Rahm Emanuel clears one hurdle in Chicago mayor's race; more ahead

A hearing officer with the Chicago election board recommends that Rahm Emanuel be permitted to run for mayor of Chicago. The full board is set to vote on his eligibility Thursday.

By , Staff writer

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    Rahm Emanuel right, testifies before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners during a hearing challenging his residency to run as Mayor in Chicago, Dec. 14.
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Rahm Emanuel’s status as a legal resident of Chicago is sound and he is eligible to run for mayor of Chicago.

That is the recommendation of Joseph Morris, a hearing officer with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, who issued a 69-page report early Thursday morning stating that “the preponderance” of evidence “establishes that [Mr. Emanuel] never formed an intention to terminate his residence in Chicago” while serving as White House chief of staff. Emanuel returned from Washington, D.D., in October to run for the mayoral seat soon to be vacated by Richard M. Daley.

The recommendation now goes before a three-member board Thursday, which is expected to vote on the matter. Whatever the board's decision, the losing side is certain to appeal, sending the case to the Illinois state court system and, perhaps, ultimately to the state Supreme Court.

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In a statement, Emanuel said he is “encouraged” by the recommendation and that “it affirms” his position. “Chicago voters should ultimately have the right to decide the election – and to vote for me, or against me,” he said.

Since announcing his candidacy, Emanuel had to answer charges that his mayoral bid is illegal because state law requires all eligible candidates to reside in Chicago one year before taking office.

The statute previously exempted members of the military and congressional aides. Emanuel’s legal team argued that White House service should be considered, as well. Emanuel served as White House chief of staff between January 2009 and October 2010. Mr. Morris agreed that Emanuel’s role in Washington did not necessarily mean he abandoned his Chicago residence and said he proved enough evidence to show an intention to return.

“This is a public office of considerable weight and importance in the life of the nation,” Morris wrote of the White House chief of staff's job, adding that it is the type of public service that the law protects.

During a three-day hearing last week, opponents of Emanuel's candidacy argued that Emanuel had not intended to return to Chicago. Among the evidence cited was a lease extension given in August to the tenants who rented Emanuel's Chicago home and a 2009 state income tax return that originally listed his residency as part time.

The Morris decision came at about 2 a.m. Thursday, at least two days after the election board had anticipated its arrival. Chris Robling, a former Chicago Election Commissioner who appointed Morris to his role as a hearing officer, says he suspects that the three-member panel will vote in Emanuel’s favor.

“[Morris] believes in ballot access. He’s never been comfortable in restrictions. His [past] writing decisions have been, ‘We ought to let the voters decide and why are we prejudging these issues?’ I believe he’s very sincere in that belief,” says Mr. Robling.

The process to confirm or deny Emanuel’s candidacy is running head to head with the countdown to the election, just two months away. Complications may arise if a final ruling is not made by the time the ballots are printed, says Washington, D.C., election lawyer Chris Ashby.

Because the Illinois statute is concerned only with the residency issue and not the ballot itself, it is possible that Emanuel’s name could appear on a ballot even if the legitimacy of his campaign is still being sorted out in court. If that becomes the case, voters would be allowed to cast their votes in his favor, but their votes would be rejected if the state’s high court later determined Emanuel did not meet the residency requirement. If that happened, the second-highest vote-getter would win, says Mr. Ashby.

If a lower court rules that Emanuel is not eligible but the ballots need to be printed while he is appealing that decision to a higher court, the law is unclear on what to do next, Ashby says.

“Do you include him or not include him? He could probably petition the court to be included,” he says.

Whatever the outcome by election time, it is certain that “this case could be a precedent-setter” in election law in helping narrow the interpretation of state residency statutes, Ashby says.

“Every case is going to be unique, the facts and circumstances are going to be different. So the law gives you this test that is intentionally somewhat vague so it can test different situations that can arise,” he says.

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