President Obama launched his political career in Chicago by maneuvering to keep a rival off the ballot in a state Senate campaign. Fifteen years later, he is reaching back from the White House into the city's bruising political ring - this time in an effort to shield former aide Rahm Emanuel from losing a ballot dispute of his own in a hotly contested mayoral race.
The president called Emanuel, his former White House chief of staff, on Monday after an Illinois appellate court declared him ineligible to appear on the ballot because he does not meet the city's residency requirement. On Tuesday morning, Obama sent senior adviser Valerie Jarrett out on the television circuit, where she told an ABC interviewer that the president "believes that [Emanuel is] eligible."
Emanuel grabbed the baton from his former boss. His lawyers invoked Obama's name repeatedly in legal briefs filed Tuesday with the Illinois Supreme Court, arguing that the appellate ruling would also make the president ineligible to run for a city office in his home town. And Emanuel told supporters that he was inspired to push ahead by the president's history of ignoring critics in the "birther" movement.
"I worked for a president that has been told he's not from this country," Emanuel told supporters Tuesday morning, according to a person who attended the event. He added: "You never get distracted by the noise."
The case could be resolved as soon as Wednesday. The state Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear Emanuel's appeal. It issued an order putting the appellate ruling on hold and ordered that for now no ballots be printed without Emanuel's name on them.
In their Monday ruling, state appellate judges Thomas Hoffman and Shelvin Louise Marie Hall rejected decisions from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and a Cook County judge who found that Emanuel met the criteria for residency because he was working for Obama and he maintained a Chicago home, which he rented out.
Hoffman and Hall said Emanuel will not have lived in Chicago for a year before the Feb. 22 election, writing that a candidate "must have actually resided within the municipality for one year prior to the election, a qualification that the candidate unquestionably does not satisfy."
Obama had been noticeably absent from the race since last fall, when he said Emanuel would make a "terrific mayor" and feted his outgoing aide with an elaborate East Room sendoff ceremony.
The president's reentry into the contest could prove helpful for Emanuel, whose campaign cited Jarrett's comments in a news release featuring support from "opinion leaders."
Emanuel has until now been the clear front-runner - far outpacing his rivals in fundraising and opinion polls - largely because of his close connection to the president, who is viewed as a local hero.
While the residency question is being settled, a swirl of speculation erupted Tuesday about whether political forces are driving the issue.
Emanuel's rivals have denied any involvement in the legal challenge to his candidacy, brought by two residents represented by an elections lawyer who worked for George W. Bush in the contested 2000 presidential contest.
Edward Burke, a powerful city council member who is backing Gery Chico in the mayoral race, is married to state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, prompting questions about whether she should recuse herself. Alderman Burke did not return a phone call, and a court spokeswoman did not respond to a request to speak with Justice Burke.
Kevin Forde, one of Emanuel's lawyers, said in an interview that the team will not seek Burke's recusal. If the court rules against Emanuel, Forde said, "we have very little recourse in the Illinois court system at that point. We'll be having to figure out what else to do."
Emanuel and his lawyers argue that his work for the president fits a government-service exemption to the residency rule. Moreover, in their brief, the lawyers argued that the new residency standard is so "opaque" as to cast "substantial doubt" on the potential candidacies of anyone from Illinois lawmakers spending time in the capital, Springfield, to Obama himself.
"Certainly President Obama does not meet the standard adopted by the two Justices, because he does not 'actually reside' in Chicago," the brief says.
Emanuel aides confirmed the Monday phone conversation but declined to say what the two men discussed. But the president could certainly relate to the situation.
After all, Obama is a veteran of the city's bare-knuckled ballot battles. He maneuvered in his own 1996 campaign for a state Senate seat to oust a popular opponent.
Alice Palmer, who was a longtime community activist and respected incumbent, had decided late to seek reelection - after Obama had made his bid. His campaign raised technical challenges to the petition signatures Palmer submitted in order to appear on the ballot.
Obama later told the Chicago Tribune that "we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up" and that he felt "if you couldn't run a successful petition drive, then that raised questions in terms of how effective a representative you were going to be."
Palmer, reached on her cellphone Tuesday, declined to discuss the episode. But she added: "Knocking people off the ballot is a Chicago tradition."