By Stump Connolly

The bizarre limbo created this week by the appellate court’s decision to kick Rahm Emanuel off the ballot reminded me of a story from Carl Sandburg’s days as a labor reporter on the Chicago Daily News. Sandburg was sent to Minneapolis to cover a contentious labor convention. Soon enough, the city editor back at the paper began receiving wire service reports about fistfights on the floor, walkouts and riots. But no word from Sandburg. As the deadline approached, a messenger arrived with a telegram: “Greetings,” Sandburg wired. “All very interesting. Will write soon.” Yes, there was plenty to write about this week. But what exactly happened?

A Stunning Open

The week opened Monday morning with the Appeals Court’s now famous (and not unanimous) ruling that Emanuel had not established the residency required to run for the office. Ballots that were ready to go to the printer were revised to remove his name (and revised again the next day to add it back) and the campaign moved into a state of suspended animation.

The candidates were all over town like floaties drifting across the blurred lens of a media focused elsewhere. And no one was more active than Emanuel himself. In the 24 hours after the Appeals Court ruling, he held a press conference in the Berghoff Café –“Anything in the news you guys want to talk about?” he joked – visited El stops, made a surprise visit to shake hands at Waveland bowl, then more El stops, and another press conference to accept a teamsters endorsement. It was as if Emanuel believed if he ran faster, or ran harder, somehow the decision would be reversed. But the question hanging over every event was: what if it’s not?

As much as Emanuel was all smiles in front of the camera, the true marvel of the week was the clockwork efficiency of his backroom political operation as it turned the barge of public opinion to make him look like an innocent victim. When the 5 o-clock news rolled around Monday night, they had 250 supporters out in front of the board of elections with hand-lettered signs demanding the Supreme Court “Let The People Decide.” They put up a website where people could petition to have Emanuel put back on the ballot and gathered 15,000 signatures in two days. Reporter inboxes filled with forwarded editorials from newspapers around the country decrying the appeals court decision.

Every big name lawyer or politician willing to go on record against the court ruling suddenly had an Internet megaphone. Then an Illinois Retail Merchants telephone poll commissioned suddenly Monday night turned up Tuesday showing  72 percent of the voters wanted Emanuel back on the ballot and a remarkable 52 percent now said they would support him if he was. (This was up 8 points over a Tribune poll taken just a week earlier.)

The Legal Arguments

As my own deadline loomed Thursday, I decided to immerse myself in the Appellate Court ruling. The author of the decision, Judge Thomas Hoffman, has been sitting on the appellate court for 18 years and the concurring Judge Shelvin Louise Marie Hall for 11, so the opinion seemed to merit some consideration.

My investigation took me back into the 1867 case of a Galesburg judge named Arthur Smith who, prior to his appointment to the bench, had rented out his house and briefly moved to Tennessee for eight months. Smith’s circumstances sounded a lot like Emanuel’s. He left personal belongings with friends in Galesburg and held onto his Illinois law books in case he wanted to return; and he refused to vote in Tennessee for fear of jeopardizing his Illinois citizenship. The judicial appointment required that Smith be a resident of Illinois for five years prior to coming on the bench. When the case came before the Supreme Court, it let Smith remain on the bench because the controlling issue once residence has been established, it said, was his “intent” to keep it.

That ruling in Smith v. People has been a guide for any number of lower court decisions over the following 150 years, but Judges Hoffman and Hall found that the state constitution’s definition of residency, and indeed the state constitution itself, has changed over the years, and residency is defined differently in the Election Code and Municipal Code sections of the document.

The “reside in” language in the portion covering candidate qualifications ““is stated separately from, and in addition to, the requirement that he be a qualified elector of Chicago,” Hoffman wrote. Candidates must be “actual residents of the units they wish to represent,” he added, citing language from a 1901 decision in People v. Ballhorn that gave as a reason: “A mere constructive resident [i.e. who does not live among the voters] has no better opportunities for knowing the wants and rightful demands of his constituents than a non-resident, and is as much beyond the wholesome influence of direct contact with them.”

There were other portions of Hoffman’s opinion covering the appearance and disappearance of a residency exception for people out of state “on the business of the United States” in the constitutions of 1818, 1848 and 1870 (enough to remind me why I didn’t go to law school). But just when I was ready to sit down and write that maybe there was something to this residency issue, the seven Supreme Court Justices threw down a unanimous decision saying the Appeals Court decision was hogwash and restoring Emanuel’s name permanently to the ballot.

“Fundamentally Flawed”

Judge Hoffman’s opinion was “fundamentally flawed,” Justice Robert Thomas wrote for five members of the court, and flies in the face of 150 years of accepted residency law. “The novel standard adopted by the appellate court majority is without any foundation in Illinois law,” he continued, and would leave open future challenges to candidates who have winter homes in Florida, condos in Washington and Springfield, or other government assignments. Fortunately, Justices Anne Burke and Charles Freeman, while concurring in the decision, made me feel like all my research wasn’t in vane.

“Contrary to the majority’s assertions, the only thing that is well established in this case is the confusion that has existed on this subject,” they wrote. “Because of the breadth of today’s decision, we do not join the majority’s holding that residency is the equivalent of domicile and that intent therefore determines residency,” they concluded. “Rather we would answer the narrow question that was actually raised by the objects in this case: Does a person lose his permanent abode if the abode is rented during the relevant residency period? To that question, we answer ‘no.’”

“Game On”

The Supreme Court decision was handed down just two hours before the four major candidates were due at WGN-TV for their second mayoral debate. After taking a congratulatory call from President Obama, Emanuel celebrated by greeting voters at the Clark & Lake el stop. (What, there were no bowling alleys open?) Carol Moseley Braun hailed the decision as “a major milestone” in her bid for the office (huh?) and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, trailing badly in the polls, noted that Emanuel’s week in limbo gave voters “a second chance, maybe a first chance” to consider the alternatives. (True enough).

The Rahmadrama over residency sucked up most of the media air, but probably hurt Gery Chico the most. This would otherwise have been a good week for Chico. A new cash infusion gave him money to boost his TV commercial. He picked up endorsements from the police and firefighters union and issued strong position papers that sharpened the distinction between himself and the frontrunner. But all the media wanted to talk about was Rahm.

“Emanuel’s residency drama has made this election into a circus instead of a serious debate about the future of Chicago,” Chico said in the statement.“Now that the Supreme Court has made their decision, the residents will choose their next mayor based on the candidates’ track records and their vision for Chicago.” The release was headlined “Game On.”

The Second Debate

The second debate at WGN’s studios was a serious affair (not that you’d know it if all you saw was the collection of Blue Man Group wannabees arrayed behind the moderators.) Chicago Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold and WGN’s Micah Materre wasted little time getting to the issues. They pushed candidates to answer uncomfortable charges against them (“Mr. Emanuel, do you feel you earned the $320,000 you made attending six meeting of the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac board?”) yet still let the candidates talk it out among themselves.

By the end of the debate, there was something comforting in the realization that all four bring legitimate credentials to the race. Yes, the underfunded Del Valle may be out of the running, but he is a good and honest man who speaks passionately about the importance of building up Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Carol Moseley Braun may take a few liberties with the details of her own personal story, but her feisty argument for letting the people run the government can only make you smile. She reminds me of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Legally Blonde. There’s no crisis in the city’s potential billion-dollar shortfall, she said during the debate, only opportunity, leaving the impression that if she gets into office, she’ll just tidy up the books here, dust off some tried-and-true management practices there, clean out the deadwood, and before you know it, everything will be ship-shape again.

Two Pros Go At It

Chico and Emanuel, meanwhile, are a pleasure to watch in this kind of political arena. Both have a detailed grasp of the issues, innovative ideas about solutions and a bracing confidence in their abilities to get the job done. Emanuel is almost dizzying when he starts ticking off his 1,2,3,4 and 5 points on how to go about balancing the budget, and Chico demonstrates such a granular understanding of where the holes and opportunities are in city programs you know he knows what he’s talking about.

There are differences in the temperament and style of their TV commercials that are equally fascinating. Emanuel reaches too easily for the empathetic cliché (children with dead eyes) and Chico wears one too many hardhats for a pinstriped downtown lawyer. But put them in a room together long enough and you can learn a lot about Chicago – what’s wrong with it and how things might get better.

There are two more debates before the Feb. 22 voting (FoxTV 32 added one February 10 at 9:30 at Kennedy-King College). One by-product of this bye week is that people really are paying attention. The choices are getting clearer. Maybe now that the residency issue has been buried, Chico is right: Game on.

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