Image: Rahm Emanuel
Paul Beaty  /  AP
Rahm Emanuel, right, testifies before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners during a Dec. 14 hearing challenging his residency to run as Mayor in Chicago.
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updated 12/23/2010 6:37:37 PM ET 2010-12-23T23:37:37

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel can run for Chicago mayor although he spent much of the last two years living in Washington while working for President Barack Obama, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners ruled Thursday.

The board's unanimous decision to put Emanuel's name on the Feb. 22 ballot allowed the former White House chief of staff to clear a major hurdle to his ambitions to replace retiring Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But the commission ruling the Emanuel met the residency requirement didn't resolve the matter completely, with one of the objectors' lawyers saying he would immediately appeal the ruling and fight Emanuel's candidacy all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, if necessary.

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More than two dozen people had challenged Emanuel's candidacy, contending he didn't meet a one-year residency requirement. But an election board hearing officer recommended early Thursday morning that Emanuel's name be placed on the ballot, based on evidence showing that Emanuel had no intention of terminating his residency in Chicago, left the city only to work for Obama and often told friends he intended to live in Washington for no more than two years.

Timeline: Interactive: Key dates in Emanuel's career (on this page)

Emanuel said she he was pleased with the officer's recommendation.

"Chicago voters should ultimately have the right to decide the election — and to vote for me or against me," Emanuel said in a statement before the ruling by the commission, comprised of two Democrats and a Republican.

At issue: Emanuel's intent to return
One commissioner, Richard Cowen, the Republican, said he agreed with the hearing officer's conclusion that Emanuel always intended to move back to Chicago, and that his intent was the most important issue in the case. He said the law was clear and the case was not difficult to decide.

"Rahm Emanuel said he was coming back to Chicago," Cowen said. "The issue is not whether he was a resident at the time he was appointed (Obama's) chief of staff. The issue is whether he abandoned his residency. ... That's the test we have to apply.

Burt Odelson, the most prominent of the objectors, said he had already prepared his appeal of the commission's ruling and planned to deliver it to the courts Thursday. He said he expected the legal case to move quickly and could go to the Supreme Court within four or five weeks, well in advance of the mayoral vote.

Odelson said the objector's case against Emanuel was stronger than other cases he had won before the election's officials.

"I knew this was going to happen," Odelson said. "The facts are the facts. The law is the law, but it depends on how you interpret the law. ... The difference is the candidate."

The objectors had several hours to express their dissent at the commission meeting, where the board opened the floor for more than a dozen of them to react to Morris' recommendation. One objector, Lora Chamberlain, argued that the decision was "very simple" — that since Emanuel didn't physically move back to Chicago until last fall, he was not legally allowed to appear on the ballot.

"That was still 6 ½ months short of what was necessary," Chamberlain said. "Please, just be true to the law."

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Emanuel is part of a crowded field of more than a dozen candidates, including former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, former school board president Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle.

One potential challenger, state Sen. James Meeks, the pastor of a South Side mega church, withdrew Thursday but encouraged the other black candidates — Braun and Davis — to rally around a single candidate. In a statement, the politician and senior pastor of a South Side mega church said as long as the city's black community remains divided, "we will never see things improve." 

Since returning to Chicago in October to run for mayor, Emanuel has enjoyed strong name recognition in the race and already has run several television ads. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll showed Emanuel as the only candidate in double digits with more than 30 percent support, although 30 percent remained undecided.

In his recommendation, Morris wrote that the question wasn't whether Emanuel established residency in Illinois in 2010, but whether he abandoned it. Morris said he found no evidence that Emanuel had done so, arguing that "the touchstone of continued residence is the intention of the resident, and not the physical fact of 'having a place to sleep.'"

Morris also noted that Emanuel was born and married in Chicago, owns a home in the city where he still keeps valuable possessions, has an Illinois driver's license and voted in Chicago in every election between 1999 and February 2010.

"Illinois law expressly protects the residential status and electoral rights of Illinois residents who are called to serve the national government," Morris wrote in his 35-page ruling.

Ruling follows marathon grilling
Morris' ruling came after a marathon three-day hearing last week in which Emanuel was grilled by a long parade of objectors to his candidacy, many of whom represented themselves and veered off into questions that had little to do with Emanuel's place of residence.

The serious, at times strange hearing explored the contents of the basement of Emanuel's home where he said he left many prized family possessions, including his wife's wedding dress — further proof he always intended to return to Chicago, he and his lawyers argued.

A former congressman from Chicago's North Side, Emanuel said he only moved his family to Washington because he couldn't turn down Obama's offer to be chief of staff. Emanuel's wife and the couple's three children still live in Washington and will remain there until the end of the school year.

The hearing focused heavily on Emanuel's home, with objectors contending he wasn't a resident partly because he rented out his house when his family joined him in Washington in the summer of 2009.

Emanuel said he leased his home for safety and security reasons. He tried to move back into his house when he returned to Chicago but the family renting it wanted $100,000 to break the lease and move out early. The tenant later filed paperwork to run for mayor against Emanuel, only to withdraw from the race a short time later.

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Timeline: Rahm Emanuel

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