July 10, 2013


There are some people who think that City Council powerhouse Dick Mell is a kind, guileless, emphatic, caring, sharing, generous person. Those three are his daughters, state Representative Deb Mell (D-40) and former Illinois first lady Patti Blagojevich, and his son Richard.

As for everybody else, now that Mell, age 74, is finally resigning as 33rd Ward alderman after 38 years, effective July 24, two words surely pop into their mind: good riddance. The political landscape is littered with the broken bones, dreams and hearts of aspiring aides, supporters and politicians to whom Mell has broken promises of advancement or betrayed commitments of loyalty.

There are two more words: but for.

But for Dick Mell, his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich would not have been Illinois' first impeached governor. Mell dictated Blagojevich's election as a state representative in 1992, made the deals necessary to get him elected a congressman in 1996, and blithely -- and falsely -- promised Downstate county chairmen that they would get oodles of state patronage if they elected "The Kid" as governor in 2002. But for Blagojevich's Downstate vote, he would not have won the primary election, and but for Blagojevich's infamous 2008 "golden" comment about selling the U.S. Senate seat, the feds might never have investigated Jesse Jackson Jr.

But for Dick Mell, Pat Quinn would not be governor. Quinn was Blagojevich's lieutenant governor, and he moved up in January of 2009, after the impeachment. Quinn could never have won a primary for governor.

But for Dick Mell, Rahm Emanuel would not be mayor. Had Blagojevich sought re-election in the Northwest Side 5th District in 2002 and not run for governor, Emanuel would not have won the seat. He would not have become a money-raising congressional powerhouse, would not have been a crony of Barack Obama, would not have been the White House chief of staff, and would not have had the credibility to run for mayor in 2011.

But for Dick Mell, at least four state legislators -- John Brandt, Myron Kulas, Rich Bradley and Nancy Kaszak -- would not be consigned to the dustbin of history.

But for Dick Mell, chairman of the council Rules Committee, controlling the 2011 ward remap process, three sitting aldermen -- Bob Fioretti (2nd), Nick Sposato (36th) and Joann Thompson (16th) -- would not have had their wards cannibalized and face likely defeat in 2015.

But for Dick Mell, Deb Mell would not be Illinois' first legally married lesbian state representative.

Now, but for Dick Mell's resignation and Deb Mell's anticipated appointment as alderman, Jaime Andrade, Aaron Goldstein and Garrett FitzGerald would not have the opportunity to be appointed to -- or to run for -- Deb Mell's 40th Illinois House District seat. According to 33rd Ward sources, Mell, known as "Old Gringo" among Hispanics, has enough weighted votes as the 33rd Ward Democratic committeeman to dictate Deb Mell's replacement. He is under pressure to name a Hispanic to the post. That will be Andrade, a longtime Mell aide and City Council assistant sergeant at arms.

Goldstein, a criminal defense attorney, said he is "definitely running." Goldstein has noteworthy credentials. He was the lead counsel in Blagojevich's second trial, co-counsel with Sam Adam Jr. in the first trial, and primary counsel in county Commissioner Bill Beavers' corruption trial. For Goldstein, that's 0 for 3. Nevertheless, by running against the "Mell Machine," Goldstein inoculates himself against the "Curse of Blagojevich." "I'm a progressive Democrat," he said. "I will fight for the working class."

Another contender is FitzGerald, the executive director of the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce, a former City Council and Cook County Board staffer, and the chairman of the state Civil Service Commission. FitzGerald has health issues, and he may not run.

The 40th District extends from Argyle Street to Altgeld Street, between California Avenue and Kostner Avenue, and is bisected by the Kennedy Expressway. According to the 2010 census, it is roughly 45 percent white, 45 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian. Most of the Hispanic residents are concentrated in the south, while the area north of Irving Park Road is decidedly upscale and white. According to Goldstein, more than half the Hispanics are non-citizens or non-voters.

Mell is a master of the art of dissembling. He is glib and loquacious and a very likable guy, but he also is calculating, devious and manipulative.

That is evident in the aldermanic replacement process, where the "fix" is in for Deb. "This has been planned for months," one politician said. "The timing is so calculated." On July 3 Mell notified Emanuel of his intention to resign on July 24, which is the date of the next council meeting. Emanuel, who makes the pick, once promised an "open and transparent" process to "find the best person regardless of local political considerations." He interviewed a dozen applicants in a 30-day period before choosing Sandi Jackson's 7th Ward successor.

Not this time. 33rd Ward applicants were told to submit resumes between July 5 and July 11. That's seven days over a holiday weekend, when non-political people are paying scant attention to politics. The mayor has two weeks to make a choice.

My prediction: Deb Mell has been a state representative since 2009, when she decided it might be fun to go to Springfield. Her father strong-armed Bradley out of his House seat. With degrees in history and the culinary arts, not the usual background for a Chicago Democratic politician, it is conceded that Deb Mell has been a competent legislator. She is the House's first married lesbian member, as she went to Massachusetts to tie the knot.

State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) may submit her name for alderman, but there will be no other applicant of any consequence. Martinez has been a senator since 2003, giving her more "experience" than Mell.

Emanuel, of course, needs a pretext to justify the rush job. Instead of dynasty, the mayor will emphasize "diversity." Never mind that this is a daddy-to-kid handoff, which is what the Laurinos, Cullertons, Burkes, Sawyers, Austins, Berrios's and Beavers's did. It's the "Chicago Way" -- taking care of the family business. The City Council has two gay aldermen, and a lesbian member will add "diversity," Emanuel will say. Besides, he will aver, given the surprising paucity of applicants, Mell is indisputably the "best qualified."

Can the "Mell Machine" deliver for Andrade in the 2014 primary? The House seat, which is dominated by the 33rd Ward, has been Mell's personal sandbox since the 1970s. After breaking into politics as a precinct captain and a protege of 33rd Ward Alderman and Democratic Committeeman John Brandt, Mell went rogue in 1975 and beat Brandt's candidate for alderman. In politics, turncoats are either forgotten or forgiven. In 1976 a bunch of Governor Dan Walker's state workers, concentrated in the Illinois Department of Transportation and captained by Al Ronan, set up shop in the 33rd Ward, and Ronan ran against Brandt for state representative. Mell made a deal with Brandt: He would quit as committeeman and Mell would back Brandt against Ronan. Brandt won by 2,621 votes. Mell then cut a deal with Ronan and dumped Brandt in 1978, Ronan went to Springfield, and the "Mell-Ronan Machine" ran the 33rd Ward until 1992.

Power breeds arrogance, and in 1992 Mell decided that his sandbox could accommodate two House seats. Ronan decided to move south and run in a Wrigleyville district, and Mell anointed his greenhorn son-in-law, Blagojevich, then an assistant state's attorney, to run in a 33rd Ward/Bucktown district against incumbent Myron Kulas, who was prominent in the Lithuanian community. Ronan inexplicably lost to Nancy Kaszak 9,481-6,762, getting just 41.6 percent of the vote, while Blagojevich, then age 35, boosted by the "Mell Machine," thumped Kulas 11,771-6,968, getting 62.8 percent of the vote.

Blagojevich went on to serve four undistinguished years in Springfield. Joked former state representative Ralph Capparelli, Blagojevich's seatmate: "He was never there. I rarely saw him."

The serendipitous defeat of veteran U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-5) in 1994 gave Mell another plaything. "The Kid" ran for Congress, and Mell cut a deal with 36th Ward Alderman and Democratic Committeeman Bill Banks, bartering Blagojevich's House seat to John Fritchey, then the son-in-law of Banks' brother, in exchange for Banks' and his organization's support in the primary. Buoyed by huge 36th Ward and 33rd Ward turnouts, Blagojevich got 33,907 votes (49.8 percent of the total) against Kaszak and two others, topping Kaszak by a margin of 7,792 votes.

In 2002, against desultory opposition, "The Kid" won the primary for governor with 36.5 percent of the vote, and he beat Republican Jim Ryan with 52.2 percent. Thereafter, Blagojevich, estranged himself from Mell, indulged in "pay to play" fund-raising, and got impeached.

How strong is the "Mell Machine"? Monetarily, it's sizable but not intimidating. The 33rd Ward Democrats had $33,907 cash on hand as of April 1 and had raised $124,531 since Jan. 1, 2012. Citizens for Mell had $91,750 and raised $92,636, and Citizens for Deb Mell had $14,701 and raised a paltry $15,628.

There were 500 people at Mell's June 21 fund-raiser. Deb Mell was conspicuously absent, attending a wedding. By quitting, Mell loses a dozen Rules Committee employees. Deb Mell lacks her father's social -- and dissembling -- skills.

My prediction: If the "Mell Machine" cannot get Andrade nominated in 2014, then Deb Mell is at serious risk in 2015. If Martinez runs against her for alderman, she is in deep doo-doo.