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Deb Mell: a legislative career where family, politics intersect

ChristBaker (wife Deborah) Rep. Deborah Mell press conference with marriage equality advocates who urged supporters across state today make their

Christin Baker (wife of Deborah) and Rep. Deborah Mell at a press conference with marriage equality advocates who urged supporters across the state today to make their voices heard on Illinois' marriage equality bill. Ferguson is in ABC's hit comedy "Modern Family". The press conference was at the Thompson Center on Wednesday, January 2, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 6, 2013 6:12AM

SPRINGFIELD—Since her first day on the floor of the Illinois House, two-term state Rep. Deborah Mell has built a legislative career where her family and politics have intersected.

Her first vote came on Jan. 14 2009, the date when the House impeached her brother-in-law, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She was the only member in a 117-1 decision to vote against his impeachment.

“The charges in the impeachment were difficult to reconcile with the man and brother-in-law I know,” Mell (D-Chicago) said at the time. “I could not in good conscience vote for his impeachment.”

As Blagojevich’s problems worsened, she was at the side of her sister, former First Lady Patti Blagojevich, when the ex-governor was tried twice on federal corruption charges that ultimately sent him to prison for 14 years.

In 2011, the daughter of Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) became the first state officeholder to marry someone of the same sex when she tied the knot in Iowa with her partner of several years, Christin Baker.

Mell, one of three openly gay lawmakers in Springfield, introduced Baker to Illinois’ political world the previous November when — with her spouse-to-be standing next to her — she made an impassioned speech on the House floor supporting civil unions and announcing her plans to wed Baker. Mell was a co-sponsor of Illinois’ civil unions law.

All the while, Mell has strengthened laws on sex-offender registration as well as ethics and campaign finance training for those running for the General Assembly. She’s also urged cable television stations to broadcast programming in support of veterans.

“She has worked on a lot of bills that have caught my eye,” said state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), with whom Mell has worked on gay-rights issues. “She’s really very friendly and neighborhood-focused.

“A lot of the work she has been doing is on preventing and reducing crime, especially on things that impact neighbors like hers and mine in the city where there are needs to protect young people against sex offenders,” Harris said.

Mell was diagnosed with breast cancer last June and underwent a bilateral mastectomy in September but has remained fully engaged with her legislative duties during her health scare.

On Thursday, Mell was in Springfield with her wife to witness the Senate Executive Committee voting out legislation to legalize gay marriage, an issue that stands as perhaps her largest unfulfilled legislative priority.

Mell told reporters that there has been a genuine shift in public opinion toward gay marriage even since she and Harris helped pass civil unions in 2011.

“When Chris and I first got married, and I introduced her as my wife, at first I was a little like that sounds kind of weird. But now, it’s completely normal and natural,” she said.

Even though the legislative backers of gay marriage have now shifted their focus to the spring session to pass their bill, Mell said she believes its prospects are bright.

“I feel good about it. I do. You know why? And this is partly because during civil unions, the attitude was different. I’ve gone up to some people now, colleagues, and it’s a different response: a little more amicable and less hostile.”

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