Chicago mayoral hopeful Rahm Emanuel has put out many fires in Washington, but now he faces one in his own backyard that could present the biggest obstacle in his candidacy so far.
A Chicago attorney today filed a legal challenge today questioning Emanuel's residency. Per Chicago law, a candidate has to be a resident of the city for at least a year before running for office.
The challenge was filed on behalf of another lawyer Walter P. Maksym Jr., and Thomas L. McMahon, a retired Chicago police officer. Neither are vying for the mayor's seat.
On Wednesday, five other Chicago residents with ties to a contender also filed a challenge.
Emanuel left Chicago in late 2008 when he resigned as a member of Congress to move to Washington to work as White House chief of staff. He returned to the Windy City this fall to start his mayoral run.
The former congressman's campaign argues that his intent was always to return to Chicago.
"I own a home here in the city of Chicago," Emanuel told reporters recently. "My car is licensed here in the city of Chicago. I pay property taxes here in the city of Chicago. I vote in the city of Chicago."
But election attorney Burt Odelson, who is filing the objection against Emanuel with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, says the fact that Emanuel has a home in the city and voted there isn't evidence enough that he's a legal resident.
Emanuel renewed the rental lease on his Chicago home until 2011, days before Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he wouldn't seek another term in office. And not only did Emanuel's outspoken tenant refuse to change the lease terms when the former congressman announced his intention to run for mayor, he launched his own candidacy.
"He's paying taxes on a rental property. It could be a rental property anywhere in the world, doesn't make you a resident," Odelson said in a radio interview Wednesday. "You can't vote for a residence that you don't live in."
A person is still considered a legal resident if he or she leaves the city for service to the United States, an argument Emanuel's lawyers will likely take up but a law that Odelson interprets as applying only to members of the military.
In a crowded mayoral race, there are currently 20 candidates jockeying for the position to head the third largest city in the country. That includes the renter who occupies Emanuel's current residence, Rob Halpin, and Roland Burris, who will retire from the Senate after two years filling Obama's seat.
Some candidates have jumped on board with Odelson, such as Danny K. Davis, who says the law should not be applied unfairly to Emanuel. But other contestants, such as Gery Chico, say they won't question Emanuel's residency.
Emanuel, a longtime veteran of Chicago politics, made his mayoral ambitions clear even before Daley made his announcement.
The former congressman resigned from his White House post in early October, moved to Chiago and immediately started 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.
"Chicago is a great city with great people. I want my children to feel as passionate about the city as I did growing up. We face big challenges," Emanuel says in an ad, touting his Chicago roots.
Early polls show a strong lead for Emanuel, especially since Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart -- who was expected to be one of his biggest competitors -- decided not to drop his name into the hat.
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 residency challenge could have a detrimental impact on Emanuel's campaign even as it tries to dismiss the objections and focus on issues pertinent to voters.
The election will be held Feb. 22, 2011.