that the knowledge I gained is going to make me a more effective congressman.”
A fiercely aggressive lawmaker who’s already challenged George W. Bush’s 2003 congressional agenda on several occasions, Emanuel won a lopsided election victory in Chicago last November, after convincing thousands of union members in his district that he would fight hard for more jobs, Medicare prescription-drug benefits and health coverage for 42 million currently uninsured Americans.
Recently described by Clinton as “a breath of fresh air for Congress—blowing at gale-force speed,” Emanuel is undoubtedly the most politically sophisticated of the 52 first-termers (33 Republicans, 19 Democrats) in the House of Representatives. Because he already knows the lawmaking process inside out he has confronted a much smaller learning curve than most of his 434 colleagues.
At the same time, Emanuel will have to work hard to blunt criticism from Republican conservatives. His reputation as a take-no-prisoners Democratic in-fighter gained additional momentum in early April, when he helped introduce a highly controversial bill (H.R. 1738, aka the “American Parity Act”) that would require Congress to match funds spent on rebuilding Iraq with new appropriations aimed at improving American housing, education, health care and highways.
In a speech guaranteed to raise hackles among the Republican leadership, Emanuel said, “The President provides an economic plan that envisions a safer and brighter future for the people of Iraq. But after the [Bush-sponsored] budget Congress passed last night, the future of America is not as promising. The resources in education, health care and housing for American families do not match those provided for the families of Iraq.”
The second of three sons born to an Israeli émigré who became a highly successful pediatrician in the Chicago area after moving there in 1950, Rahm Emanuel discovered at an early age that he greatly enjoyed debating with family members around the dinner table: “Since I was a little child, arguing has been my forte!”
A gifted but sometimes academically indifferent high school student, he discovered an unlikely passion: classical ballet. Ask him to talk about his lifelong interest in this demanding art form, and he’ll blurt out, “I’m the only street fighter who ever donned tights!” So powerful was Emanuel’s interest in ballet (he later took advanced lessons with Chelsea Clinton) that he considered a professional career in dance while studying American history as an undergraduate in the late 1970s.
“Fortunately, I came to my senses at Sarah Lawrence,” he recalls today. “I was very lucky, and I’ll always be grateful that I had Jack Nields as my don. He chose a highly original approach to American history—we studied mainly by reading Supreme Court opinions on major constitutional issues.
“We looked at free speech, at religion, at habeus corpus, and this was how we learned what American history was all about. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it was courses like that one—along with the one-on-one attention we got in thinking and debating and writing—that helped shape my later decision to try for a career in government.”
After earning a master’s degree in communications at Northwestern University in 1985, Emanuel went on to become an administrative aide to Illinois Senator Paul Simon and later to longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. His remarkable skill at political fundraising was noticed by the Clinton-Gore election campaign of 1992, and “Rahm-bo” was soon launched on a record-setting blitz as finance director for the Arkansas Democrat’s successful White House bid.
After serving as a top White House aide for several years and then enjoying a brief stint as an investment banker in Chicago’s thriving commercial hub, Emanuel entered the 2002 congressional race in Dan Rostenkowski’s old district on the city’s Northside. He won that race going away, after persuading an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic constituency that he understood their aspirations and would fight for their goals on Capitol Hill.
Although most Washington insiders readily concede that Emanuel is a “genius” at raising political campaign funds, many remain unaware of how hard he worked to help President Clinton win passage of several domestic programs aimed at making life better for minorities and the economically disadvantaged. According to several knowledgeable Capitol Hill observers from the Clinton era, Emanuel’s relentless dedication to such high-profile domestic initiatives as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was a key factor in achieving their passage.
After being named to both the Financial Services Committee (which regulates banks, securities, insurance and the housing industry) and the clout-wielding Budget Committee—the overseer of the federal government’s spending priorities—Emanuel says he’s nicely positioned to begin doing what he does best: “advocating for the working people of the United States, as opposed to the special interests.”
Ask him to define his mission in the 108th, and he won’t mince words. “When the fog of war in Iraq lifts,” he says with a determined growl, “Americans are going to discover that during the last two and a half years, 2.5 million of us have lost our jobs. During that same period, 5 million joined the ranks of those without health insurance, and an additional 2 million Americans left the middle class and fell below the poverty line.
“Is that what we want for the people of America? I don’t think so. We need to turn this economy around, starting right now—and I’m going to fight as hard as I can to help make that happen.”
Drop by Sue Kelly’s office on Capitol Hill—No. 1127 in the Longworth Building—and you’ll quickly discover that the key to survival in Congress is the ability to work on several tasks at the same time.
“The first thing I learned when I came to Congress,” says the graduate of the College’s master’s program in Health Advocacy, “is that you better be prepared to work nonstop. I also discovered that you’ve gotta be able to do several different things at once, or you’ll never keep up with the pace around here.”
As if to illustrate her point, she pauses for a moment to study the big-screen TV in the corner, where C-Span is featuring a vigorous debate over President George W. Bush’s $2.3 trillion budget, which narrowly cleared the House.
Mr. Speaker, I yield my time to the distinguished gentleman from the State of South Carolina. . .
After watching the speech-making for a few seconds, the veteran congresswoman from Katonah, N.Y., swivels back and continues her comment without missing a beat. “And when I say ‘work all the time,’ that’s exactly what I mean. From the moment I wake up at six a.m. until the moment I drift off to sleep around midnight, I’m usually working my head off, at least when Congress is in session.
“The pace here isn’t just tough. It’s grinding, it’s high-speed, and it can be exhausting. Really, I don’t think anybody can understand what it’s like, if they haven’t spent some time running up and down these halls like we do!”
Leaning back in her chair, she begins to describe her daily schedule . . . only to be interrupted again. All at once, we’re wincing at the sound of several loud blasts from an electronic buzzer.
“Uh-oh,” frowns Kelly, a savvy veteran of the congressional wars, “that was a triple bell, a warning bell—I’m probably gonna have to run in a minute!”
The 66-year-old Kelly is as tough as a marathon runner after six months of daily training. “When I first came to Washington with the ‘Newt Gingrich class’ [the tidal wave of newly elected GOP legislators who in 1995 launched the “Republican Revolution”], I had never run for public office before in my life.
“As a result, all of this”—she waves a hand in the general direction of the C-Span coverage—“was completely new to me, and I had what we call a ‘straight-upward learning curve.’ It was tough. It was trial by fire. But I survived it somehow, probably because I got a lot of help from older, established members of the House.”
Kelly smiles as she searches for the one metaphor that will aptly describe her years in the U.S. Capitol and environs—where she has gained a reputation as a middle-of-the-road Republican who votes conservatively on fiscal matters and moderately on social issues.
Then her blue eyes light up. “You know, I’ve often heard it said that working in these halls is a lot like trying to drink from a fire hose that’s going full blast. It looks impossible, at first. But after a while, you somehow learn how to manage. You just do it, that’s all!”
A native of Lima, Ohio, where her physician-father ran a thriving medical practice, Kelly studied bacteriology as a college undergrad and then went on to become a promising biomedical researcher at Harvard. Forty-three years ago she married real estate developer Edward Kelly, following him to Westchester County in 1960. There she launched her own diverse career as a junior high-school teacher, emergency room worker, rape crisis counselor and community leader.
By the time Kelly enrolled at Sarah Lawrence in 1984, she’d already spent more than two decades as an ardent “civic volunteer” whose work often took her into local hospitals and health clinics, where she had discovered a passionate interest in quality-of-health care issues.
“The best thing about my time at Sarah Lawrence was the freedom they gave me,” she recalls. “They seem to understand that if they allow students to drive themselves, most will go way beyond whatever the professor might recommend. And of course, that’s exactly what happened to me. I was extremely fortunate because I wound up taking a health advocacy course with Terry Mizrahi, and I was required to work on a project. Well, I chose ‘Health Care and Senior Citizens’ as my topic, and Terry turned out to be an extraordinary leader.”
Although Kelly says she “never dreamed” that she’d one day be running for a seat in the U.S. Congress, she says her SLC experience was actually “terrific preparation” for her later political career.
Ask her about her gutsy decision to run for the House, and she’ll tell you bluntly: “I came down here to Washington because I got very worried about the way the federal government was growing. It was getting bigger and more demanding all the time, and it didn’t seem to be giving anything back to its citizens. That was Newt Gingrich’s message in 1994. I thought it was true then, and I still think it’s true.”
Although she’s often described as a “conservative Republican,” Kelly has been eclectic and non-ideological in many of her votes—especially on issues that affect health care for women and federal assistance for small businesses. To date, her most significant political victory was probably the passage of her 1998 bill guaranteeing that every American woman who undergoes a breast-cancer mastectomy will receive follow-up reconstructive surgery, regardless of her ability to pay. Recently she’s been successful at nailing down more than $11 million in federal funds for environmental conservation and restoration of natural habitat along pollution-threatened sections of the Hudson River, which runs through the heart of her district.
Having survived the Congressional rat race for nearly a decade now, does Kelly have any advice for the 52 freshmen (like Rahm Emanuel) who are now struggling—as she once struggled—to “drink from the fire hose” that is Capitol Hill?
“A lot of what goes on in Congress from day to day, you have to learn it for yourself—simply by going through the process,” she says with a sigh. But I guess that if I were to give them a single piece of advice, it would be: Don’t worry too much when things seem to get chaotic and disorganized in these halls.
“After you’ve spent a few years in Congress, you begin to realize that the Founding Fathers made this a very messy process. Their system for creating new laws is lengthy and it’s complicated and there’s no direct route from here to there. That can be frustrating at times, especially when you’re new to the process. I think it takes most of us in congress a few years of struggle before we suddenly wake up one day and realize that in spite of the chaos and the paperwork and the endless delays . . . our system for making new laws really does work.”