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Posted at 2:36 PM ET, 11/23/2010

The ins and outs of the Rahm Emanuel residency challenge

By Felicia Sonmez

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (D) may face as many as 19 other contenders in the race to succeed retiring Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), according to candidate filings submitted Monday. But even before Emanuel contends with his rivals on the ballot, he'll have to overcome another hurdle: a dispute over his residency.

Election law attorney Burt Odelson, who also has served as an adviser to several of Emanuel's opponents in the race, is planning to file a legal challenge with the Chicago Board of Elections as early as tomorrow arguing that Emanuel does not meet Illinois' residency requirement for candidates running for municipal office. In an interview with The Fix, Odelson said that he is representing a group of Chicago citizens and that no campaign is involved in the challenge.

According to the state's municipal code, any candidate for municipal office is required to be a resident of the municipality for one year prior to the election. The Chicago mayoral race is slated to take place on Feb. 22, 2011, meaning that candidates would need to have been resident in Chicago since Feb. 22, 2010. (Worth noting: if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will proceed to a runoff on April 5, 2011.)

At issue is what exactly determines a candidate's residency; factors such as Emanuel's physical presence, his intent and the issue of whether state law allows those in government service to keep their Illinois voting rights look likely to come into play.

As far as physical presence goes, Emanuel lived in Washington from 2009 until last month, when he moved back to Chicago to kick off his mayoral bid. He has owned a four-bedroom home on Chicago's North Side since 1998, but -- as has been well-documented by the Chicago press - he has been renting the home since 2009 to a tenant who refused to end his lease early and let Emanuel move back into the house. (As it happens, the tenant, Rob Halpin, has also jumped into the mayor's race; he submitted 20,000 signatures on nominating petitions Monday.) Emanuel, meanwhile, is now living in a condo on the city's west side.

Odelson claims that Emanuel "abandoned his residency" by moving out of his house and relocating himself and his family to Washington. By contrast, President Obama did not abandon his residency, according to Odelson, because he still maintains a home in Chicago where he and his family occasionally spend the night when they are in town.

"He has a place to go back to; it's his residence," Odelson said of Obama.

In defending his residency, Emanuel and his team have argued that the candidate's intent should be the prime consideration in the case.

At a plumbers union hall late last week, Emanuel told supporters that in addition to his long family ties to Chicago -- his grandfather moved to the city in 1917 -- he still owns his home in the city, pays property taxes there and voted absentee in Chicago even after moving to Washington.

"I was born in the city of Chicago. I was a congressman from the city of Chicago. I raised my kids here in the city of Chicago. I own a home here in the city of Chicago, which I look forward to moving into soon," Emanuel said, drawing laughter.

"My car is licensed here in the city of Chicago," he continued. "I pay property taxes here in the city of Chicago. I vote in the city of Chicago. That's what's important, and that's the bottom line."

Odelson, meanwhile, contends that Emanuel's intent should take a back seat to his actions. He noted that Emanuel also owns a home in Michigan, a fact confirmed Emanuel's campaign.

"You can have multiple residences, but you can only be a resident of one," Odelson said. "Intent is not enough."

Another factor that's likely to play a role in the case is whether the Illinois election code allows people to keep their residency status for voting purposes if they leave the state for government service.

Emanuel's camp has argued that state statute would permit Emanuel to be a registered voter in Chicago throughout his tenure as White House chief of staff. Odelson contends that the statute, which was passed in 1943, was intended to apply only to those in the armed forces, not those serving in government, and that it applies only to voters, not to candidates.

Also at issue is Emanuel's voting history; he voted absentee in Chicago after moving to Washington but was at times placed on the "inactive" voter rolls.

Michael Kreloff, an election law expert who addressed the residency issue last week on a conference call for Emanuel's campaign, said that Emanuel did "what hundreds if not thousands of voters do in every election -- which is that sometimes mail comes back and that person is placed inactive until the board of elections gets some notice that the person is still a resident.

"What Rahm Emanuel did when he applies for an absentee ballot is he says, 'Yes, I still live there' and so he rightfully gets his right to vote and he rightfully does vote -- end of story," Kreloff added.

Also playing in Emanuel's favor: several Chicago newspaper editorial boards have already weighed in on his side.

The city elections board will likely hear the residency case within the next two weeks; Odelson said that if the board doesn't rule in his favor, he's prepared to appeal to the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Illinois Appellate Court and even up to the Illinois Supreme Court -- a process that could take several weeks but which Odelson expects to conclude "considerably before Election Day."

Meanwhile, on top of the residency issue, another recent twist in the race is that the field may even include outgoing Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.). Supporters of Burris filed nearly 20,000 signatures on the senator's behalf in an effort to draft him into the race. A source familiar with Burris' thinking said that Burris has signed a statement of candidacy and is considering a bid. The source added that fundraising will be Burris' main concern; the senator remains $800,000 in debt.

By Felicia Sonmez  | November 23, 2010; 2:36 PM ET
Categories:  Fix Notes, What To Watch For, White House  
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