NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Residency Fight Clouds Emanuel's Chicago Mayor Bid

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel talks with voters as he eats breakfast at Izola's Restaurant in Chicago. Emanuel began campaigning in the city more than a month before announcing his candidacy on Nov. 13.
Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel talks with voters as he eats breakfast at Izola's Restaurant in Chicago. Emanuel began campaigning in the city more than a month before announcing his candidacy on Nov. 13.

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will be on the hot seat in Chicago Tuesday.

The hard-charging former congressman from Chicago's north side is facing obstacles in his bid to be mayor of the nation's third-largest city. First, a family renting Emanuel's Chicago home refused to vacate when he returned from Washington. Now, he's facing questions over whether he's really a Chicago resident, and qualified to be on the ballot.

Emanuel is expected to be the first witness called in a proceeding before a hearing officer of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. He may be questioned by as many as 25 people -- or their attorneys -- who have filed objections to Emanuel's candidacy. The objectors argue that because he moved to Washington, D.C., to be President Obama's top aide, he does not meet the state's residency requirement for candidates for public office.

Board Prepares To Hear Case

If the initial hearings in the case are any indication, Emanuel could be in for a long and trying day on the stand. There's been an almost circus-like atmosphere in the basement conference room of the Chicago Board of Elections during the initial hearings over recent days. Hearing officer Joe Morris has had to try to herd more than two dozen objectors and attorneys -- along with Emanuel's lawyers -- together to go over ground rules, witnesses and other matters.

Some of the objectors are veteran Chicago election attorneys; others are local political activists and gadflies -- and all want to speak their mind.

That led tempers to flare a bit last Friday, when Morris ruled one objector, Jeffrey Black, could not subpoena the head of the Chicago office of the FBI, to verify where Emanuel lived.

"It is superfluous. It's not germane to the issues we need to decide here," said Morris.

But Black persisted in shouting and interrupting, prompting Morris to scold, "Mr. Black, don't speak over me. Mr. Black, do not speak over me! Mr. Black, I have been very tolerant, but only one of us will speak at a time."

Morris vows to not allow grandstanding or repetitive inquiries. But it could get interesting, as all 25 objectors will be allowed to question every single witness, starting with Emanuel himself.

Interpreting Election Law

The convoluted battle is over whether Emanuel meets the requirement under Illinois law that candidates reside in the city they want to represent for one year prior to the election, which will be held on Feb. 22.

Emanuel and his family moved to Washington, D.C., when he became President Obama's chief of staff almost two years ago. He did not move back to Chicago until after Mayor Richard Daley announced in September that he would not run for re-election.

Illinois law does allow candidates to maintain their residency when they move away if they show an intent to return.

For example, President Obama shows an intent to return by still owning a home in Chicago here which he has returned to and stayed in overnight a couple of times.

But veteran Chicago election attorney Burt Odelson, who is leading the challenges to Emanuel's residency, says Emanuel has not shown the same intent, because he rented out his house.

"He has admitted he has been in Washington that length of time, and he has no place to come back to, because his house is leased out," Odelson says. "He had no residency in Chicago at the time he was in Washington."

Emanuel disagrees, pointing out that he didn't sell his Chicago house, nor did he and his family try to establish residency in Washington.

"I own a home in the city of Chicago, I pay property taxes in the city of Chicago," Emanuel says, "I have a car registered in the city of Chicago. I vote from the city of Chicago."

Furthermore, Emanuel's attorneys contend the job he left Chicago for -- working for President Obama -- bolsters his case. That's because Illinois law states that an elector cannot lose residency when they are "on the business of the United States."

But Odelson says that law was meant for voters only, not candidates, and that it's restricted to those in the military.

"'In service to the United States' means a serviceman in service to the United States," he says. "That law was passed in 1943 for a very specific purpose."

'Down The Rabbit Hole'

Around Chicago, some voters see the challenge to Emanuel's residency as frivolous and say Emanuel should be allowed to remain on the ballot so voters can decide whether he or someone else should be mayor. Others disagree, and say he should have to abide by the same rules as everyone else.

Veteran Chicago election lawyer Andy Raucci disagrees with those who call the challenges to Emanuel's residency a waste of time.

"It's not a frivolous issue," he says, who adds the case will likely set a precedent for Chicago candidates one way or the other.

And Raucci adds that it's difficult to predict how the Board of Elections, and ultimately the Illinois courts, will rule.

"Sometimes politics in Chicago makes one feel like Alice in Wonderland," Raucci says, "and that one has fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in a place where the normal rules of logic do not apply."

Emanuel's hearing before Chicago's Board of Elections could last several days. And no matter what the board decides, the case will likely be appealed to the courts and may not be resolved until early next year.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.