The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners ruled Thursday afternoon that former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel meets the residency requirements for the upcoming mayoral election and can run on the February ballot.
The three-member board voted unanimously based on a recommendation early this morning by a hearing officer who found that Mr. Emanuel appears to meet the residency requirements. The officer concluded that those raising objections to Mr. Emanuel’s eligibility to run had failed to meet the burden of proof in their effort to disqualify him.
Hearing officer Joseph Morris, a Republican and private attorney, said in summary there was no evidence to suggest Mr. Emanuel intended to permanently leave Chicago in 2009 to work for the Obama administration.
“Illinois law expressly protects the residential status and electoral rights of Illinois residents who are called to serve the national government,” he wrote in a 35-page ruling, which followed a three-day hearing last week in which Mr. Emanuel was forced to give lengthy testimony in defense of his qualifications.
Still, the final decision likely will be made in a court. Those who disagree with the board’s decision can appeal to the Cook County Circuit Court, and the final ruling likely will occur in the Illinois Supreme Court.
A poll released Wednesday showed that Mr. Emanuel has widened his lead in the race over his top rivals.
Mr. Emanuel, a former congressman from the city and the presumed front-runner since announcing his candidacy in October, has 43 percent of the vote in a deep field of candidates, according to a poll from the Chicago Retail Merchants Association.
It is the largest lead recorded yet in the polls, but still below the 50 percent Mr. Emanuel needs to avoid a runoff in the Feb. 22 vote.
Mr. Emanuel’s closest challenger is lawyer Gery Chico with 11 percent. He is followed by former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun with 7 percent, Rep. Danny K. Davis and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle with 6 percent each, and state Sen. James Meeks with 3 percent. All are Democrats. Sixteen percent of likely voters were undecided, according to the poll of 2,239 likely voters.
The race to succeed longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley is nonpartisan, meaning all the candidates will compete in the February balloting.
Mr. Emanuel testified for roughly 12 hours during last week’s hearing to defend his residency status, which is being by challenged by about 20 residents.
Candidates are required to live in the city for one year before taking office. Mr. Emanuel, 51, has rented his Chicago home while living in Washington. He served as President Obama’s chief of staff from January 2009 until October 2010 and was in the House for six years before taking the White House post.
Mr. Emanuel argued he had legally maintained his residence in the city, noting that he left valuables in the house, including his wife’s wedding dress, and still has an Illinois driver’s license.
He decided to run after Mr. Daley, a fellow Democrat, unexpectedly announced in September that he would not seek a seventh term, giving the city its first competitive mayoral race in about 20 years. Months earlier, Mr. Emanuel, known for his rough-and-tumble style of politics, said being mayor of his hometown would be a “dream job.”
Though Mr. Emanuel entered the race amid high expectations, such a big lead over such formidable rivals is a bit of a surprise, considering Mr. Emanuel’s residency issue and his connection to the Obama administration, which has struggled to make progress on the nation’s high jobless rate.
“This is a pretty huge lead in what is seemingly a pretty strong pack,” said Jessica Levinson, a director at the nonpartisan Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles. “The Obama administration isn’t so popular right now, but Rahm’s still known as a get-things-done guy.”
Ms. Levinson added that the controversy over Mr. Emanuel’s eligibility to run may have “only served to add to his name recognition. This isn’t about a DUI, it’s about the residency status of guy who went to Washington to serve his country.”
A previous Chicago Retail Merchants Association poll released last month put Mr. Emanuel in the lead with 39 percent, followed by Mrs. Moseley Braun with 12 percent and Mr. Chico at 9 percent. The number of undecided voters was 19 percent, which suggests Mr. Emanuel is winning the battle for voters still considering whom they will support.
But his rivals are not ready to concede the race.
“Gery Chico is still in this race,” said Brooke Anderson, spokeswoman for Mr. Chico, also a former Daley staffer. “Rahm Emanuel is a celebrity in this town. How much higher can his numbers go? He’s spent more than $1 million on TV advertising, and we haven’t spent a dime. Gery Chico’s name recognition will increase.”