Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ald. Mell's daughter ready to run

Ald. Mell's daughter ready to run
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Copyright by The Chicago Sun-Times
June 24, 2007

Another Mell is entering the Illinois electoral arena. First, there was Dick Mell, Chicago alderman, committeeman and political powerhouse of the 33rd Ward since 1975.

Then Mell begat Blagojevich.

In 1992, Rod Blagojevich, married to Mell's daughter, Patti, jumped into the Illinois political ring. With Dick Mell's army of precinct captains backing him, Blagojevich won his first election in 1992 for state representative and moved on to Congress in 1996, becoming governor of Illinois in 2002.

Now comes Deborah Mell.

Daughter of the alderman and sister-in-law of the governor, she intends to join the family business.

Deborah Mell, 35, is a project manager at Christy Weber Landscapes and a lesbian activist. Last week, at a meeting of the Mayor's Advisory Council on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues, she declared her intention, telling people at that meeting she was going to run in 2008 for state representative of the 40th District, a seat held for the last 10 years by Richard Bradley.

Bradley, a top Streets and Sanitation payroller, represents the Northwest Side of Chicago where Deborah Mell grew up, where Blagojevich served and where Dick Mell's endorsement has been crucial to his re-election. Bradley has given no indication that he's ready to step aside.

So is her dad going to throw Bradley overboard?

"Can I call my communications person first?" Deborah Mell said with a laugh on the phone last week.

A sense of humor will be essential for Deborah Mell. This is no ordinary family and no ordinary time in their political lives. There is a massive, ongoing federal investigation of Blagojevich and his administration, a probe that includes real estate deals that involve first lady Patti Blagojevich, Deborah Mell's sister, and Antoin "Tony" Rezko, the governor's now-indicted friend and prodigious fund-raiser.

Worse still, the first domino in this giant federal inquiry was kicked over by Dick Mell, who told the Sun-Times in January 2005 that his son-in-law's administration was trading plum political appointments for $50,000 campaign contributions. Though Dick Mell would later retract that statement, there was no unringing the bell. And there is still evidence that the feud between father-in-law and son-in-law persists despite the public solidarity shown by the family when Marge Mell, the alderman's wife, died last year after a terrible illness.

Deborah Mell has been, by many accounts, the family peacemaker. She is close to her sister, gets along with her brother-in-law even though they have battled over the issue of gay marriage (she's for it, he's against), and she has had the full support of her father in her role as a gay activist.

Three years ago, Deborah was arrested outside City Hall during a gay rights demonstration. When her alderman father arrived on the scene, his pride in his middle child was written all over his face. Not because she'd been accused of breaking the law, he said at the time, but because she was standing up for her beliefs and taking a risk in doing so.

Now she's taking a risk again and putting her father in an uncomfortable political spot. All signs point to Bradley having had Dick Mell's seal of approval for one more term. But now that his determined daughter has decided she's in the race regardless, what's a dad supposed to do?

''If she intends to run, I can't conceive of not supporting her,'' Mell told me by phone Friday.

Does it pose a sticky political problem for him?

"Of course," said the alderman with what sounded like a small sigh.

Ever the political pragmatist, Ald. Mell knows how to count better than most. Fifty percent of the district is Hispanic. ''A well-funded Hispanic candidate could complicate this,'' he told me. The timing, he seemed to be saying, might not be right.

But his daughter is working by her own clock.

''I'm putting this together myself,'' she said, adding that her campaign is not run by the governor or the alderman. And the inspiration, she said, comes from a family member who never held elective office.

''My mom was a feminist, she loved women in political office. That's what's driving me here.''

Her father will be hard-pressed to argue that particular point.


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