‘The Thumpin”’ Takes Readers Behind the Scenes With Emanuel, DCCC

Posted April 30, 2007 at 5:36pm

When Naftali Bendavid started following Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s every move early in 2005, he had no way of knowing that, 18 months later, the Illinois Democrat would lead his party to the biggest Congressional victory since 1994. Or that Emanuel would engineer the first election cycle since 1922 in which a party did not lose a single House seat. [IMGCAP(2)]

Originally, Bendavid, the Chicago Tribune’s deputy Washington bureau chief, was tracking the Congressman from the North Side of Chicago for a locally focused article about Emanuel’s tenure as the chairman of the

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The idea for a full-scale, national book — “The Thumpin’,” which comes out May 8 — didn’t arise until it became apparent there was a historic election in the making.

“At the beginning of the election cycle, no one expected them to win back the House. Rahm Emanuel didn’t, either,” Bendavid said in an interview. “I think when he took the DCCC job, his idea was that it would be a success if he won 10 to 12, maybe nine seats, and it would help him move up in leadership. I didn’t get the idea for the book until the later stages, when we realized the Democrats could win the House and I had been privy to all these internal conversations.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Bendavid said he felt there was a market for his book because while presidential campaigns get saturation coverage, Americans know much less about the DCCC, its Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and running a national Congressional campaign operation.

“A presidential campaign is basically about two people,” he said, referring to the major party nominees. “But a Congressional campaign is about all these people — the pollsters, the candidates, the staffs, the mindsets of the candidates and juggling these 50 or 60 races. It’s incredibly complex. I thought it would be an interesting story.”

Bendavid got unfettered access to Emanuel, now Democratic Caucus chairman, and the DCCC staff on the condition that he not publish anything until after the 2006 elections. Although Bendavid said there were a few things he witnessed but was forbidden to write about, the book contains several episodes revealing Emanuel’s intense — abrasive, to his critics — personality.

For example:

• Emanuel’s dust-up with Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) over Hastings speaking favorably to the press about then-Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) and then criticizing Emanuel’s recruiting. “He’s great on lectures. Phenomenal lecturer,” Emanuel is quoted as saying in the book. “I’m getting a lecture on recruitment when A, you haven’t done a … damn thing and B, we’ve got a [Republican] target and you’re out there kissing his ass in the press?”

• Tension between Emanuel and members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Blue Dog Coalition over Emanuel’s insistence that they pay their full caucus dues. “Blue Dogs — they hate me too, because I’m arrogant and pushy with them,” Emanuel says. “I’m an equal-opportunity prick to everybody. Because they’ve never, ever worked! Nobody! None of ’em!”

• Emanuel’s disgust with Pennsylvania candidate Andy Warren, who was running against now-Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) in a primary. Emanuel ordered his staff to “eliminate him” after Warren raised only $39,000 in the first quarter of 2006.

“It wouldn’t have been as good a story if there had been a milquetoast leading character,” Bendavid said. “It needed a strong character to carry the story.”

Emanuel certainly fit the bill.

Bendavid describes him sending a dead fish to a Democratic pollster with whom he’d had a dispute while working at the DCCC in the late 1980s.

He also tells of Emanuel as a young boy having his middle finger cut by a meat slicer while he was working at Arby’s. An infection set in and the top of the finger was amputated, “adding to his aura of toughness — especially when he extended that middle finger, which he did with some regularity.”

(Suffice it to say that the “F” key on Bendavid’s computer got a good workout during his writing of the book.)

But “The Thumpin’” reveals a somewhat softer side of Emanuel, too.

Concern for his three young children weighed heavily on Emanuel’s decision of whether to take the DCCC chairmanship.

Knowing that with his experience in campaigns and the Clinton White House he would do the DCCC job at some point, Emanuel says in the book, “I made a determination that I wanted to get it done while the kids are nine, seven and six, rather than have this job when they’re twelve, eleven and ten. There’s a difference. There is a higher-than-normal suicide rate among members’ kids, when you look at it on a per capita basis. And nothing is that important. I’m going to be around for them.”

“That was a striking comment. He was genuinely conflicted about his family,” Bendavid said. “I don’t think that Rahm ever considered not taking the DCCC job, but it pained him not being with his kids. He called them all the time, talked about them all the time. I think he felt terribly guilty that he had just signed up to be away from his family for two years.”

Emanuel also became close to a number of his candidates.

“He worked so hard for these people,” Bendavid said, “that he was personally, not just politically, devastated when they lost. Tammy Duckworth [in Illinois] comes to mind … [Nevada’s] Tessa Hafen, [Connecticut’s] Diane Farrell. He absolutely loved Lois Murphy [in Pennsylvania’s 6th district]. I remember him saying at an event, ‘She is more disciplined than me.’”

If those names sound familiar, or for anyone wanting a behind-the-scenes look at the 2006 election, “The Thumpin’” is a must-read.

“This is my first book,” Bendavid said, “but for people interested in campaigns and elections, this book should be like chocolate to them.”

Naftali Bendavid will read and sign copies of “The Thumpin’” at 7 p.m. May 25 at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.