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Ald. Dick Mell calling it quits

 Ald. Richard Mell is officially retiring Wednesday City Hall source said.   |  Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Richard Mell is officially retiring Wednesday, a City Hall source said. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: August 5, 2013 6:27PM

Don’t look for Dick Mell to be standing on his desk anymore. He’s cleaning it out.

But the question in political circles Wednesday was whether his daughter state Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago) will jump up and take his place.

The alderman of the Northwest Side’s 33th Ward submitted his resignation letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday, bringing to an end the storied City Council career for the powerful chairman of the Rules Committee and father-in-law of convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

In a brief interview, Mell, 75, said he plans to spend more time with his grandchildren.

“It’s been a great 38 years,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

In his resignation letter, the aldermanwrote, “I have had the opportunity to meet thousands of hardworking Chicagoans. Their dreams have inspired my actions; their needs have pushed me to work harder, and their successes have sustained my faith in what is good and what is worth fighting for.”

Mell, in his letter, said his goal was to make a positive impact on his community and finished by saying, “I cannot imagine having had a more satisfying career. Now it is time to for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

Mell’s office said the alderman has scheduled a Friday news conference.

Emanuel said he accepted the alderman’s resignation. In a statement, the mayor said: “In a city known for its colorful characters, Alderman Mell is a larger-than-life Chicago character who, just like the Billy Goat and Second City, is a Chicago institution and, in his own way, he has defined what public service and class look like. Always at his desk — sometimes on it — Alderman Mell has served the residents of the 33rd Ward well for nearly four decades.”

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported in January that Mell, the City Council’s second-longest serving member and one of its more colorful personalities, was stepping down. At the time, Mell tried to dismiss the report as premature.

His daughter, the state representative, is considered the front-runner to fill her father’s aldermanic seat, but the mayor on Wednesday said he’s taking applications and will “launch an open process to select [Mell’s] replacement.”

In a statement, Emanuel said, “I am looking for a candidate with a strong background, solid ties to the community, and a willingness to tackle the tough issues facing Chicagoans.”

A community-based commission will be appointed to review the applications and submit a list of finalists for the mayor to choose from, the mayor’s office said in a press release. The new alderman will be sworn in July 24, the same day Mell’s retirement becomes effective, Emanuel said.

Deb Mell did not respond to requests for comment.

Political watchers said they see the situation as a test for Emanuel, who has promised to use a fair process in naming replacement alderman.

“There’s certainly a case to be made for Deb Mell,” said Dick Simpson, the former head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former independent alderman. “The problem when you appoint sons and daughters, it means everyone whose name isn’t Madigan or Daley [gets the message] ... ‘you need not apply to be part of government.’”

But former Ald. Bernie Stone said he hopes Mell’s daughter gets the job.

“She’s got a record of accomplishments in the Legislature and she’s certainly been active in the community,” Stone said. “She’s got a step ahead of anybody that’s going to apply. It’s got nothing to do with the fact that she’s his daughter.”

Mell, alderman since 1975, will forever be remembered for jumping on his desk in the Council chambers the night aldermen chose a successor to former Mayor Harold Washington in 1987.

For four years before that Mell helped wage a bitter battle against the city’s first black mayor as a member of the so-called Vrdolyak 29, the 29 white aldermen led by former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th).

A Muskegon, Mich., native, Mell made a fortune selling springs to the Big Three automakers after starting the business with a loan from a boss.

Mell got his start in politics in the 1960s by passing out political literature, then he became chairman of the Young Democrats and got elected alderman by narrowly defeating a candidate put up by a longtime 33rd Ward Committeeman, whom Mell unseated the following year.

Mell was one of the few Democratic ward bosses who retained patronage power under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The 33rd Ward Democrats sponsored more than 100 job seekers on the “clout list” entered as evidence in the 2006 federal corruption trial of Daley’s patronage chief. Of the 50 Democratic ward organizations, only three — the 11th, 13th and 19th Wards — had greater clout than Mell’s group.

As his ward became increasing Latino, rivals nicknamed Mell “Old Gringo” for his interventions in local Latino politics. Meanwhile, some praised Mell for his inclusion of the Latino community.

But Mell put aside his own political ambitions to advance the career of Blagojevich to the Illinois General Assembly, then Congress and finally the governor’s mansion, where it all eventually fell apart.

After Blagojevich’s aides in 2005 publicly linked Mell to a Joliet landfill that was shut down amid environmental violations, Mell told the Sun-Times that he regretted the day he backed Blagojevich for governor and hoped that his daughter — who had “blinders on” about her husband — would “wake up someday.”

Then, Mell dropped a bombshell when he charged that the governor’s chief fund-raiser, Chris Kelly, had traded prime state appointments for $50,000 donations to Blagojevich. The alderman later recanted the charges, but the damage was done.

Mell, though ultimately vindicated by Blagojevich’s conviction, has endured pain watching two of his beloved granddaughters grow up without their father, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence.

Longtime Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) praised Mell and the way he’s bowing out.

“He’s choosing to leave — he’s not been defeated, he’s not dead,” O’Connor said. “There’s a variety of ways people leave the Council and he’s choosing the best way of all possibilities.”

Contributing: Art Golab

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