Richard Mell in 1987
When I interviewed 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell in July 2003, in the conference room of his Northwest Side ward office, he told me that the first line of his obituary will reprise his standing on his City Hall desk, fueled by the vitriol of the anti-Harold Washington Council Wars, on the night aldermen selected Washington’s successor. The second line should mention that Rod Blagojevich would likely be a two-bit lawyer barely scratching out a living—had Mell not placed him in jobs as a state rep, U.S. congressman, and governor of Illinois. Mell, 74, who seems to want to retire after 38 years as alderman, is continuing the tradition of nepotism by, according to reports in the Sun-Times, cutting a deal with Rahm Emanuel that places his daughter, Deborah, in his City Council chair as his temporary replacement.
If Mell is serious about retirement—a notorious hypochondriac, he has threatened to retire repeatedly—he has maneuvered the timing announcement of his daughter’s promotion (she’s now a state rep) so that a special election cannot be held for the now-majority-Hispanic ward. The deadline for a special election was October 19, 2012.
According to news reports, Mell—savvy pol that he is—has cleared his succession plan with Emanuel, whose job is it is to name the replacement.
And who knows what promises/favors Rahm might have extracted in return? The mayor has acknowledged talking to Mell about retirement but said that the subject of Deb Mell did not come up. However, in one telling response, the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman reports, the mayor insisted, “I want [Deb Mell] to stay where she is until we get the assault weapons ban and marriage equality passed.” (Note the word “until.”)
Mell, strikingly outspoken, surely doesn’t care what anyone thinks about his handing his job off to his daughter. I came away from my time spent with him thinking they don’t make them like him anymore; he’s a dying breed of old-style, colorful pol who kept his seat for nearly four decades by keeping his increasingly Hispanic constituents satisfied.
Here are some of Mell’s more memorable observations:
+ We had barely sat down for the interview when he admitted to hypochondria (he had open heart surgery more than a decade ago) and shared with me his body weight, constant for 30 years at 174-178 pounds. As he told me in detail about his wife and her breast cancer struggles/surgeries (she has since died), I worried he might go into details about his own health procedures and secrets.
+ When I asked him to assess his role in the rise of Blagojevich, he suggested we “start at the beginning” and described his daughter Patti, in love with an “Italian gentleman” she met in Florence while studying abroad as student at the U of I. She was despondent at their breakup. To cheer her up he suggested that she attend a fundraiser he was hosting at Zum Deutschen Eck, a German restaurant popular with pols, since closed, on Southport Avenue. It was there she met Blago. “In comes this dashing young guy, and he zeroes in on her.”
+ Mell attributed Blago’s success in 2002 to Rod’s tenacity, recalling one poll that showed primary opponent Roland Burris way ahead. “The poll showed Burris with like 41 percent of the vote; Rod with five percent…. Somebody said, 'Rod, that’s good news and bad news. The bad news is nobody knows who you are; the good news is nobody knows who you are. So you have an opportunity to really create your own message.’” Mell recalled trips throughout the state, including one on the courthouse steps in a small city where Rod gave a stump speech, and “there were four people listening to him… but he gave the whole speech. He could have blown them by and gone to the next stop.”
+ Mell told me that Blago described himself as “frustrated” in both Springfield and Washington—in Springfield, where Mike Madigan made the calls, and in D.C., where Richard Gephardt made them. “Neither time was he ever in that circle where decisions were made.”
+ Mell described his own relationship with Madigan this way: “I’m an individual who would stand on a desk. Madigan would never stand on a desk. ….When I take that eventual dirt nap, that [picture of me on the desk] will be the picture in the paper.”
+ He told me that he called Channel 2's Walter Jacobson, the first time the newsman did a story on him, a “totally false story,” Mell claimed. “I’m gonna come down there and kick your fanny because you made my daughter [Patti] cry,”
+ “Rod has certainly not brought anything but joy to my life,” Mell told me back then. “He calls me Papa, used to call me Rich, but now that Amy [Blago’s daughter] calls me Papa, he calls me Papa.” (Two years later, Mell and his son-in-law would stop speaking, and remarks by Mell triggered the investigation that ultimately landed Blago a 14-year prison term.)
One can give thanks for small favors, that Mell, the father of three, hasn’t decided to hand his seat to Patti. There is a son too, Richard, who worked for a time at O’Hare Airport. Not exactly denying the behind-the-scenes maneuvers, Deb Mell tweeted on Friday: “…I…love my job as state rep…” And on Sunday, she again pledged devotion to her Springfield job, but didn’t rule out taking her dad’s chair in the City Council.
Attorney Aaron Goldstein, who represented Blago in both trials, has said he’d like to replace Deb’s House seat, but, again, who knows. Richard Mell, after all, once compared himself to Machiavelli, and proudly recounted to me a Tribune headline about his outsized role in Blago’s first win for state rep, “Mell Shows Who’s Boss in Election,” He noted gleefully that the byline on that piece was John Kass’s, “when he was just a reporter; before he became a columnist.” The old alderman might be working the phones this very day, attempting to pull off a double play by lobbying the Democratic committeemen who will select Deb’s replacement.
More likely though, Rahm will want a strong arm on those committeemen.
As for who eventually becomes Mell’s successor as 33rd Ward alderman, yes, it’s supposed to be up to the voters. But, as Fran Spielman writes, Mell advised his daughter, “It would be best to get a leg up on the competition.”
Photograph: Chicago Tribune