The decision of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners was followed a few hours later by the surprise withdrawal from the race of state Sen. James Meeks, who said the remaining African-American candidates must rally a "divided and splintered" black community in Chicago to beat "the front-running, status quo candidates" - a list presumably topped by Emanuel.
Meeks' decision to exit and urge the city's large African-American community to rally around a unity candidate tightens a still-large field of people seeking to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley.
It could also provide a boost to the chances of the two other leading black candidates, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, both of whom trail the well-known advisor to President Barack Obama in polls.
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners unanimously rejected arguments Emanuel forfeited his city residency when he went to work for Obama in Washington. While a planned appeal could ultimately place the question of whether Emanuel's name appears on the Feb. 22 ballot before the Illinois Supreme Court, Emanuel said the ruling allowed him to "turn the page" and focus on issues important to voters.
"It reminds . . . everybody what the priorities are facing the city, which is about safer streets, strong schools and stable city finances so we can create the economy and business environment so we can produce the type of jobs we need in this city," Emanuel said after the ruling, greeting diners at the city's landmark Berghoff restaurant.
The challenge to Emanuel's residency had dogged his campaign for two months. More than two dozen people had challenged his right to run, contending he didn't meet a requirement that he be a resident of Chicago for a year before the election.
A former congressman from Chicago's North Side, Emanuel said he only moved his family to Washington because he couldn't turn down Obama's offer to become chief of staff. Emanuel's wife and the couple's three children still live in Washington and will remain there until the end of the school year.
One objector, Lora Chamberlain, argued at Thursday's commission meeting that the decision was "very simple." Since Emanuel didn't physically move back to Chicago until last fall, she said, he was not legally allowed to appear on the ballot.
"That was still 6 ½ months short of what was necessary," Chamberlain said. "Please, just be true to the law."
But Commissioner Richard Cowen, the three-member panel's lone Republican, told Chamberlain he agreed with a board investigator's conclusion that Emanuel always intended to move back to Chicago. He said Emanuel's intent was the most important issue in the case and that the law was clear.
"The issue is not whether he was a resident at the time he was appointed (Obama's) chief of staff. The issue is whether he abandoned his residency. . . . That's the test we have to apply," Cowen said. "Rahm Emanuel said he was coming back to Chicago."
Burt Odelson, an attorney for some of the objectors, said he had already prepared his appeal of the commission's ruling and planned to deliver it to the courts Thursday. He said he expected the legal case to move quickly and, if the Supreme Court agreed to consider the case, the matter could be decided within four or five weeks - well before the February election.
In a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released earlier this month, Emanuel led all candidates with the support of about 30 percent of registered likely voters. Since returning to Chicago in October to run after Daley announced he would not seek a seventh term, Emanuel has enjoyed strong name recognition and already has run several television ads.
In the same poll, about 30 percent of those surveyed were undecided. Meeks drew the support of just 7 percent while Davis, chosen by one coalition of black community leaders in November, was the leading African-American candidate in the crowded field with support from 9 percent of those surveyed. Braun had 6 percent.
"As long as our community remains divided and splintered - to the specific advantage of the front-running, status quo candidates - we will never see things improve," Meeks said in a statement. "We need to speak with one voice."
Meeks, a senior pastor of a megachurch on Chicago's South Side, called on the other blacks in the race to submit to "a caucus of clergy, elected officials, and residents whose sole purpose shall be to winnow the remaining field down to one candidate."
Thursday was the last day for candidates to take their names off the ballot. Meeks' announcement came a day after he met with Braun and Davis, who made clear Thursday night they had no intention of dropping out.
"I think there will be a consensus when people vote," Davis said.
Braun said she agreed that, "we have to be a community that's united if we are to move forward." But she gave no indication she was leaving the race.
"I want to commend Rev. Meeks for his decision," Braun said. "I hope to earn his support in the days and weeks ahead."
Meeks had stumbled in recent days, coming in for criticism for his remarks about other minorities. And he has had several meetings with gay leaders to calm fears that stem from his opposition to civil unions.
Laura S. Washington, a political analyst and newspaper columnist, said Meeks is probably right that the black community needs to unite behind one candidate if it wants a black mayor.
"But I think there are a lot of egos involved and a lot of mistrust, which is why we're not seeing any consensus," she said.