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Ald. Richard Mell stepping down, daughter Deb to take his seat

Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) City Council meeting In April 2009.  |  Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) at a City Council meeting In April 2009. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 5, 2013 6:25AM



The Chicago City Council is about to lose its second-longest serving member — and a healthy chunk of its colorful personality and institutional memory.

Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) — powerful chairman of the City Council’s Rules Committee and father-in-law of convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — has told associates he is preparing to step down within the next few months after 38 years as a Chicago alderman.

Sources said Mell, 75, who lost his wife in 2006 and recently got engaged, already has persuaded Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appoint the alderman’s daughter, State Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago), to replace him in the City Council.

As Rules and Ethics Committee chairman, Mell controls a $160,460 annual budget, along with a handful of coveted jobs, including the City Council’s $91,180-a-year sergeant-at-arms.

Sources said Emanuel plans to transfer control over those jobs to Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the Council’s president pro tem. That would make the Rules Committee job less desirable — especially now that a new ward map has been drawn.

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

He has contemplated retirement ever since and talked openly about it after getting his son-in-law elected governor in 2002. That has prompted some colleagues to wonder whether Mell is serious about leaving this time.

“I told him, ‘You’re dying of the same heart attack every year.’ And he said, ‘No, this is really it,’ ” said one alderman, who asked to remain anonymous.

Neither Mell nor his daughter could be reached for comment. Deb Mell is a chief proponent of gay marriage who announced her engagement to her partner, Christin Baker, on the floor of the Illinois House.

She would become Chicago’s first openly lesbian and third openly gay alderman, joining Tom Tunney (44th) and James Cappleman (46th).

Deb Mell was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Sources said she was initially reluctant to accept a mayoral appointment for fear of following in the footsteps of other family political dynasties, including the Madigans, the Lipinskis and the Hyneses. But sources said Dick Mell has convinced his daughter that it would be best to get a leg up on the competition.

Dick Mell’s retirement will mark the end of an era in Chicago politics.

For an entire generation of political junkies, he will forever be remembered for his jump-on-the-desk antics the night the City Council chose a successor to the late Mayor Harold Washington.

The infamous photograph that’s part of Chicago folklore captured the deal-making and mischievous essence of Mell’s personality.

A natural salesman, he made a fortune selling springs to the nation’s Big Three automakers after starting the business with a loan from a boss, which he used to buy a spring machine that he set up in his garage.

Politics was an outlet for his formidable ego. Mell got his start passing out literature for U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas in the 1960s; became chairman of the Young Democrats, and got elected alderman in 1975 by narrowly defeating a candidate put up by longtime 33rd Ward Committeeman John Brandt. The following year, Mell unseated Brandt.

Although Mell was a self-made millionaire, he put aside his own political ambitions to advance the career of his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, first to the Illinois General Assembly, then to Congress and the governor’s mansion.

Bill Daley considered entering the 2002 Democratic primary but was bullied out of the race by Mell, who threatened to dirty up then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s brother with talk of Bill Daley’s divorce and his stint as president of Amalgamated Bank.

“Maybe it’s enough to be Machiavelli behind the scenes,” Mell once told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Blagojevich saga ended badly for Illinois and even more bitterly for Mell.

In 2005, the alderman went on a tirade after Blagojevich’s aides publicly linked him to a Joliet landfill that was shut down amid environmental violations.

The landfill was owned by a second cousin of Patti Blagojevich, the alderman’s daughter.

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.” He compared himself to a spurned spouse who works tirelessly to put her husband through medical school, only to be replaced by a trophy wife.

Then, he dropped a bombshell that tore his family apart and drew the attention of state and federal investigators.

Mell 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 under threat of a lawsuit by Kelly, who subsequently committed suicide after his own federal conviction. But the damage was done.

Mell would ultimately be vindicated by the conviction of his son-in-law. But he has endured the emotional pain of watching his beloved granddaughters grow up without their father, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence in Littleton, Colo., while Mell’s daughter, Patti, tries to survive without her husband.

Now, Mell is preparing to step aside after engineering the appointment of his other daughter.

He’s trying to do it quietly to avoid past mistakes.

“Sometimes, I secretly wish I was Irish because the Irish long ago have learned to have their disagreements inside and not bring ’em out into the public,” Mell said during the feud with Blagojevich. “I sort of wear my heart on my sleeve sometimes and say things that, possibly in hindsight, I shouldn’t have said. Do I believe I was right? I certainly do. I don’t regret that. . . . I’m hoping that Debbie and [son] Rich and my daughter, Patti, and especially my wife can get beyond it.”

Oct. 19, 2012, was the deadline for holding a special election to fill City Council vacancies, according to Election Board spokesman Jim Allen. After that, openings are filled by mayoral appointment.

A replacement to fill Deb Mell’s seat in the Illinois House will be chosen by Democratic committeemen whose wards comprise the North Side district.



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