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Brown: Ballot battle turned Rahm into sympathetic figure

Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel campaigned Wishbone restaurant north Lincoln ave. Thursday January 27 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel campaigned at Wishbone restaurant on north Lincoln ave. Thursday January 27, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 4, 2011 4:45AM

We’ll probably never know who schemed up the strategy of challenging Rahm Emanuel’s candidacy on the basis that he wasn’t a Chicago resident.

Perhaps it sprang totally from the fertile legal mind of Burt Odelson, certainly one of the best election lawyers in this state or any other, although I tend to think he was working in concert with forces unseen.

We can safely rule out that Odelson’s real clients were the placeholders whose names were printed on his objector petitions, Walter P. Maksym Jr. and Thomas L. McMahon.

I’ve wanted to know the answer to this all along, but I’d really like to know now in the wake of Thursday’s unanimous ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that Emanuel is legally qualified to run for mayor.

If I knew, then I could give proper credit to what we now can see was a truly disastrous political gambit.

Why do I say that?

Well, look at the situation. Here we are, less than a month from Election Day and with early voting set to start Monday, and the entire mayoral campaign to date has been overshadowed by this sideshow of whether Emanuel would be allowed to stay on the ballot.

Some of you will blame the news media for that, but the fact is that as long as Emanuel’s right to run was at issue, then that was going to be the issue. It was unavoidable.

While the residency case was dragging on and occupying everyone’s attention, Emanuel piled up millions of dollars in campaign funds that he has used to air television commercials that allowed him to shape his image and build a commanding lead, according to all the polls.

Moreover, the combination of the televised residency hearing in December and this week’s surprise appellate court ruling that temporarily knocked him off the ballot managed to accomplish something Emanuel’s commercials never could have done. They turned the swaggering Emanuel into a sympathetic figure for many Chicagoans.

Sure, the residency case gave Emanuel a scare for about 72 hours after that appellate court ruling, which may have been satisfaction enough to those seeking to block him and saw this as the only route.

But they also hardened the battle lines. While his opponents need to find a way to bring Emanuel back to the pack, it’s hard to imagine many of Emanuel’s committed voters defecting at this point, especially after the events of the past week.

I’ve tried to be consistent on this subject from the start. I said I thought Emanuel belonged on the ballot, based on my understanding of election law (I’ve covered a lot of these) and the particular facts of his case. But I also said I could see there was a legitimate question — a legal opening, if you will — that needed to be answered by the Illinois Supreme Court.

It turns out I was wrong, although not in the way many of you think.

According to five members of the Supreme Court, there never was any legitimate question. As Emanuel’s lawyers maintained from the start, what it means to be a resident for election purposes has been well established in Illinois for nearly 150 years.

Two other justices, Anne Burke and Charles Freeman, agreed that Emanuel belonged on the ballot and that he did not lose his residency when he rented out his house, but they said the matter was not so clear cut as the other justices maintained.

Burke and Freeman seemed to be trying to give cover to their Cook County colleague, Thomas E. Hoffman, whose appellate opinion removing Emanuel from the ballot was excoriated in a dissenting opinion by fellow appellate court Justice Bertina Lampkin.

The high court’s decision, written by Justice (and former Bears placekicker) Bob Thomas, was more subtle in its digs at Hoffman, but left no doubt that a majority of the court found his legal reasoning to be strained at best and preposterous at worst.

For those of you who think Thursday’s outcome was pre-ordained, then you weren’t paying close enough attention to the panicked full court press applied since Monday by Emanuel supporters to win the case in the court of public opinion in order to apply pressure to the Supreme Court.

It wasn’t pretty, and all the justices made clear they didn’t like being put in that spot — nor the inference that they could be improperly influenced.

It’s too bad none of them can help us solve the mystery of who started the whole thing.

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