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When Rahm Emanuel Said Executing a Developmentally Disabled Man Was “OK”

As a staffer for Bill Clinton, Emanuel allegedly told a colleague that if the polls said voters were in favor of killing a mentally incapacitated man, so was he.

BY Rick Perlstein

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"Rahm is into the photo op. Period. He’s into words—whatever words popped up in a focus group. That’s what he’s after. And the money."

“There are probably a lot of things I could remember, if I could remember.”

Regan Burke has been working in Chicago politics for over 30 years now. She is one of those people anyone who’s ever worked in any campaign knows: the dedicated behind-the-scenes professional, whose names nobody outside political circles recognizes but without whom democracy would not be imaginable, and because of whom democracy is a joy. (Think of a kinder, gentler Kathy Bates in Primary Colors.)

When I sat down with her one afternoon recently at a Ravenswood cafe—“I’m sorry,” she says, inhaling a bagel, eyes sparkling behind ruby-red bedazzled spectacles, “I haven’t eaten anything today!”—she sported a bold black-and-white checked table-cloth style blouse, a red bandana knotted jauntily about the neck. I’ve come here because she’s promised me stories about Rahm Emanuel.

But first she takes me back to 1982, just to make certain I know that she’s no blushing innocent—that she knows how the game is played.

Adlai Stevenson III had lost to Bill Thompson in the Illinois gubernatorial race by just 5,000 votes. Burke volunteered on the recount. “It was a real eye-opener, … the first year you really had electronic voting.”

What kind of chicanery did you see?

“You can’t even imagine. I’ll just give you one thing. So, part of the discovery was DuPage County”—a Republican stronghold. “Their whole election was on those big tapes?” (She rolls her hands around in the shape of a giant cheese wheel—an old-fashioned mainframe computer disc.) “So we sat there—I didn’t know what we were going to recount—a bunch of us, around a big table, and the guy came out and said, 'They threw away the tape!' ” 

That would be the computer disc, with all the vote totals on it—and thus the evidence of whatever nefarious deeds did or did take place on election day in DuPage County. I laugh fatalistically, a Chicago politics sort of laugh.

“Nothing we could do. They threw it away! That was it. The election’s over right there.”

She goes on, spraying me with delicious lore—her work as the scheduler for Stevenson’s 1986 gubernatorial run; her first campaign-manager job, for a scion of the legendary Chicago political family the Balanoffs; her years as executive director of the Illinois Democratic Party.

“Then I went to Little Rock to work for Clinton.” That was when Rahm Emanuel entered her life.

Life and death and the polls

“Of course I knew about Rahm,” Burke tells me, and I lean in close. “I don’t know if I’d ever met him before, but you just couldn’t escape Rahm Emanuel if you work in politics in Illinois.” Though if it weren’t for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, she doesn’t think their paths ever would have directly crossed. “My friends were nice progressives.”

And who, I wondered, were Rahm Emanuel’s friends? After all, Emanuel had made his early reputation as an organizer with the liberal advocacy group Citizen Action.

“Nobody ever really knew. But he had the same reputation. Foul-mouthed. ‘Stay out of his way, whatever you do. Do not hire him for anything.’ ‘He’s got his own friends, let him go.’ ‘If he walks in a room, walk out.’ That was his reputation. Of course, he was young then. So he didn’t have any real power. Except for his foul mouth.”

Burke was Clinton’s scheduler in the hectic months leading up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Emanuel, famously, was stealing Clinton’s heart as his gung-ho money guru.

“And I had to interact with him all the time, because he’s setting up fundraisers. … He would say, ‘We’re doing this fundraiser in New York, put it on the schedule. I’ll talk to the governor.’ And then it would ‘slip his mind.’ And I’d always have to say, ‘Here’s your schedule, and there’s a fundraiser added on to the New York trip.’ Right? And he—Clinton—would blow up.”

It happened several times: Rahm would leave Regan holding to bag, with complete lack of consideration. She adds that the time pressure of a campaign is so intensive that it’s difficult to check on every little thing. I note that you really find out fast who’s trustworthy and who is not.

“Right away.”

And you found out—

“Yeah, he’s, he’s”—she trails off, desperately searching out something nice to say. “Our work was so intensive. And there were so few people initially. But here’s the thing. This is very disturbing to me, and it will probably be disturbing to you.”

Her bright Irish eyes stop smiling. I lean in closer. I make sure my digital recorder is picking this up.

“So—I may get the name wrong, so you’ll probably have to research this yourself. There was a guy who was mentally ill—well, not mentally ill, but maybe mentally deficient. Mentally incompetent. Had the intelligence of, like, a third grader or something. And I think his name was Ricky Ray Rice.”

You, like me, are probably already correcting her in your mind.

“And he was on death row in Arkansas. Is this a familiar name to you?”

It’s a token of how deeply embedded she was within this moment in history that she doesn’t even know that the story is infamous: the time Bill Clinton left the primary campaign trail to execute a developmentally disabled man—who was so out of it he saved the pie served with his last meal to eat later—the better to prove a Democrat could be “tough on crime.” To her, it’s just a trauma she’d rather forget.

 “Ricky Ray Rector,” I say.

 “Ohh,” she replies. And Burke tells me the story about how she, a liberal who despised the death penalty, for all practical purposes had to schedule an execution.

“It was January, when he needed to be in New Hampshire and Iowa. Period. And also, there are these fundraisers scheduled. So I go into Rahm’s office, you know, pretty upset, and I said, ‘I have to schedule this guy’s execution!’ And here’s what Rahm’s answer was: ‘It’s OK. The American public is for the death penalty!’

“That was his response: ‘It’s OK. The American public is for the death penalty.’

Rahm Emanuel's attitude about life and death; or, if you prefer, the Constitution and its proscription against cruel and unusual punishment; or about capital punishment's morality and efficacy—it's all about the polls. Asked to comment on Burke's story, a mayoral spokesman did not respond.

“Well, that remark and that attitude I’ve carried with me ever since,” Burke says. “I was always able to tell people, ‘Rahm is into the photo op. Period. He’s into words—whatever words popped up in a focus group. That’s what he’s after.' ”

She checks herself, then adds something else: “And the money.”

Rick Perlstein is the author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), a New York Times bestseller picked as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by over a dozen publications, and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history.

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