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Chicago hearing: Does Rahm Emanuel qualify to run for mayor?

Rahm Emanuel faced questions Tuesday on whether he has been a Chicago resident – a requirement for a mayoral run. Mr. Emanuel served as White House chief of staff until October.

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Rahm Emanuel testifies before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners during a hearing challenging his residency to keep him off February's mayoral ballot, in Chicago, Tuesday.

Paul Beaty/AP

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Rahm Emanuel appeared at a hearing in Chicago Tuesday to answer questions about whether he satisfies residency requirements to run for mayor of the city.

Mr. Emanuel was the first witness in what is expected to be a three-day hearing on the matter, the result of which will be a recommendation to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners on whether Emanuel’s name can remain on the Feb. 22 ballot.

At the heart of the issue: a state law dating back to 1871 that says anyone running for political office in Illinois must prove he or she was a resident at least one year prior to taking office. Emanuel served as White House chief of staff between January 2009 and October 2010.

The outcome of the hearing, which is certain to be appealed to state court, threatens to put the brakes on a campaign that, up to this point, appears headed for victory.

“[Emanuel is] up for a real fight. He’s polling wonderfully; he has the money and name recognition. He just needs to get over this last hump,” says Chicago litigator Andrew Stoltmann.

In a pre-hearing brief, Emanuel’s legal team outlined the ways that they say his residency status has remained valid, despite relocating to Washington to serve as chief of staff. According to the brief, Emanuel paid the home’s property taxes, homeowners insurance, and water bills, and the home’s address – in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood – appears on his driver’s license and bank checks.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Emanuel added that despite having a renter, he keeps many family possessions and heirlooms, such as his wife’s wedding dress, diplomas, and his grandfather’s winter coat, stored in the basement.

His challengers say that is not enough, contending that Emanuel abandoned his home address by renting his home and then extending the lease this past August to June 2011. Also, they say, he cannot claim a provision in the state law that exempts individuals who were away “on business of the United States.”

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Chris Robling, a former Chicago election-board commissioner, says that congressional aides and members of the military have always “enjoyed the privilege” of maintaining their state residency, but that state courts have never been forced to interpret the provision to apply to service in the executive branch.

“If Rahm had been [in Washington] working for Sen. [Richard] Durbin, we would not be having this conversation,” he says.

Challengers are relying on the home rental as evidence that Emanuel treated the property as an investment and not a permanent home. His actions, they say, counter those of President Obama, who chose to keep his Kenwood home vacant so his family can stay there in return visits to Chicago. A renter who would not exit the lease early is forcing Emanuel to rent a condo close to downtown.

Emanuel’s 2009 state income-tax return, which listed his residency as part time, is also coming back to haunt him. On Tuesday, Emanuel told election lawyer Burton Odelson, who represents more than 20 challengers to Emanuel’s candidacy, that the designation was “a mistake” and was later corrected to represent his full-time status. However, Mr. Odelson forced him to acknowledge that he approved the earlier version.

“Did you review this document before you signed it?” Odelson asked.

“It was prepared by my accountant, and I signed it,” Emanuel answered.

The hearing Tuesday provided opportunities for prime political theater. Emanuel entered the room just as loud electronic-speaker feedback occurred. He brought with him a photo of his wife, which he kept nearby. Later, he recounted virtually every step of his political career, and he viewed overhead-projector images of different rooms in his house, which he was asked to identify.

In the late afternoon, Emanuel faced questions from several citizens who, more often than not, pursued a bizarre line of questioning. One citizen petitioner, Paul McKinley, ended his 20-minute questioning by jokingly asking if Emanuel were a member of the Communist Party.

Future witnesses in the hearing might include Rob Halpin, his renter, said hearing officer Joseph Morris, who is presiding over the proceedings.

Once the hearing ends, Mr. Morris will make a recommendation to the board, which will render a judgment. No matter the outcome, appeals are likely.

There “is not, by any means, a slam-dunk argument on either side,” says Chris Ashby, who practices election law in Washington. But the situation, he says, provides “a great case to illustrate the potential offensive use of election law in political combat.” Emanuel’s challengers are taking “an obscure provision of the election law to use it to throw a wrench into the gears” of his campaign, Mr. Ashby says.

“They are knocking the Emanuel campaign off message every minute the candidate has to spend facing questions, whether in the hearing room or from citizens,” he says.


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