BY NATASHA KORECKI
Chicago Sun-Times Staff Reporter
CHICAGO--It has long been claimed that Rahm Emanuel wanted to find someone to keep his congressional seat warm while he served as President Obama's chief of staff.
Now, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned that Emanuel wanted then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool to his 5th Congressional District seat.
Claypool would serve one or two terms and then be considered for a place in Obama's Cabinet, according to sources familiar with Emanuel's proposal. That would give Emanuel the option of returning to Congress, where he could vie to become House speaker.
Reached Thursday, Claypool said he knew of no such plan. Emanuel declined to comment, as did the White House.
In the end, Blagojevich did not have the authority to appoint somebody to the congressional seat, as Emanuel had thought.
Still, the proposal raises questions about whether Emanuel was contemplating offering a coveted presidential Cabinet post in exchange for a benefit for himself.
Blagojevich was arrested last Dec. 9 on charges that he sought to sell Obama's former U.S. Senate seat for a personal benefit -- including trying to attain a presidential Cabinet post for himself.
Asked about Emanuel's seat, Claypool said he spoke to the outgoing congressman last year "for 2½ minutes" about running to replace him. But Claypool insisted a Cabinet post wasn't discussed, he was never asked to act as Emanuel's placeholder, and that he never would have agreed to it.
"Knowing Rahm, I can't believe that because that's silly," Claypool said. "That is insanity. Never happened. Never would. Never discussed. Insanity. False."
Claypool also said he ruled out running for Emanuel's seat a week after the Nov. 4 presidential election because he was poised to pose a strong challenge to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, whose approval rating has been tanking.
But earlier this year, Claypool announced he's retiring from county politics when his term as a county commissioner ends in 2010. A former chief of staff to Mayor Daley who also served as Chicago Park District chief, he said he couldn't resist leaving politics for an opportunity to found a health care company that he believes can "lower costs and increase quality of care" for consumers.
According to Blagojevich's recently released book, The Governor, Blagojevich and Emanuel spoke Nov. 7 and 8. They discussed Blagojevich appointing a "placeholder," for the congressional seat, according to the book.
At the time, Emanuel also pushed Valerie Jarrett for the U.S. Senate seat Obama once held. An Obama report detailing contacts between his staff and Blagojevich indicates Emanuel spoke to the ex-governor once or twice between Nov. 6 and Nov. 8 about Emanuel's seat, as well as the Senate seat.
A conversation concerning Emanuel's congressional seat was caught on a secret FBI wiretap, according to a reference in the criminal complaint filed in the Blagojevich case. That could prove to be an embarrassment to Emanuel, should the recording be played at Blagojevich's trial next June.
Claypool's announcement that he would not seek Emanuel's seat came Nov. 12, just days after the discussion between Emanuel and Blagojevich.
On the same day as Claypool's announcement, Jarrett publicly pulled herself out of contention for the Senate seat. She is now a top adviser to the president.
Emanuel had hoped Blagojevich had the authority to appoint a candidate to fill out the remaining weeks of Emanuel's term before a new Congress was sworn in the following January, sources said. The temporary appointment would give Claypool a leg up before any special election took place.
But, unlike the Senate seat, which is filled by an appointment by the governor, a vacant congressional seat must be filled through a special election.
White House unaware?
Ultimately, former county Commissioner Mike Quigley claimed Emanuel's former seat in a special election held earlier this year.
In his book, Blagojevich wrote that he "teased" Emanuel that if he named a placeholder, then Emanuel should "consider it a favor."
"Because if I helped him appoint a congressman who was going to keep the seat warm for him, then I was going to make a lot of people who wanted to be congressmen unhappy with me."
The first inkling that Blagojevich and Emanuel had talked about Emanuel's congressional seat came in the charging papers from the day of the ex-governor's arrest. They cite a conversation between Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, in which the governor talked about the "Fifth CD thing" -- "CD" being short for "congressional district."
Claypool's ties to Emanuel, as well as top Obama strategist David Axelrod, go back years. In 2006, Emanuel broke ranks with city Democrats and endorsed Claypool for County Board president instead of Stroger. At the time, Emanuel explained he and Claypool have been friends since they worked on former Sen. Paul Simon's 1980 campaign.
When the governor's book was released, the White House said it was unaware of an allegation that Emanuel had asked Blagojevich to appoint a placeholder.
"I barely cover with Rahm what's going to happen the rest of the week. I have not talked to him about that nor have I -- I've not seen the book by the indicted former governor of Illinois," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at the time.
Gibbs was asked whether the possibility of a placeholder ever came up during Obama's transition period before he was sworn in.
"No, not that -- I do not remember any discussion about that," Gibbs said.