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Deb Mell front-runner for dad’s council seat

Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (33rd pictured 2009)  |  Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (33rd, pictured in 2009) | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: July 9, 2013 6:18AM

State Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago) is the frontrunner to fill her father’s aldermanic seat, mayoral aides disclosed Friday, as legendary Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) prepared to close out his storied City Council career.

City Hall sources said the elder Mell, 75, has informed Mayor Rahm Emanuel that the June 26 or early July City Council meeting will be his last.

On the final day of the legislative session, sources said Deb Mell tearfully confided to her Springfield colleagues that she would not be around for a vote on gay marriage.

It happened after an equally emotional state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) announced to a House chamber filled with gay and lesbian couples prepared to witness history that he would not call the bill because he didn’t have the votes.

Deb Mell is a chief proponent of gay marriage who announced her engagement to her partner on the floor of the Illinois House.

She did not return repeated phone calls, but sent a text message: “I’m in Alaska. Sorry can’t chat now.” Richard Mell offered a terse “no comment” when asked whether the June 26 City Council meeting would be his last.

Mell’s long-awaited retirement puts Emanuel in a bit of a political trick-bag.

On the one hand, the mayor has promised that all future aldermanic vacancies would be filled through a fair and open process that mirrors the one that culminated in the Emanuel’s selection of former state transportation manager Natashia Holmes to replace now convicted Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th).

On the other hand, Emanuel likes and admires Deb Mell and believes that she would be an ideal replacement for her father. She would also become Chicago’s first openly lesbian and third openly gay aldermen, joining Tom Tunney (44th) and James Cappleman (46th).

On Friday, top mayoral aides described Deb Mell as a good person who is not only highly-qualified, experienced and committed to the community. She’s “cut from a different cloth” than her father is.

They also acknowledged the obvious: Deb Mell is the odds-on favorite to fill her father’s City Council seat.

Another top mayoral aide said, “We’ll do the same process we did for Jackson. [But] if Deb wants it, she’d surely be a frontrunner given her record.”

Holmes was one of 65 candidates who applied for Jackson’s job and one of 48 interviewed by phone by a mayoral commission that conducted 25 in-person interviews before recommending four finalists to Emanuel.

On the day he made his first aldermanic appointment, the mayor told reporters that he planned to use “a version” of the same selection process to fill future vacancies.

“It is a clean break from the past. It is an attempt to take the politics out of City Hall picking for a community to give the community an actual role in the selection process,” the mayor said on that day.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in January that Richard Mell — Rules Committee chairman and father-in-law of convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — had told associates he was preparing to step down after 38 years in a move that would deprive the City Council of its second-longest serving member and a healthy chunk of its colorful personality and institutional memory.

The veteran alderman responded by doing a series of cagey television interviews that was vintage Mell.

He insisted that he had not yet made up his mind on whether and when to pull the plug on a colorful political career that reached cartoon proportions when he jumped on his desk in the Council chambers the night aldermen chose a successor to former Mayor Harold Washington.

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 still 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. Ald. Marge Laurino (39th) is angling for that job.

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 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. Mell used the loan to buy a spring machine he set it 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 1960’s, 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 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 his daughter, Patti, tries to survive without her husband.

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