If you want to know how Rahm Emanuel has jumped off to such a commanding lead in the Chicago mayoral race, you need look no further than his Monday night fundraising concert at the House of Blues. With the political press corps off in Springfield covering the Quinn Inauguration (and state income tax hike), I had the field all to myself as I watched 1200 people stream in to hear Chicago’s own Jennifer Hudson, the diva in Dreamgirls and star of her own uplifting story, sing a few tunes on his behalf.
The evening raised over $100,000 for the campaign, about as much as Miguel Del Valle has put together in five months of trying. But money is not Emanuel’s chief concern. Perception is. And Desiree Rogers, the former White House social secretary who has come back to Chicago to help with Rahm’s party planning, put together a pitch-perfect evening that showed his support spans the rainbow of Chicago politics –– blacks, whites, old, and young coming together for the future of Chicago. Except, of course, some paid $30 for the privilege, others paid $500 – and a good number paid nothing at all.
The lobby was a sea of Rahmers and Rahmettes when I arrived. Everywhere you turned, there was another bright, neatly groomed just-out-of-college staffer sporting a necklace tag and clipboard, directing people to the appropriate entrance. The sweater and parka crowd (the $30 tickets) lined up outside on the sidewalk to dutifully subject themselves to a metal detector “wanding” to get into the main floor (This was, after all, only a day after the Arizona shootings.) while the VIP contributors parked with the valet and were whisked through a phalanx of attendants into an elevator that would take them to a VIP lounge overlooking the stage called The Foundation Room.
The wealthier contributors were clearly in a mood to party. The women wore furs, the men dark overcoats and silken scarves. All engaged in the confident chatter of people who know they belong. But there were new faces as well, young and hopeful women, some draped on the arms of men who could be their fathers. Rogers circulated among them chatting up friends, answering questions and guiding those who seemed lost in the swirl to the appropriate check in desk. As I watched them enter, I felt like I was seeing the next generation of Chicago’s social elite forming, and they were eager to be there –– grateful, in fact, to have been invited.
Once in the elevator, the VIP guests were for all practical purposes locked away in their own special world. If you have ever been there, you know the House of Blues is a deceptively large music venue. A small dance area on the main floor tunnels back under a low-hanging ceiling to a bar with tables and chairs. Above it, however, are three more tiers of balconies, one of which is the Foundation Room where guests can watch the show out of sight of the riff-raff and get their food and liquor from a separate bar.
The layout of the House of Blues allowed Hudson to effectively perform at two parties at once. The one I attended took place on the main floor where it did not take me long to discover the campaign had papered the house. Not that that is a bad thing. The first couple I ran into said they won their tickets by signing up for a campaign newsletter online. The next couple said they were related to someone who worked in the campaign office. I ran into campaign volunteers from the 6th, 21st, 8th and10th wards who got their tickets as a reward for their door to door canvassing. Everyone seemed to be working for Rahm, or knew someone who was working for Rahm, which is a good sign if you are counting votes.
Three of the ten couples I spoke with said they actually bought tickets online (“Hey, where else can you see Jennifer Hudson in concert for $30,” said a husband from Lincoln Park.) Although I’m sure they weren’t the only ones (the campaign says the bulk of attendees paid $30, but wouldn’t release any details), it’s sort of a political twofer when you can raise the big bucks from a small crowd in a back room while pretending it comes from a mass of campaign workers in another whom you let in free, and thereby motivate to work even harder.
A Fund Raising Secret
The secret of a good fundraiser is to hide the fact you are raising funds. One surefire way to do this is to keep the speeches short and the music playing, both lessons the Emanuel campaign took to heart. The evening kicked off with a fast-paced set from the Soul Children of Chicago, a 26-member gospel choir Hudson wanted to perform with. They opened with “I Believe” – I believe I can, I believe I will, I know my dreams are real – and director Walt Whitman never took his foot off the gas pedal until, four songs later, he launched into a gospel rendition of the Jewish folk song “Blessings Are Falling Upon You.”
Rogers took her turn next as the chairwoman of the event. “Does that Rahm know how to throw a party?” she asked. She told the crowd a brief but telling anecdote about how they’d become so close at the White House Emanuel he would ask her advice about his tie selection, then it was the candidate’s turn to take the mic. “And my side of the story is I helped her choose her scarves,” he said.
Emanuel thanked the Soul Children choir. “These kids are Chicago,” he said. But that was about as political as his remarks got. It was Emanuel’s enviable job to relate Hudson’s remarkable career leap from a Chicago school choir to American Idol, Dreamgirls, and Oscar, Golden Glove and Grammy awards. At a White House concert with President Obama, Emanuel said Hudson went out of her way to sign autographs for his children, and the rest, as they say, is how the ball bounces.
Hudson’s performance was terrific (though I’m no music critic). She sang for about 20 minutes and even gave an encore of her Dreamgirls hit “And I’m Telling You.” After she finished, Emanuel returned to the stage for a closing remark: “Remember what we’re doing and who we’re doing it for – this is for the city we love, and the people we love that make up this city.”
And those who attended left the evening believing it was well worth it – whatever “it” was that they put up to be there. Somewhere in that honeycomb of a concert hall, Emanuel had found a place for people from all parts of the city to come together. Black, white, rich, poor, connected or just wanting to be connected, everyone has something to contribute in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago. You just have to decide on what level you want to give.