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Blagojevich sentencing, remap fight put Ald. Mell at eye of storm

Ald. Dick Mell listens as Mayor Rahm Emanuel presents his 2012 budget Wednesday October 12 2011 City Council. | Jean

Ald. Dick Mell listens as Mayor Rahm Emanuel presents his 2012 budget, Wednesday, October 12, 2011, at City Council. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 7, 2012 8:11AM

Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) finds himself in the eye of a racially-charged political storm at the same time that he’s facing an emotional family crisis.

Rod Blagojevich, Mell’s estranged son-in-law, will find out later this week how much time he’ll have to spend in prison away from Mell’s daughter, Patti, and the alderman’s two granddaughters.

The sentencing is certain to be a trick-bag of emotions for Mell, who drew the attention of state and federal investigators with his charge to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2005 that the governor’s chief fund-raiser had traded prime state appointments for $50,000 donations to Blagojevich.

Mell also may be called upon to provide help for Patti and the kids in the former governor’s absence.

The family crisis coincides with a political donnybrook unfolding at City Hall as Mell, chairman of the City Council’s Rules Committee, presides over a remap process that took an ugly racial turn last week.

Mell nearly came to blows with Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th). In language laced with profanity, sources said, Austin accused Mell of being a racist and treating African-American aldermen like “plantation n------.”

Mell was described as genuinely “afraid somebody was gonna hit him.” A police officer was summoned to the third-floor to restore order. At one point, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, told Mell to shut up because he was exacerbating racial tensions, a source said.

“He’s calling blacks in one at a time and telling them, `You’re in. You’re out. What do you want from me?’” after Chicago lost 181,453 African-American residents in the 2010 U.S. Census, said a source familiar with the negotiations.

Describing Mell as a “bull in a china shop,” the source said, “He’s created a firestorm by talking down to people. The whole process would be better off if he wasn’t in the room.”

Another source familiar with the negotiations accused Mell of siding with Hispanics on a map that may include three more super-majority Hispanic wards as a reward for their 25,218-person population gain at the expense of African Americans, who stand to lose two wards.

“He’s just taken the Hispanic map and run with it. He’s definitely kept the blacks out of the discussions. …There’s anger all over the place,” the source said.

In November, 2000, Mell had triple heart bypass surgery after doctors discovered “significant disease and blockage” in the left main coronary artery that supplies two-thirds of the blood leading to the heart.

Considering the week that he’s facing and the week he just had, some of Mell’s colleagues are concerned about another health scare for the 73-year-old aldermen.

“I know he’s sick about it. He feels like he’s 100 years old,” a source close to Mell said of the remap fight.

Mell could not be reached on Monday. A Rules Committee statement released Monday noted that the chairman worked through the weekend with the Black and Hispanic Caucuses to resolve the political stalemate and, hopefully, avoid a repeat of the 1990 referendum battle that cost taxpayers $20 million.

“We want to wrap up as soon as possible. …We need to move our attention to other issues, like creating jobs, improving education and reducing crime,” the alderman was quoted as saying.

Mell has talked openly about retirement since he got his son-in-law elected governor in 2002.

Colleagues expect him to step down in mid-term and engineer the appointment of a political protégé, possibly his daughter, state Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago).

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