Rahm Emanuel ruling: big setback at a crucial time in Chicago mayor's race

Rahm Emanuel does not meet the residency requirements to run for Chicago mayor Feb. 22, an Illinois appeals court panel rules. Rahm Emanuel will appeal to the state supreme court, but a verdict in his favor is hardly assured.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel speaks at a news conference in Chicago Monday, after an Illinois appeals court threw the former White House chief of staff off the ballot for Chicago mayor because he didn't live in the city in the year before the election.

Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago mayoral campaign hit a major hurdle Monday with a 2-to-1 ruling by an Illinois appeals court that his name cannot appear on the ballot for the Feb. 22 election since he does not meet the residency standard for the office.

The ruling reverses the unanimous decision of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners that Mr. Emanuel does meet the residency requirements. Emanuel will appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court and ask for an injunction to keep his name on the ballot.

He leads his closest opponent by more than 20 points in the latest Chicago Tribune poll and holds a huge fundraising advantage.

"I have no doubt at the end we'll prevail in this effort," Emanuel said in a news conference. “We’ll now go to the next level to get clarity."

"I do believe the people of the city of Chicago deserve a right to make a decision about who they want to be their next mayor," he added.

But there’s no certainty of how the state’s Supreme Court – if it takes the case – will rule, and even if he does get his name reinstated, Emanuel will have lost valuable weeks of campaigning.

“It ties up the Emanuel campaign for the next couple weeks” even if the Supreme Court reverses the decision, notes Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “And it raises questions in the minds of voters over whether Emanuel is really a Chicagoan,” regardless of how the legal case is decided.

“It’s a great opportunity for the other candidates, and it means [Emanuel’s] $10 million isn’t very useful at the moment,” he adds.

A huge lead

Emanuel, until recently President Obama’s chief of staff, has been the overwhelming front-runner in the election. In the Tribune poll, he was the choice of 44 percent of respondents – more than double that of former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

But from the beginning, his campaign has been dogged by opponents claiming his years in Washington serving the Obama administration make him ineligible for the office, which requires all candidates to have lived in Chicago for the year preceding the election.

Emanuel, who still owns a home in Chicago though he had rented it out, has claimed that his service in the executive branch meets the exception the statute grants for service to the country.

“Fundamentally, when a president asks you to serve the country as his chief of staff, that counts as part of serving your country," Emanuel said in the press conference.

But in the decision, the majority judges concluded that “the candidate neither meets the Municipal Code’s requirement that he have ‘resided in’ Chicago for the year preceding the election in which he seeks to participate nor falls within any exception to the requirement.”

The dissenting judge disagreed, stating that she believed Emanuel had not necessarily given up his legal residency in Chicago simply because he had been living in Washington for two years.

'It's a close call'

At this point, with two rulings in favor of Emanuel and the appeals court ruling against him, the facts of the case are pretty clear, says Chris Ashby, a Washington election lawyer. “The argument going forward is: What does the law mean when applied to these facts?” he says. “The real question is going to be one of intent. What was Rahm Emanuel’s intent throughout the relevant time period.… And it’s a close call one way or the other.”

Time is crucial, with early voting beginning Jan. 31. And, Professor Simpson notes, whatever the Illinois Supreme Court decides, politics will factor in.

“They’ll try to make a decision on the merits, and hopefully will do so, but everybody is aware of the politics involved here, particularly at the next level,” he says.

Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, the husband of Justice Anne Burke, has already endorsed Gery Chico, one of Emanuel’s rivals. It’s unclear whether she would recuse herself. Mr. Chico, though currently polling behind Ms. Braun, could end up benefiting from an ousted Emanuel even more than Braun would.

“I think the common sense idea is that [Emanuel] had a right to run,” says Simpson. “But the court zeroed in on whether or not he was truly a resident,… and I can’t quite parse whether the decision will stand or not.”

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