(Editor's Note: The following piece, penned by Lisa McCormack, details an infamous run in between Rahm Emanuel and Democratic pollster Alan Secrest. It ran in the June/July 1990 issue of Campaigns & Elections magazine. Secrest is closing the doors of his firm after nearly 30 years in business.)
Rarely is anyone the master of both numbers and letters. The name-sake numbers-cruncher of the Democratic polling firm Cooper & Secrest Associates, Inc. is no exception.
When typed on keys burning with righteous indignation -- real or imagined -- an Alan Secrest missive is a heat-seeker fired from a mailbox launch pad. Misfired however, it’s a lethal boomerang. Still smarting from the backfire of one letter that blew up in his face. Secrest, even his friends say, should not be allowed within 100 feet of a post office.
The Letter -- as it is referred to by everyone, including its author -- has become a minor footnote to campaign folklore, and a major albatross around Secret’s neck. All his detractors have to do to initiate a case against him his ask, “Have you read The Letter?” And many of them are only too happy to supply you with a copy.
“I’m not proud of it,” Secrest says, doing his best to keep from seeming at all irked that The Letter has resurfaced—for the first time in print- a year-and-a-half after he wrote it. “I stand by what I said, but I wish I hadn’t said it.”
The Letter accused Rahm Emanuel, the outgoing field director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in December 1988, of attempting to tilt the political playing field in favor of certain pollsters. The most damming charge was that Emanuel had asked CSA to “dupe” or falsify the numbers of Dave Swart’s final poll in his unsuccessful campaign against Republican Bill Paxon in New York’s 31st District.
Shortly before The Letter, Emanuel had sent Secrest a rotting fish.
“If that letter came across my desk, I would have looked into the part about Buffalo. There’s a lot of hard feelings about that race in the region -- why we didn’t win it, how we could have won it and how we lost it,” says Doug Sosnick, current DCCC political director. “The polling is a factor in that discussion, and I don’t know what the resolution is.”
“I am sorry the letter was written. It was not unnecessary,” Sosnik adds. “I think Rahm Emanuel did an outstanding job here last cycle. We picked up three Democratic seats in a presidential election year in which a Republican had a landslide. The numbers speak for themselves.”
“If you take a look at what we’ve accomplished over the years for challengers, for Democratic primary candidates, for open-seat candidates and for incumbents, it more than counterbalances the transitory eruptions of a personality spat,” says Secrest. “It’s just incredible to me the weight that observers place on this incident.”
Both the fish (accompanied by a handwritten note that said, “It’s been awful working with you. Love, Rahm”) and The Letter reeked of the sort of pettiness and vindictive anger each man had shown the other on and off throughout the 1988 cycle.
Unlike a letter, however, a fish, especially one already in an advanced state of decomposition, eventually disappears. Secrest learned the difference a little too late. Emanuel admits sending copies of The Letter to those he felt would appreciate its full bouquet.
Secrest professes to hold no grudge about The Letter’s wide distribution. “I have recommended that firm [The Research Group in Chicago, where Emanuel now works]. I will recommend that firm. I, in fact, recommended that firm this week. I’m interested in winning races. I’m not interested in personal vendettas.”
Emanuel, who confirms that Secrest has recommended the firm initially refused to be interviewed about The Letter until “I decide how I want to play this.” A couple of weeks later, he decided.
In a rush of words and emotions, Emanuel leaves no question as to how he wants to play it: “this notion that it’s a professorial cloister of numbers-crunchers that are out to change the world, and if some money comes their way so much the better, is nonsense. This is a business as competitive as Nike versus Reebok. I have done battle with him. I will continue to do battle with him. He is rude and obnoxious. Why incur another six months of backstabbing? Why wake up a bull in a china shop?”