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ANALYSIS: Mayor taps state Rep. Deb Mell to replace dad on Council

Updated: August 26, 2013 3:49PM

How do you turn the latest chapter of, “All in the Family” into a story about reform politics?

How do you claim that the appointment of a retiring alderman’s daughter was not a pre-election bone to her still-powerful ward boss father, but a prize for Chicago’s gay community?

That was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s challenge Wednesday after announcing the long-anticipated appointment of State Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago) to succeed retiring Ald. Richard Mell (33rd).

“Some people can’t see past the name Mell. Others can. They can look at a record built up in Springfield. They can look at somebody who’s worked hard and tirelessly in the community, who’s from the community,” Emanuel said.

“If you just look at the record, the results of that record and what it’s drawn, Deb Mell has earned the right to be the next alderman. She also has the attitude that she’s gonna go to prove to those who question this. . . . She’s not gonna just take it for granted.”

Emanuel bristled when asked whether he was rewarding Richard Mell for disenfranchising voters by waiting to retire until the mid-term benchmark when a special election was no longer required.

“No. The process was fundamentally different. You had community people involved. . . . . In the past the mayor just selected and there was no process,” the mayor said.

Deb Mell acknowledged that there will be those who view her appointment as nepotism personified.

“With that kind of criticism, I feel like, no matter what I say, it’s not gonna change their minds. It’s my actions,” Deb Mell said.

“I had that coming in as a state rep. There were some skeptics out there, and I’ve proven myself as a legislator . . . I’ve gone against my party. I’ve taken tough votes. I can take a tough vote. I’m gonna vote for what’s good for the 33rd Ward, and I’m gonna have an incredible amount of input from the community.”

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, said the controversy surrounding Deb Mell is “complicated by the fact that she is well-qualified, at least on paper, and advances the diversity cause” as Chicago’s first openly-lesbian alderman.

But, Shaw argued that the appointment “continues the friends and family policy that permeates Illinois politics and that’s unfortunate” for Chicago voters.

“The mayor had a golden opportunity to break with tradition and he chose not to. He would have sent a strong reform message by picking someone else,” Shaw said.

“He hasn’t allowed the privatization ordinance to come out for a hearing. He continues to battle over the authority of his inspector general. He’s undermining his own reform credentials on a number of fronts and this could be regarded as another one.”

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), who replaced his father as alderman in 1969, inadvertently made matters worse for Emanuel and Deb Mell by reading from the long list of political families that have had multiple members serve in the Chicago City Council.

It includes: two Burkes; four Cullertons; two Ogdens; two Hoellens; two Knickerbockers; two Baulers; two Clarks; three Keanes; two Sheridans; two Vrdolyaks; two Austins, two Beavers; two Sawyers; two Laurinos and now two Mells.

Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), whose son and namesake served with Deb Mell in the Illinois House, confronted the elephant in the room during Mell’s confirmation hearing.

“It’s just the way life is. A lot of times, people’s children follow them in their careers — even with the media. I’ve been interviewed by two Jordans, the father and the daughter; two Ponces, the father and the son. I’ve seen the Jiggetts on TV. I’ve seen the Weigels on TV over the years. And I respect that. They do a tremendous job,” he said.

If Emanuel had chosen anyone other than Deb Mell, he would have risked alienating her father, who remains a powerful Democratic ward committeeman who still commands a formidable political army.

The mayor is obviously hoping the bone he’s throwing to Chicago’s politically potent gay community will cancel out whatever backlash there is from independent voters.

With her wife, Christin Baker, at her side, Deb Mell talked about the history she is making as Chicago’s first-ever openly lesbian alderman and about the need for the City Council to go on record urging her former colleagues in the General Assembly to approve the gay marriage bill.

“Right now, Illinois citizens and families…have less rights than people who live in Iowa. Kristin and I are second-class citizens here in Illinois. We have 1,100 less federal rights, benefits and protections than just our neighboring state,” she said.

“Gay and lesbian families are living their lives. We’re getting married. We’re having children. We’re getting sick. We’re dying. And we need the federal benefits.”

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