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Mell: No deal for daughter to take his City Hall seat

Chicago Alderman Richard Mell speaks during news conference about his retirement Chicago Friday July 5 2013. Mell will officially step

Chicago Alderman Richard Mell speaks during a news conference about his retirement in Chicago, Friday, July 5, 2013. Mell will officially step down from his post representing the North Side ward on July 24 after nearly 40 years at the position. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

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Updated: August 7, 2013 6:11AM

Ald. Dick Mell (33rd), talkative and reflective about his decision to leave the City Council after 38 years, said Friday he departs with no commitment from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appoint his daughter, state Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago), to succeed him.

Mell, father-in-law to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, voiced regrets about the strained family relationship. He said he hopes Blagojevich can receive a reduced prison sentence.

The alderman orchestrated Blagojevich’s rise, first to the state House and then the governorship, but publicly feuded amid escalating controversies. It led to a painful split with the ex-governor’s wife, Patti, Mell’s daughter.

“We had a terrible schism with my daughter and myself, and it cost the whole family,” Mell said. He said Blagojevich proved unable to “take charge” of himself.

“He listened to people who didn’t have his best interests at heart,” Mell said.

Looking back on Blagojevich’s downfall, Mell, who has said little about the situation in recent years, said, “People loved him on the campaign trail. He was phenomenal. But when it came to actually governing, he was a problem.”

But Mell’s thoughts were mostly on the more distant past during a more than 90-minute press conference he called to discuss his reasons for resigning. He spent most of the time recounting his arrival in Chicago as a young man from Muskegon, Mich., the wrong turns he made in his courtship with his late wife, Marge, and his involvement in the tumultuous politics of the Jane Byrne and Harold Washington eras.

He’ll forever be remembered for standing on his desk seeking recognition at the late-night City Council meeting where Ald. Eugene Sawyer was elected mayor after Washington’s death. Mell was part of the “29” in the 29-21 political battle that dogged Washington’s years in office.

Mell’s desk antics occurred while he was trying to get called on a motion to place Sawyer’s name into nomination.

“So I get up there, I said, ‘Can you see me now?’ [Ald. Edward] Burke walks over and says, ‘Do you know how stupid you’re going to be tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘What’s new?’”

At his news conference, Mell delivered a heartfelt defense of old-style patronage politics and related how the promise of jobs — or the threats of jobs being withheld — was enough to ensure his loyalty to mayoral administrations.

Mell operated one of the stronger ward organizations in Chicago, one that relied on precinct captains even after court rulings loosened the stranglehold the Democratic Machine had on governmental hiring and weakened other ward organizations.

“When I can take some guy on a block and give him a job, and he goes door to door and talks to all his neighbors and brings every concern to the neighbors, it’s a closer community than it is today,” he said.

Mell, 75, resigned Wednesday from the seat he has held since 1975. Many have speculated that Emanuel will appoint Deb Mell to replace him and that the alderman quit only after arranging that.

But he said there is no deal and that he respects Emanuel’s decision to invite applications and consider candidates in an “open process.”

“Of all the mayors I worked with, I really like this guy,” Mell said, “because he’ll make a decision based on what he believes is right.”

He then paid homage to Emanuel’s reopening of the widely reviled parking meter deal to try to improve terms for taxpayers.

“You think if I were mayor I would have touched those parking meters?” Mell said.

But he couldn’t resist putting in a plug for Deb Mell, noting that her legislative district covers 44 percent of the 33rd Ward. Advocates for the gay and lesbian communities, citing her activism on gay marriage and other issues, have called for her appointment despite Chicago’s history of political nepotism.

“I think the mayor will make the decision, and I certainly will live by the decision the mayor makes,” Mell said.

His resignation takes effect July 24. Mell said he will continue to serve as the ward’s Democratic committeeman and plans to devote time to his grandchildren.

He also said he intends to be involved in a couple of businesses, including one in ethanol from Canada. His personal wealth stems from a spring company that he formerly owned. It sold products to automakers and to the Defense Department.

Despite the personal and political setbacks, Mell said he feels grateful for the opportunity to serve people. On the podium with him was a toy wooden train carved by a constituent, the grandfather of a severely disabled child.

Mell had helped a child and his mother get Section 8 housing when their finances were threatened with ruin. The cars of the train were carved with sign language gestures that together spelled out, “Alderman Mell.”

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