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Brown: In Illinois politics, you live where you say you live

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Former Southwest Side Alderman Frank Stemberk provided my first lesson on residency law as applied to Chicago politics, not that he did so by choice.

Although he represented the 22nd Ward, which encompassed Little Village, Stemberk was living with his wife and children in a nice house they had purchased in suburban Riverside when I became aware of the arrangement in 1985.

Stemberk’s Riverside home overlooking a quaint park was a short drive from a building in the city where the alderman maintained his legal voting address, but it was far removed from the urban problems faced by his constituents, who by then were almost three-fourth Hispanics.

As you might expect, Stemberk did not exactly send out post cards announcing his change of address to the voters in his ward, so when I wrote a story that carried an embarrassingly oversized front page headline proclaiming “Ald. Stemberk Found Residing in Riverside,” it caused quite a stink.

But it didn’t force Stemberk out as 22nd Ward alderman, nor had his residency been a legal obstacle the previous year in Stemberk’s re-election campaign for Democratic ward committeeman.

As Stemberk explained it at the time: “We’re talking residency. Residency is a matter of intent.”

And everyone told me he was right. Ever since, that’s been my understanding of election law in Illinois, frustratingly so at times.

It would seem, at the very least, that elected officials ought to be expected to live among the people they represent. But in case after case, that hasn’t been so, and the explanation has always been the same: intent is the determining factor. In Illinois politics, you live where you say you live.

Perhaps the best known residency farce in recent Chicago history involved the late Tom Lyons, the longtime 45th Ward Democratic committeeman and for a time the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Lyons, a wealthy attorney, represented a humble ward on the Northwest Side, but everybody knew he lived in a lovely home in Glencoe that was just a short walk from Lake Michigan. Lyons maintained the fiction that his Glencoe place was his vacation home, and that his primary residence was the non-descript address where he was never seen in the 45th. But Lyons was never kicked off the ballot.

In a column about Lyons, my former colleague Steve Neal once listed a number of similar arrangements that had become known through the years -- from City Clerk John Marcin, who represented the 35th Ward as Democratic committeeman but lived in Lake Bluff, to former state Sen. Bernie Neistein, who ran the West Side’s 29th Ward from a Lake Shore Drive apartment.

It’s against that backdrop that we are now told by a state Appellate Court panel that Rahm Emanuel forfeited his Chicago residency when he temporarily moved his family to Washington after taking a job as President Obama’s chief of staff and therefore can’t run for mayor.

Unlike so many residency cases where there is some element of sneaking around like a thief in the night, Emanuel moved to Washington openly and returned openly. No pretext. No subterfuge.

He wasn’t a carpetbagger coming in from the outside to take a fictitious address for the purpose of establishing residency, and he wasn’t an elected official grown tired of living among the problems of the people he was supposed to serve.

Emanuel didn’t sell his house. He kept his voting address in Chicago. He kept his driver’s license at his Chicago address. He did everything that normally would have been enough to constitute intent.

But now we’re to believe that because he rented out his Chicago home he forfeited his residency -- a distinction by the way that is never spelled out in the appellate court’s opinion.

The justices say Emanuel was indeed a legal Chicago resident for voting purposes, but they say he did not “reside in” the city for purposes of being a candidate.

It doesn’t add up to me, and that’s why I’m glad the Illinois Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear Emanuel’s appeal and to leave him on the ballot until they make a ruling.

Emanuel’s eligibility to be on the ballot is a question of law to be decided by the courts, not something to be put to a popular vote. But the long history here is that the courts have liberally interpreted what it means to be a resident.

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