Blinking back tears from her lilac-covered eyelids, Marsha Emanuel looks around at the crowd of 250 cheering for her son Rahm at Chicago's North Side John C. Coonley elementary school and says, "This is the moment I've been waiting for." The rally this weekend made official what everyone has known for months: Rahm Emanuel is running for mayor of Chicago. When asked if she thought the moment would ever happen, the candidate's mother says, "No," then scans the school gym filled with tie- and suit-wearing off-duty police officers and Chicago aldermen. "Well, actually yes. I have a great feeling that Rahm can pull this off."
Outside the school, however, protesters march with signs and chant, through a megaphone, anti-Emanuel sentiments about how as mayor he would simply continue Chicago's shady, crony-filled politics-as-usual. Protests have accompanied much of Emanuel's self-proclaimed "listening tours" of Chicago's neighborhoods since he returned to the city in September. On Wednesday, the former White House chief of staff dodged an egg that was thrown in his path while he toured Little Village, the Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. He told reporters and citizens around him, "Don't worry about it."
The candidate does not appear to be worried about popular support. On Monday, Emanuel's campaign filed 90,905 signatures backing his candidacy. It was the very first day to submit petitions to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners to secure a spot on the Feb. 22 ballot and the number was significant and substantial. The campaign was eager to point out that, with approximately 1.4 million people registered to vote in Chicago, the signatures represent 1 in 16 voters. It is well beyond the minimum of 12,500 signatures to get on the ballot. "I'm not surprised," says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. "Rahm wants to scare people off. Getting signatures is a good way to do that. The best politician isn't always [the person] who has run the best race, but the one who keeps people out of the race."
Just a month ago, early polls had put Cook County sheriff Tom Dart, who made national news in 2008 for stopping foreclosure evictions in Chicago, ahead of Emanuel in the mayoral race. A much anticipated Rahm-Tom showdown ended when Dart announced at the end of October that he wouldn't run. Publicly, Dart cited his reason as wanting to spend time with his children. His departure left the field open without a clear front-running candidate to contend with Emanuel. "Rahm's great appeal is being 'Rahmbo,'" says Don Haider, a Northwestern political professor who ran for Chicago mayor in 1987 against Harold Washington and first met Emanuel in 1983 when Emanuel was making phone calls to raise money for Mayor Richard Daley (whose decision not to run for another term started the free-for-all rush to succeed him). "With him, it's 'You are either with me or against me, and if you are against me I'm going to run all over you.'"
Along with his signatures, Emanuel has $1.2 million left in his campaign from his days as an Illinois Congressman on Chicago's North Side and is getting help from his Hollywood-agent brother, Ari Emanuel, who co-hosted a fundraiser in Los Angeles. Plus there's a Presidential endorsement by way of a White House Rose Garden send-off in which Barack Obama said Emanuel, 50, would make "an excellent mayor." The candidate plays up the connection. "Only the opportunity to help President Obama as his chief of staff could have pried me away from [Chicago]," Emanuel said during his kick-off rally. "And only the opportunity to lead this city could have pried me away from the President's side. Because he knows and loves Chicago, President Obama supported my decision for which I am grateful."
Does all that make the race a slam dunk for Emanuel? Not quite. He is still fighting residency problems in Chicago, which requires a candidate to have been a resident of that city for a year before the election. After Emanuel moved his family to Washington, D.C., two years ago to work at the White House, he rented his four-bedroom house to a tenant (who is apparently refusing to move before his lease is up in June 2011). In the meantime, Emanuel is living in a condo in Chicago's River North. Emanuel's residency could be challenged by other candidates after they officially file their petitions.
Emanuel's campaign manager says it's a moot point with "no legal merit" and "old school politics at its worst," since the residency regulation also states, "No elector or spouse shall be deemed to have lost his or her residence in any precinct or election district in this State by reason of his or her absence on business of the United States, or of this State." Experts say that since Emanuel voted in local elections by absentee ballot and pays local property taxes, the election board will likely consider him a legal resident, just as it does members of the military from Chicago.