By MARK GUARINO | New York Magazine

1/24/11 at 6:41 PM

With early voting starting as soon as next week, Chicago’s mayoral race is suddenly a toss-up, and former senator Carol Moseley Braun may have her opponents boxed out.

An Illinois appellate court ruled 2-1 on Monday that Rahm Emanuel, the front-runner for nearly four months, is not qualified to be on the ballot to replace departing mayor Richard M. Daley. Until this moment, Emanuel enjoyed a relatively easy ride, with the fattest bankroll ($11.7 million), highest polling numbers (44 percent, according to a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll last week), and brightest stars (President Bill Clinton, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy) stumping for him on the campaign trail.

The ruling is the third court decision on whether Emanuel meets the state’s one-year residency requirement: The first two went in his favor, and an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court is yet to come. Emanuel told reporters he still expects to prevail, but time is tight. Early voting starts January 31 and the election is February 22.

If not Emanuel, then who? The remaining contenders are Braun, former Daley chief of staff Gery Chico, and City Clerk Miguel del Valle — three candidates who until Monday were way back in the pack.

Chico’s war chest is fairly flush, having raised $2.4 million against Braun’s $446,000 and del Valle’s $150,000. But the polls tell a different story, and the city’s complex racial politics are now front and center. Braun, who is black, is polling at 21 percent; Chico, who is of Mexican descent on his father’s side, is at 16 percent; and del Valle, who was born in Puerto Rico, is at 7 percent.

Last week’s poll showed Braun in a dead heat with Emanuel among black voters, who may now be in a position to determine the race’s outcome. Chicago Board of Election data shows that blacks represent the largest bloc in the city, with about 600,000 registered voters, outnumbering Hispanics by a two-to-one margin. There are also about 490,000 registered white voters.

Braun desperately needed a break, because before Emanuel’s troubles her campaign was struggling to find traction. Emanuel’s celebrity must have been especially galling for Braun, whose political résumé includes stints in Springfield; Washington, D.C.; and as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

She has pushed for changes to many unpopular local policies, like no-bid city contracts and the unpopular deal Daley made with Morgan Stanley to privatize the city’s parking meters. Despite progressive credentials, she also told a local audience on the South Side recently that she will always support “the gun-toting granny” because everyone has “the right to protect themselves in their homes.”

Yet instead of emphasizing her reform agenda, Braun has spent most of the campaign complaining about her status as the underdog. Her stump speeches frequently refer to Emanuel representing a “cabal” of special-interest money that is stacking the race from the start. After the Chicago Sun-Times' Neil Steinberg wrote that “she represents the egomaniacal muddle that Chicago black leadership has slid into,” she called on the newspaper to fire him, suggested he was a racist, and brought up his 2005 arrest for domestic abuse.

To her critics, any missteps bring to mind her stint as a senator in the mid-nineties’s, when she met with a Nigerian dictator against the State Department’s wishes and blamed campaign-finance errors on poor bookkeeping.

“She has a difficult message problem. She has a national résumé but it’s tarnished. As she runs for mayor she’s not going to be able to say ‘I was a great senator’ because it was a pretty troubled six years,” says Larry Bennett, who teaches political science at DePaul University in Chicago.

Hispanic voters are largely undecided, and those with a preference largely said last week they were voting for Emanuel. That leaves a sizable chunk of the electorate — both Hispanic and white — up for grabs. Depending on the state Supreme Court’s forthcoming ruling, it will be up to Braun, Chico, and del Valle to win them over. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election.

Assuming she can increase her poll numbers above 50 percent, what would a Braun-led Chicago look like? The city has only ever had one black mayor, Harold Washington, who defeated Daley in 1983 by sidestepping the race issue. Instead, he emphasized grassroots organizing that beefed up voter rolls and built a coalition of ethnic groups who had been shut out by Chicago’s legendary machine.

Chicago’s black leadership has, until now, had difficulty coming up with a second act. One reason is Daley, who co-opted much of Washington’s platform. He forced the machine to become more inclusive of minorities, defanged potential foes, and invested money into neighborhoods that hadn’t seen any in years.

“What Daley managed to do was take the primary issues away from the opposition,” says John Mark Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “So now what you have is no possibility of that coalition. So it became every man for himself.”

On a recent Saturday morning at a candidate forum in the basement of the Carter Temple CME Church, on the city’s far South Side, there wasn’t much coalition-building. Instead, Braun played up her political scars.

“They assassinated Dr. King physically. They tried to character assassinate me,” Braun told a group of nearly 300 people, mostly middle-aged and black. “Ask yourself if any other candidate, if they have the kind of inspection that I have gone through. I have been examined! I have worked for you! I have gone through the fires! I have been tested!”

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