Image: Chicago mayoral candidates, from left, Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, Carol Moseley Braun and Miguel del Valle prepare to debate Thursday
Chris Sweda/pool  /  EPA
Chicago mayoral candidates, from left, Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, Carol Moseley Braun and Miguel del Valle prepare to debate Thursday evening at WGN-TV hours after the Illinois Supreme Court ordered Emanuel to be kept on the election ballot.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/27/2011 9:42:14 PM ET 2011-01-28T02:42:14

Illinois' highest court put Rahm Emanuel back in the race for Chicago mayor Thursday, three days after a lower court threw the former White House chief of staff off the ballot because he had not lived in the city for a full year.

The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Emanuel's favor, saying an appeals court decision that said the candidate needed to be physically present in Chicago was "without any foundation in Illinois law."

"As I said from the beginning, I think the voters deserve the right to make the choice of who should be mayor," Emanuel said shortly after getting word of the high court's action. "I'm not quite sure emotionally where I'm at."

When he learned of the ruling, Emanuel said he immediately called his wife and took a congratulatory call from his old boss, President Barack Obama.

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Emanuel lived for nearly two years in Washington working for Obama. He moved back to Chicago in October, after incumbent Mayor Richard M. Daley declined to seek another term.

'Game on'
Don Rose, a longtime analyst of Chicago politics, said he thought the saga would bring Emanuel "even greater sympathy" and could lift him to victory.

"It's over," Rose said. "The only open question is whether he wins it in the first round or whether there's a runoff."

But the other contenders in the race did not give any ground.

"Game on," said Gery Chico, the city's former school board president and one of Emanuel's more prominent rivals. He complained that the recent "drama" surrounding Emanuel had "made this election into a circus instead of a serious debate about the future of Chicago."

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun said she did not question the court's decision.

"The fact is that the field hasn't changed. We're all still in this, and we're all trying to get our message out," she said Thursday at a televised debate, where she was joined by Emanuel, Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle.

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However, if Emanuel does not get more than 50 percent of the vote on Feb. 22, a runoff election could be more difficult to win.

"It would show he wasn't strong enough," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's going to be very turbulent in the next week or two. A number of voters will reconsider."

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

Campaign continued amid legal battle
Emanuel never stopped campaigning as the case unfolded. Within minutes of the ruling, he was at a downtown Chicago public transit station shaking hands with residents. He was scheduled to participate in televised debate later Thursday evening.

The former White House aide has said he always intended to return to Chicago.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Emanuel's attorneys called the appellate court decision "one of the most far-reaching election law rulings" ever issued in Illinois, not only because of its effect on the mayoral race but for "the unprecedented restriction" it puts on future candidates.

His lawyers raised several points, including that the appeals court applied a stricter definition of "residency" than the one used for voters. They say Illinois courts have never required candidates to be physically present in the state to seek office there.

"Until just a few days ago, the governing law on this question had been settled in this state for going on 150 years," the court said today, referring to Monday's appeals court ruling, NBC News reported. The justices cited four previous cases that they said the appeals court brushed aside.

The Supreme Court explained that once a person establishes a physical presence in a city but moves away for a time, the question for the courts is whether that person has demonstrated an intent to make that city a permanent home or whether the intent to stay there has been abandoned.

Emanuel, the court found, told friends he intended to serve as White House chief of staff for no more than two years, continued to own property and pay taxes in Chicago, and otherwise demonstrated that he intended to return.

Two justices accused their colleagues of overstating the clarity of the state's legal precedents, NBC News said. For them, the question was much simpler: does a person lose his permanent residency by renting out his house? They said the answer is no, and therefore agreed with the court's majority.

Monday's ruling had thrown the mayoral race and Emanuel's campaign into disarray. The following day, the state Supreme Court ordered Chicago elections officials to stop printing ballots without Emanuel's name on them. Chicago election officials said they had printed nearly 300,000 ballots without Emanuel's name before they abruptly stopped.

Emanuel had been the heavy favorite to lead the nation's third-largest city, and had raised more money than any of the other candidates vying to replace Daley, who announced he would retire after more than two decades as mayor.

When Emanuel's candidacy appeared in doubt, the other main candidates in the race moved quickly to try to win over Emanuel supporters.

Residency questions dogged Emanuel
The residency questions have dogged Emanuel ever since he announced his candidacy last fall. 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, businessman Rob Halpin, later filed paperwork to run for mayor against Emanuel, only to withdraw from the race a short time later.

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The Supreme Court took note of Emanuel's testimony before the city's election board in which he listed all the personal items he left in the house in Chicago when he moved to Washington — including his wife's wedding dress, photographs of his children and clothes they wore as newborns, as well as items belonging to his grandfather.

"The Board determined that, in this situation, the rental did not show abandonment of the residence," the court wrote. "This conclusion was well supported by the evidence and was not clearly erroneous."

More than two dozen people testified on the residency issue at an election board hearing in December. The three-day hearing got progressively stranger as attorneys gave way to Chicago residents who filed objections to the candidacy, including one man who asked Emanuel if he caused the 1993 siege at Waco, Texas.

The elections board and a Cook County judge had previously ruled in favor of Emanuel, a former congressman, saying he did not abandon his Chicago residency when he went to work at the White House.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Emanuel: ‘Relieved for the voters’

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