CHICAGO — Officially, President Barack Obama came home to Chicago on Thursday to designate a new national monument. But you'd be forgiven for mistaking the visit for a campaign event for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Obama's visit to the area near the Pullman National Monument on the city's South Side put a spotlight on Emanuel, who served as Obama's first-term chief of staff and now faces re-election as mayor of Obama's hometown. To avoid a runoff in Tuesday's vote, he needs strong backing from African-American voters — one of the only groups still reliably supportive of the president.
"Rahm hasn't just fought for a national park in Pullman, he's fought for new jobs and new opportunities for Pullman and for every Chicagoan in every neighborhood," Obama told a packed crowd in a school gymnasium near the historic Pullman site, where cheers and shrieks approached pop-star levels as Obama was announced onstage.
Praising the notoriously blunt mayor for his smarts, toughness and judgment, Obama said he couldn't be prouder of his former aide. He said Emanuel cares deeply about the city's children and has been willing to make "really hard decisions" on Chicago's behalf, an implicit rebuke of many minority residents unhappy with persistent violence and school closings since Emanuel took office.
"Before Rahm was a big-shot mayor, he was an essential part of my team at the White House, during some very hard times for America," the president said.
Emanuel, his voice hoarse after weeks of campaigning, embraced Obama and recalled the former state senator's early years just a few blocks away where Obama got his start by knocking on doors as a young community organizer.
When the rendition of "Hail to the Chief" that announces the president's arrival suffered a false start, Emanuel turned comedic. "U.S. history for $200," he quipped, riffing on the game show "Jeopardy!"
Later, the two popped in for a surprise visit to a South Side campaign office where volunteers were making phone calls for Emanuel and local Alderman Will Burns. Working the crowd, Obama urged Chicagoans to participate in Tuesday's elections — and to vote for Emanuel.
"I'm glad he's my mayor," Obama said.
While Emanuel is widely expected to win a second term, his challengers hope to capitalize on the frustrations of neighborhood residents and force an April runoff. That would happen if Emanuel can't capture 50 percent plus 1 vote.
The president has already cut campaign radio ads for Emanuel, as he did when Emanuel ran in 2011, and praised Emanuel's fight for a longer school day and efforts to raise the minimum wage. Emanuel's four lesser-known challengers, who've criticized the Obama ads, questioned the timing of Thursday's visit.
"This is pure politics and everybody sees through it," said Alderman Bob Fioretti. Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, who polls show is in second place, questioned why a monument designation two decades in the making would "happen on the Thursday before the election."
White House spokesman Eric Schultz disputed the notion that the monument designation was a partisan move. He said Obama felt Emanuel had been "a very strong mayor for this city" and has remained close to the president.
While in Chicago, Obama also stopped by his family home for an update on the competition to host his future presidential library. Marty Nesbitt, a longtime Obama friend chairing the library foundation, joined other foundation members in briefing the president.
The 203-acre Pullman site includes factories and buildings associated with the Pullman Palace Car Co., which was founded in 1867 and hired former slaves to serve as porters, waiters and maids on its iconic railroad sleeping cars. The railroad industry — Pullman in particular — was one of the largest employers of African-Americans in the United States by the early 1900s.
Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.
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