Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, took the stand Tuesday morning in the first of what could be three days of hearings to determine if he meets the residency requirements to run for mayor of Chicago.
Emanuel was the first witness at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners hearing and he will be subject to grilling by more than 30 Chicagoans who filed objections to his candidacy.
At issue: whether Emanuel forfeited his residency when he moved to a home in northwest Washington (across the street from the Washington National Cathedral) to serve in the Obama administration. To run for mayor, a person must be a legal resident of Chicago for a year before the election -- in this case, Feb. 22, 2011.
Emanuel spokesman Ben LaBolt told Politics Daily, "Rahm meets with Chicagoans in neighborhoods across the city each day. They are singularly focused on the challenges facing the city at this critical time and the need for safe streets, strong schools, and stable city finances. They believe that's what the election should be about -- and they know that that is what Rahm is focused on. Chicagoans recognize that the only reason Rahm left town was to serve President Obama, and they believe that voters should have the right to vote for -- or against -- Rahm."
The candidate "never lost his Chicago residency," Emanuel's attorneys argued in a pre-hearing brief. "He is now, and has been for at least the past 12 years, a Chicago resident."
Starting in June 2009, Emanuel rented his North Side Chicago home to a tenant -- who, in the hardball and oddball world of Chicago politics, for a few weeks was himself a candidate for mayor. The tenant, Rob Halpin (who turned down Emanuel's bid to buy him out of the lease to get his house back) is expected to be a key witness against Emanuel. The original lease ran from June 2009 through Aug. 31, 2010, and was then extended to June 30, 2011.
Emanuel contends dozens of documents (tax returns, water bills, car registration, his birth certificate, e-mails and a transcript of an interview he did with Charlie Rose in January 2009, when he talked about his ambition to be Chicago mayor one day) buttress his claim that he never intended to give up Chicago residency when he joined the Obama White House.
The pre-trial brief states that Emanuel left "treasured possessions" in his home, a sure sign he was going to return. The items include his wife's wedding dress, books, diplomas, and the clothes his three children wore home from the hospital after they were born.
Attorney Burt Odelson, who is leading the main legal challenge to Emanuel, argued in a filing before the election board that Emanuel violated state laws because he is "not eligible for an elective municipal office" in the wake of his move to Washington and rental of his Chicago home.
Emanuel's lawyers argued in their brief that their client's relocation to Washington does not meet a legal standard for "abandonment of residency" because he always intended to return to the city -- and the law turns on intent. Illinois law, the brief argued, allowed Emanuel to leave Chicago and maintain his residency because he only departed "on business of the United States."
Odelson argues that portion of the law only applies for purposes of determining who is eligible to vote, not who is eligible to run for office.
The Emanuel campaign has been gathering testimonials from civic leaders who say Emanuel should be allowed to run, as the team tries to frame the matter as a ballot-access issue. But navigating the many rules of getting on a ballot is a routine hurdle for all candidates in Illinois, where knocking people off the ballot early on is acceptable political behavior.
When Obama made his first run for office (a state senate seat), his allies challenged the petition signatures of his strongest rival and got her removed from the ballot. Emanuel, when he ran for re-election to his House seat in 2004, challenged the nominating petitions of a rival.
No matter how the election commissioners rule, the loser will take it to a Cook County Circuit Court Judge, with further appeals leading likely to the Illinois Supreme Court.