BY JOHN FUND – Twenty candidates have filed papers to run for mayor of Chicago, but the first political battle will be over whether one of them — former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — is even eligible to run. Opponents plan to file a lawsuit saying that Mr. Emanuel is in violation of a city law that requires anyone running for mayor to be a resident of the city one year before the election. Unlike President Obama, Mr. Emanuel did not leave an empty house indicating he planned to return to the city after his government service. Instead, he rented it out to a tenant who refused to move when Mr. Emanuel launched his mayoral bid and indeed is one of the candidates who has filed to run against him.
Mr. Emanuel makes a persuasive case that he has Chicago roots, noting that he was born there, was a congressman from the area and pays property taxes there. But evidence has surfaced that he was twice purged from the city voter rolls in the past year and was only reinstated after mysterious intervention by higher-ups at the elections board.
All of the legal challenges merely amount to technical sniping designed to deny the 90,000 voters who signed his election petitions the right to have their candidate appear on the ballot, insists Mr. Emanuel. “I don’t think a few individuals should deny the people of the city of Chicago the right to have that choice,” he told reporters.
Sounds good. But using legal technicalities to remove opponents from the ballot is part of Chicago’s legendary political hardball. When Barack Obama first ran for state senate in Illinois in 1996, he deployed an army of lawyers to challenge the validity of signatures on the petitions of his opponents. With the help of friendly officials in the Daley machine he was able to remove all of them from the ballot, thus running unopposed in his maiden political race.
Mr. Emanuel himself hasn’t been above such tactics. Mike Kasper, the lawyer representing Mr. Emanuel in his fight against residency lawsuits, filed a challenge against Mr. Emanuel’s only opponent in the 2004 Democratic primary. It alleged that Mark Fredrickson had started collecting signatures for his nominating petitions too early. The challenge failed but Mr. Emanuel went on to win the primary easily.
Few expect Chicago’s famously political judges to remove Mr. Emanuel’s name from the ballot, but some of his opponents enjoy seeing him squirm as they remind voters that in reality Mr. Emanuel is a creature of Washington. In 1993, Mr. Emanuel left Chicago to spend five years as a White House aide to President Clinton. In 2002, he was elected to Congress and then immersed himself in national Democratic politics as the chair of the party’s House campaign committee. For the past two years he has worked for President Obama.
Mr. Emanuel is likely to convince judges that he is a Chicagoan, but he may face a higher hurdle in getting voters to accept that fact.