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Mihalopoulos: Dick Mell’s swan song missed a few important notes

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 8, 2013 6:59AM

His loyal precinct captains from a part of the Northwest Side that’s still mostly un-gentrified always said they never worried about Dick Mell getting caught in a corruption scandal.

Already wealthy thanks to his industrial spring company, Mell could not fall to the seduction of bribes. Or so went the off-the-record reasoning of the 33rd Ward Democratic Organization’s payrollers.

Mell’s own money may have been enough to resist the temptations that brought down so many he served with on the City Council over the past 38 years.

But as he announced his retirement last week, it was clear he continued to enjoy nothing more than the pursuit of power. If Mell feuded with or even hated some of his fellow players, he loved nothing more than the political game — or at least playing it according to what obviously has become an outdated rulebook.

At a news conference Friday, Mell spent most of 90 minutes ambling down a memory lane lined with old tales of patronage hiring, steel garbage cans given and taken and backroom maneuvering spiked with racial and ethnic rivalry.

Much of his reminiscing centered on City Hall, behind-scenes accounts of the making and the unmaking of mayors. Yet, what Mell said he loved most about politics was the now-lost ability for aldermen to help simple people such as those in his ward, often by placing them in city jobs.

The 33rd Ward seems an unlikely launching pad for a mayor, much less the governor it produced. In a city of stark contrasts, the ward is neither hipster colony nor slum. From a working-class, bungalow-belt base, Mell crafted what he could claim was “one of the best political organizations in the city.”

He recalled how “the jobs came flooding in when I became committeeman” nearly 40 years ago. And he chuckled when he described himself as “a man of all seasons” who managed to stay on the ins with whomever was mayor — other than Harold Washington.

Many of those he got hired have aged with him. All the ward hacks had to do in return was go door to door touting Mell and those he had blessed in a particular election.

He kept a board in the ward office to track the most efficient precinct captains. The better they performed on the campaign trail, Mell said, the greater their chances of career advancement in city government.

Mell called on this political army to help his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, become governor 11 years ago. But Blagojevich would later say he balked at Mell’s demands to give jobs to “the Chuckies and the Dominics” from the ward. The 33rd Warders shot back that Blagojevich was ungrateful to those who carried him from nothing to the Governor’s Mansion, preferring a new set of corrupt allies.

Had Blagojevich stuck with Mell, they say, he would have avoided prison. But such nostalgia for the old ways — echoed by Mell on Friday — is unlikely to be shared by very many outside his organization or beyond the few groups still commanded by the dwindling ranks of Chicago ward heelers.

The old ways were great for one 25-year precinct captain from the 33rd Ward, a city truck driver foreman who used Mell’s clout to win promotion to general foreman. It wasn’t so great for the others who applied for the job in what turned out to be a sham interview process, including a foreman with greater seniority than Mell’s guy, according to testimony in the 2006 corruption trial of four city hiring officials.

There’s probably also not as quite much enthusiasm these days for the Chicago tradition of blindly following mayors.

In Friday’s rambling look back on his long run as an alderman, what Mell did not recount was how he admitted he did not read the voluminous parking-meter lease agreement before voting for it in 2008. He only made brief mention of the parking deal, to praise Mayor Rahm Emanuel for trying to amend it.

Emanuel now could grant Mell’s wish that he appoint daughter Deb Mell to replace him as alderman for the last two years of his term.

She or whoever else is the next 33rd Ward alderman would be wise to read the fine print in any big mayoral plan. Because the new political reality means even though Deb Mell is the boss’ daughter, when she has to run for a full term in the next election, she can’t count on the sort of faithful backing her father had.

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