While the three-member board's decision is likely to be taken to the courts, it is a major win for the former White House chief of staff, whose campaign has been mired in the residency controversy for months.
More than two dozen people filed challenges to Emanuel's residency, pointing out that he'd rented his house when he left for Washington and that owning a home in Chicago and voting there wasn't enough to prove legal residency.
Emanuel moved to Washington, D.C., in late 2008 to join President Obama's administration as White House chief of staff but had argued that his intention was always to move back to Chicago.
He resigned from his White House position this fall and returned to the Windy City to begin his mayoral campaign right after Mayor Richard Daley announced he wouldn't be seeking another term.
Chicago law requires that a candidate has to be a resident of the city for at least a year before running for office.
Emanuel cleared a major hurdle late last night when the hearing officer reported that Emanuel didn't "abandon" his residency, and that satisfied the city's residency requirements.
"The preponderance of the evidence establishes that the sole reason for the candidate's absence from Chicago during 2009 and 2010 was by reason of his attendance to business of the United States," hearing officer Joseph A. Morris said in his lengthy report. "It has not been established that the candidate, a resident of Chicago, abandoned his status as such a resident. In any event, his absence from Illinois during the time in question is excused, for purposes of the safeguarding and retention his status as a resident and elector, by express operation of Illinois law."
But opponents who filed the legal challenge against Emanuel's candicacy said the report misconstrued the law.
"This recommendation, I'm trying to guard my words, is shallow. It's shallow in reciting the facts," said Burt Odelson, the attorney spearheading the challenges. "I was extremely disappointed we had to wait that long for such a poor product. This wasn't a difficult case. It only became difficult because of all of the objectors."
Opponents seized on the fact that Emanuel rented his home in 2009 for two years when his family moved to the District of Columbia last year. The candidate said he did so out of safety and security concerns.
Emanuel, a veteran of Chicago politics, tried to break the lease upon his return, but his renter demanded $100,000 to do so, and, in fact, launched his own candidacy, which he later dropped.
Emanuel is leading in a crowded mayoral race, where major figures are jockeying for the position to head the third largest city in the U.S. The contenders include Roland Burris, who will retire from the Senate after two years spent filling Obama's seat.
Emanuel is a clear leader in the polls but so far lacks the majority support he needs to avoid a runoff. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released Dec. 13 showed Emanuel garnering 32 percent support among likely voters, 30 percent among undecideds, while all other candidates were in single digits.
Emanuel has been campaigning aggressively since his return to Chicago.
He launched a listening tour, going from restaurants to train stops to talk to Chicago residents. Getting an early start in the game, Emanuel is the only candidate who has so far run television ads.
If Emanuel wins, he will have his work cut out for him. The unemployment rate in Chicago remains high, at 8.9 percent, and the state faces a massive budget shortfall.
The election will be held Feb. 22, 2011.