My Name Is Rahm and I'm on the Bleeping Ballot

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, February 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

My Name Is Rahm and I'm on the Bleeping Ballot


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

A challenge to his residency settled, the former White House chief of staff is on track to take over Chicago.

For 24 hours, Rahm Emanuel sweated in frigid Chicago. "I, like the city, was thrown for a loop," he told me later, after an appellate court ruled on Jan. 24 that Emanuel hadn't resided in Chicago over the last 12 months and therefore couldn't be its mayor. It didn't matter that the dissenter on the court said her two judicial colleagues were acting on a "whim" by overturning three previous decisions in his favor and that Emanuelites saw a political hit job. As White House chief of staff, "Rahm" (as in "Hillary" or "Prince") had been, by Barack Obama's own description, "almost like a prime minister." Now he was about to have plenty of time to work on his yoga.

Chicago precinct captains famously joke to their neighbors to "vote early and often." With early voting beginning on Jan. 31, the Emanuel campaign needed an immediate judicial stay to stay alive. Given that the wife of Rahm's most powerful local adversary serves on the Illinois Supreme Court, no one knew if it would come through. But within hours, the state's high court stopped the presses that were already printing ballots without Rahm's name. On Thursday, when the court formally ruled in the case, Rahm called his wife, Amy, and said, "Honey, it's 7-0." Amy asked, "Which way?" When Rahm told her, "I'm at the L stop," she knew the campaign was back on again, thanks to a unanimous decision that Emanuel hadn't "abandoned his Chicago residence" when he moved to Washington. Rahm then phoned his parents, the president called him, and Chicagoans turned their attention back to whether the Bears' quarterback was a wimp.

With the residency fight behind him, Rahmbo is getting ready to storm City Hall. With a tireless, meticulously organized campaign and more than $10 million in the bank, he's ahead by more than 20 points in recent polls and may even surpass 50 percent on Election Day, Feb. 22, which would allow him to avoid an April 5 runoff. The only other plausible mayor in the race, Gery Chico, a former school-board president, can't seem to get traction.

Some analysts are trying to make the contest seem racial, but most Chicagoans don't want a return to the bitter "Council Wars" of the 1980s. The decision by Jesse Jackson and a few other African-American leaders to unite behind Carol Moseley Braun, a former senator and quixotic presidential candidate, means little without Obama, who is firmly behind Rahm. (Braun didn't help herself by saying Bill Clinton's endorsement of Emanuel was a "betrayal" of minorities.) So right now it looks as though only a gargantuan gaffe can keep Rahm from completing an improbable journey from stubby-fingered, potty-mouthed ballet dancer to Hizzoner Da Mare.

In retrospect, the residency mess helped humanize Rahm by showing that the macher (Yiddish for big shot) didn't have everything wired.

A hearing in December before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners proved to be a cosmically appropriate test for a guy in need of some humbling--12 straight hours of self-appointed Perry Masons ("objectors," as they're called) granted 30 minutes each to grill the candidate about everything from the lease on his house to when he last visited Wrigley Field.

When the Emanuels moved to Washington in 2009, they rented their house in the Ravenswood neighborhood to a man who not only refused to move out last fall but promptly declared that he, too, was running for mayor. (He has since withdrawn.) The renter's wife testified that the Emanuels left nothing in the house, though it later turned out that she somehow had missed 100 boxes in a basement addition that contained family heirlooms like Amy's wedding dress, photo albums, china, and a prized leather jacket that once belonged to Rahm's beloved grandfather. For the elections board and, eventually, two higher courts, this indicated that the Emanuels planned to return, the standard used in prior cases where a taxpaying resident was out of town on government business.

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