Did anyone actually think Rahm Emanuel was going to have to obey the residency requirements placed on mere mortal mayoral candidates?
Please! Rahm Emanuel, former Clinton administration fixer, former House Democratic Caucus fixer, former Obama administration fixer, does not follow the rules. He makes the rules.
And rule one is that Rahm gets to do what Rahm wants to do.
Even as a lot of Chicagoans were noting Emanuel’s rather tenuous ties to a city he has tended to use as a launching pad for distant endeavors rather than a home base, Emanuel went right ahead with what is likely to be the biggest spending—$11.7 million raised so far, and counting—mayoral campaign in local history.
Then, an Illinois appellate court panel most ungraciously bumped the master of the universe from the ballot for this mayoral ballot. The judges applied the admittedly naïve presumption that the term “residency requirement” referred to the section of the election law that says a candidate for mayor must maintain a residence in the city for a year prior to the election in which he or she bids for office—rather than renting his or her place out to someone else and setting up housekeeping in Washington, DC.
That appellate court ruling excited a lot of pundits, who engaged in several days of siilly speculation about whether Emanuel would have to find something else to do with his time—like run President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
But that was just pointless pontification.
Emanuel was never going to accept the appellate court ruling.
He was going to find a court that would read the residency requirement the way he said it was written. Never mind that the appeals process might confuse and complicate preparations for the rapidly approaching February 22 primary vote. Yes, of course, it might be true, as attorney Burton Odelson wrote in a brief opposing further judicial interventions on Emanuel’s behalf, that “the petitioner narcissistically asks this court to value his non fundamental right to be a candidate for mayor over the fundamental voting rights of potentially thousands of voters.” But calling Rahm Emanuel “narcissistic” is like calling Chicago “windy.”
So Emanuel pursued his appeal. It was, after all, only a matter of time before Rahm found the court that read the law Rahm’s way.
On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court put Emanuel’s name back on the ballot.
Next up for Emanuel, another little technicality known as an “election.”
So what should small “d” democrats make of all this wrangling?
Residency requirements, and rules requiring the collection of high numbers of signatures or the payment of large fees to gain ballot access, are designed to limit the range of options available to voters. In fact, election laws in too many places—including Chicago—are written by politicians who have a lot of power with an eye toward limiting challenges to their grip on the positions that afford them authority.
In the best of all political worlds, it would be very easy for candidates to qualify for every ballot. Then, in a fair fight, the various contenders could celebrate their own ties to the community while raising doubts about whether an frequent-flying opponent like Emanuel really qualified as a homeboy.
The problem is that this Chicago mayoral race is not shaping up as a fair fight. Emanuel, as the favored candidate of the national Clinton and Obama political operations, has already raised more money than all of the other primary candidates combined. How much more? Emanuel has banked twenty times as much money as the next closest competitor in most polls, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun.
That imbalance is what made the appellate court’s intervention meaningful—as opposed to definitional (which it was never going to be). For a few days, it was possible to entertain the notion that Emanuel might have to play by the same rules as everyone else.
That made what is looking all too much like a coronation appear ever so briefly, to be an election.