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Emanuel's influence felt in Springfield, even without him

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent a lot of his second week in office on City Hall’s fifth floor.  Well, he did have that four-minute cameo in the retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The new mayor is not in Springfield where lawmakers are entertaining major casino and pension proposals that impact the city. But Emanuel is aptly represented in committees and Capitol corridors by a team of seasoned lobbyists with strong Springfield pedigrees, all assigned to advance his ambitious agenda.

As a former member of Congress and White House chief of staff, Emanuel understands the importance of long distance lobbying. A prodigious Blackberry networker, Emanuel actively worked the phones, calling state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, for example, while the landmark school reform bill was in progress. He also met with Springfield’s power brokers when they were in Chicago. 

“He has the advantage of being kind-of a famous guy,” said Senate President John Cullerton (D- Chicago). “He was White House chief of staff. He is close to the president. And as you know, the media covers the mayor more than the U.S. senators or the governor. As a result, he’s a big shot. He can be very effective down here.”

Emanuel’s hand-on style contrasts with former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s arms-length approach toward the General Assembly. Emanuel is involved in the nuances of the process, according to lawmakers and lobbyists familiar with his agenda.

Time is short. Only a few days remain in the legislative session for the new mayor to accomplish his list of priorities, including a Chicago-based casino, pension reform for city workers, education changes for Chicago Public Schools and relief from workers’ compensation cases. 

Emanuel wants a proposed city-owned casino to pay lower fees and taxes than those required of the state’s other nine casinos, lobbyists involved with the negotiations said. But that item suffered a setback Wednesday night, even as Emanuel’s team negotiated the bill privately. A House committee rejected a plan that authorized a Chicago riverboat and four others statewide.  

Emanuel’s lobbyists were successful in their efforts to include city workers in a controversial pension bill. The bill would require city of Chicago employees to pay more into their pensions, along with state workers, teachers and university employees. Chicago police and firefighters were not included in the bill. The proposal advanced out of a House committee Thursday.

During the campaign, Emanuel was vocal about the need to address the city’s underfunded pension system, but he did not say how he would fix the problem.

Emanuel also holds an interest in easing the employer burden of workers’ compensation costs. The city of Chicago is one of the state’s largest employers.

The frenzy of last-minute horse-trading creates challenges as Emanuel pursues his priorities. But his input is welcome and influential, even in the final days, lawmakers said.

“It seems like he’s willing to push up his sleeves and get in the discussion and get in the conversation, and I’m pleased with that,” Lightford said. “I met with him a number of times because it was something I needed, to see him eye to eye and have a conversation, and he was totally open to that.”

Emanuel’s surrogates are talking regularly with lawmakers.  Those surrogates include Matt Hynes, a lawyer and brother of former Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes. Hynes’ is Emanuel’s chief Springfield liaison. His father, Thomas Hynes, is a longtime ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).

Emanuel also has enlisted Michael Ruemmler, a member of his campaign team, as a key negotiator in Springfield. Ruemmler is working with Hynes, contract lobbyist William Filan and Billy Glunz, who also worked for Daley, to communicate Emanuel’s messages.

This week, they phoned lawmakers to urge support of the Illinois DREAM Act, which provides money to college-bound children of undocumented immigrants. They also pulled House members from the floor to lobby them one on one.

So far, Emanuel’s go-to lawmakers are those sponsoring bills he wants. He worked with Lightford on her education reform bill, which is a change, she said, from Daley’s style. When Lightford co-sponsored Senate Bill 750, which would have raised the income tax, Daley’s aides wanted the bill to pass. But they were unwilling to support it publicly, she said.

“I see this mayor as saying, ‘OK. What do I need to do to move this bill along?’” Lightford said.

Daley rarely visited Springfield, and he relied more heavily on lobbyists who worked on a contract basis. That meant their time was divided among many different issues, lawmakers said.

“Daley was more willing to go it alone,” said state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Chicago), whose father serves in the Chicago City Council, which Emanuel oversees. “I think with the problems in the city, Emanuel will need our help.  I think he sees it’s better to be engaged, as he should be. The city is a big stakeholder in this state.”

Kristen McQueary reports on state government for WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative.

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