CHICAGO — Last week, Afghanistan. This week, parents protesting the proposed demolition of a park field house.
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel hit the campaign trail on Monday and got a sudden taste of the vastly different agenda he'd face as Chicago's mayor – and the hurdles he must overcome to be elected.
A day after unveiling his campaign on a new website, Emanuel hit the streets vowing to "hear from Chicagoans – in blunt and honest terms" about what they want from their next mayor. Many were happy just to shake hands, exchange hugs, or drink coffee with President Barack Obama's hard-charging former right hand man.
But he also faced skepticism about his intentions, loyalties and whether he even has the legal right to run for mayor in a city he hasn't lived in for nearly two years. A few potential rivals also surfaced in public, though insisted it had nothing to do with him.
The blunt talk during one part of Emanuel's visit to a bustling street in the mostly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood was that he wasn't listening enough.
There, a group of parents protesting the planned demolition of a park field house briefly surrounded Emanuel's car. They said he'd promised to talk with them on the sidewalk, but instead, after entering a restaurant to shake hands with patrons, he quickly headed to his car without stopping.
Michelle Palencia, whose 6-year-old son attends a school that uses the field house as a library, said the group confronted Emanuel because no one else is listening.
"He said, 'I promise,'" Palencia said. "That's all we've been hearing is promises."
Palencia said Emanuel did say he would call her – and she will be waiting.
Skeptics and well-wishers alike greeted Emanuel as he campaigned at a downtown train station, a South Side restaurant and along Pilsen's busy 18th Street.
Outside Izola's restaurant, a bastion for Chicago's black leaders and a favorite of the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington, a fair number of curiosity seekers said they'd never even heard of Emanuel. Inside, treated to a $13 breakfast with Emanuel, a trio of local men told him their concerns – unemployment, education, crime.
"He's going to have to convince us he's going to make a difference," said diner Paul Bryson, 46, a bathroom remodeler.
Paul Johnson, a construction worker who used Emanuel's visit to the restaurant to protest jobs going to illegal immigrants, said it was no accident there were no black community leaders in sight.
"They're sending a message by not being here," said Johnson, 49, who is black.
One thing Emanuel may have in his favor as he looks for votes among South Side black voters is his connection to Obama, who once worked as a community activist in the area and remains immensely popular there.
"A segment of the population will just support Rahm based on Rahm's affiliation with Barack Obama," said local minister Ira Acree.
But added Acree, who is not an Emanuel supporter, "Our job is to educate (voters) that Rahm is not the second coming of Barack Obama, that what they're thinking is based on irrational logic."
With a small army of television news crews in tow during his campaign stops Monday, Emanuel leaned in close to make eye-to-eye small talk with many who greeted him, as if trying to shake off the Washington insider mantle and remind voters he's a local boy. By and large he was greeted warmly where he went.
On Emanuel's new campaign Facebook page, most postings also were positive, but there were some from people who were skeptical or downright hostile.
Some were critical of Emanuel's role in the Obama administration. Others wondered if he was more concerned about landing himself a job than he was for the city. And some suggested that after being away from Chicago for so long, he was ineligible to run for mayor – an argument one city elections official said is likely without merit.
Talking to reporters Monday, Emanuel briefly addressed another issue bound to come up often during the campaign: Rod Blagojevich.
The impeached former Illinois governor's retrial is set to start in January, when the mayoral campaign should be in full swing. Emanuel is not accused of wrongdoing, but his name came up during the first trial, including when then-Gov. Blagojevich was heard on wiretap tape recordings played in court allegedly talking about trying to sell or trade Obama's old Senate seat.
Asked if he'd heed calls for full disclosure about his contact with Blagojevich at that time, Emanuel suggested there was nothing new to reveal, saying there were "no dealings, no quid pro quo."
And he didn't sound daunted by the prospect of being called to testify at the retrial.
"If they asked me to testify at trial, absolutely. ... We'll do it," he said.
Emanuel joins a crowded field of Democrats who have announced or hinted they're running. Among them are Chicago School Board president and close Daley ally Gery Chico, Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and state Sen. James Meeks, who's also the pastor of a South Side church.
Former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who also is considering a mayoral run, visited one of the same South Side eateries as Emanuel on Monday and also was filmed talking with voters, but a spokeswoman said the overlap was a coincidence.
Braun had been planning her own listening tour of the city's South Side for weeks to solidify her base, a spokeswoman said, and has been quietly building support among business and community leaders since mid-September.
One other potential rival didn't sound overly worried about Emanuel.
Speaking at the Cook County Jail for the official launch of a new laundry operation staffed by jailed military veterans, Dart told reporters he was presently focused on his own family and his current job serving Chicago.
"My time is spent on my family and my job," he said. "What he does or what he doesn't do, what his strong points, weak points are – are really not going to be the thing that determines what I do at all."
Associated Press writers Don Babwin and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.