01.24.11

Rahm's Pain, Whose Gain?

Obama’s enforcer was tossed off the ballot in Chicago’s mayor race over a residency issue. Dirk Johnson on the real winners—including an alderman rooting for a weak mayor.

Rahm Emanuel is clearly the big loser in the court decision that bounced him off the Chicago mayoral ballot. But who are the real winners?

His feisty tenant, Rob Halpin, who refused to allow the former White House powerhouse to break the lease and move—a key to Emanuel’s residency problem—will go down in history as a real-estate David who managed to stick it to the landlord Goliath.

Emanuel’s opponents in the Chicago mayor’s race can call it a good day, too. Former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and longtime City Hall insider Gery Chico have suddenly been transformed from serious underdogs to serious contenders for the post being vacated by Richard M. Daley.

But perhaps the most intriguing story line is the triumph, at least for now, of an old-fashioned Chicago ward boss, Ed Burke, who is backing Chico. Burke, the powerful chairman of the city council’s finance committee, has made it no secret that he doesn’t cotton to the idea of the upstart Emanuel riding into town and giving orders to the old guard.

While Burke isn’t talking much publicly about the state appellate court decision, some political insiders say he backed the legal challenge to Rhambo.

“Who do you think is paying for the lawyers?” asked one political insider?

In truth, that’s anybody’s guess at this stage. To be sure, there has been no public link made between Burke and the legal bills. But that has never stopped Chicago pols from looking for links to connect the dots.

The ultimate arbiter in the case will be the state Supreme Court—if it decides to take the case at all. Emanuel’s lawyers have filed for a stay, and promise to seek an expedited appeal. And with good reason. The city is set to begin printing ballots for the Feb. 22 vote any day now, and unless something changes very quickly, those ballots will not have Emanuel’s name on them.

As it happens, one of the seven justices on the court is the alderman’s wife, Anne Burke (a highly regarded jurist who may recuse herself from the case).

“This whole thing is totally stunning,” said Don Rose, an 80-year-old Chicago political strategist who thought he had already seen it all. “Nobody conceived this was going to happen.”

Nobody, that is, except the lawyer who brought the case, Burt Odelson—and, according to whispers at City Hall, Alderman Burke.

“Who knows?” said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University, comparing the ruling to the iceberg that sank the Titanic. “Nobody can tell for sure what’s next. We’re in uncharted waters.”

A former cop who became a lawyer, Burke is a cerebral but old-fashioned Southwest Side pol with more power than some people who sit in Congress. He is the only member of the city council to have a full-time bodyguard.

Of all the wrinkles in the complicated world of Chicago politics, which has traditionally been seen through the lens of race, the contest for mayor reveals yet another longstanding rift, according to Monroe Anderson, a former press secretary to the late Mayor Eugene Sawyer.

“There is a big division among white politicians between the South Siders and the North Siders,” said Anderson. “The South Siders have held power since the '50s. And they don’t want to give it up.”

Daley, who now lives near the Loop, grew up on the South Side. It has been speculated that the mayor supports Emanuel, a North Sider (North Side: Cubs. South Side: White Sox). But Daley has spoken highly of Chico.

Chico was a former chief of staff under the mayor. Daley also named him to run the city’s school system. As a lawyer in private practice, Chico’s law firm has raked in millions representing clients who want to do business with City Hall.

To many Chicagoans, Chico seems more like a guy from the old neighborhoods than does Emanuel, who spent most of his childhood in affluent suburban Wilmette.

“Chico can speak Chicago-ese,” said Rose, “much more easily than Rahm.”

Chico’s heritage—and that always matters in Chicago—is Mexican, Lithuanian, and Greek. Built like a bulldog, he tends to remind people of Daley’s working-class sensibilities, though he has a much easier time with the language than the malapropistic mayor. 

It is remarkable what a difference a day—and three members of the appellate court—can make. Over the weekend, published polls showed Emanuel with a daunting lead. He was winning 44 percent of the vote, compared to 21 percent for Braun and 16 percent for Chico. He even had a slight edge over Braun, the first African-American woman elected to the Senate, among black voters.

White voters, who overwhelmingly backed Emanuel, are expected to drift to Chico.

Wearing a brave face, Emanuel expressed confidence that the state Supreme Court would back his appeal. “I have no doubt at the end we’ll prevail,” he said, but not seeming quite as cocksure as usual.

The appellate court, in a 2-1 decision, found that Emanuel, who moved back to Chicago last fall, simply did not meet the law requiring candidates to live in the city for at least a year before running for office.

Chico took pains to avoid gloating after the court decision was announced. He released a statement that called the ruling “a surprise,” adding that it would “not impact how we run our campaign.” Judges at the circuit, appellate and Supreme Court level in Illinois are all elected.

Michael Dorf, a lawyer and election expert who has represented President Obama and other high-profile Illinois Democrats, called the ruling “a terrible decision” and said the ultimate findings in the case “are up for grabs.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, hailed the ruling, noting that cops, firefighters, and teachers in Chicago are all expected to live in the city. Emanuel, he said, should not be given special treatment.

The election, slated for Feb. 22, would winnow the field to two for a runoff in April, unless one candidate captured 50 percent of the vote.

With early voting scheduled to start next week, the election board does not have time to wait for any Supreme Court ruling.

“We’re going to press,” said Langdon Neal, the chairman of the elections board, of plans to print up the ballots, “with one less candidate for mayor.”

Some have speculated that Emanuel would launch a write-in bid if he is ruled off the ballot in the end. Write-in campaigns are notoriously difficult. But as one analyst put it, “You can do a lot with $7 million.”

It remains unclear if he would be eligible to serve, however.

“Who knows?” said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University, comparing the ruling to the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

“Nobody can tell for sure what’s next. We’re in uncharted waters.”

Dirk Johnson is former Chicago bureau chief for Newsweek and The New York Times.