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Monday, May 27

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"Think where man's glory most begins and ends/and say my glory was, 'I had such a friend.'"
— W.B. Yeats

Roaring, not easing, into his twilight years, Dick Mell, more than perhaps most Chicago politicians, will always know his glory, is his friends.

This past week, Alderman Richard F. Mell (33rd) celebrated 30 years of public service, going back to the days when he was an upstart young business owner recently relocated to Chicago running a rogue independent campaign for Committeeman of the 33rd Ward. The first time, he got his clock cleaned. When he tried again, he did some clock cleaning of his own.

As Mell tells it, it all started in his basement, his two daughters and son helping him cut out newspaper articles and gluing them to poster board, meticulously assembling lists of potential volunteers longhand on sheets of paper. In less than a decade, what resulted was arguably the most vaunted ward organization in Chicago, and one of the most feared political organizations in Illinois. After consolidating his power in the 33rd Ward, Alderman Mell branched out, lending his organization's strength to neighboring allies, even venturing out into the suburbs.

Few ward bosses enjoy the blend of fear and genuine affection Mell can claim. Even in this era when pundits from South Beloit to Cairo are incessantly proclaiming the death of the Chicago political machine, the 33rd Ward Organization remains a tightly-knit, ever-expanding family, completely loyal to their founding father.

Indeed, much of the attitude that pervades the ward is paternal. One organization member told RotSC that he had never received a single real favor, never been offered a job or any family members awarded contracts — yet he had worked diligently at the precinct level for Dick Mell for years.

"What people don't understand about Dick," he said, "is that he just really likes having friends. He knows it makes good politics, too. He likes having people around him who like him and who he likes right back."

Over the last few years, the white-haired lion from the Northwest Side has been in the news almost constantly, first for his role in getting his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, elected governor practically through sheer will alone. Later, Mell controversially backed rogue multi-millionaire M. Blair Hull for the Democratic nomination for Senate, in what many said was a cynical political payback for Hull's generous support of Blagojevich in 2002. Yet at Hull's concession speech, Mell spoke almost as long as Hull would, nearly coming to tears as he spoke of the trials his friend had endured.

In the Spring of 2004, when gay rights groups were pushing municipal governments to recognize their marriages, Alderman Mell's daughter Debbie, herself a lesbian, was arrested. The city's casual observers were surprised to see the old ward boss' vociferous defense of his daughter and his remark that he'd like to find parents who refused to support their homosexual children and "punch them in the... face." Those who knew Alderman Mell were hardly surprised — "He's always been, first, a father," one insider said.

More recently, Mell was splashed across the headlines for an increasingly bitter feud with the Governor, whom many say owes his political career primarily to his father-in-law. When Blagojevich seemingly targeted a Mell family member for having received a state contract, the Alderman reacted angrily, saying the Governor was splitting his family and going after him for purely political reasons, and saying the Governor was behaving "criminally" in his fundraising strategies, handing out jobs for cash. The Governor's premier fundraiser threatened a lawsuit, and Mell backed down; however his accusations have lead to an investigation by the Attorney General, Democrat Lisa Madigan.

As luminaries from across the political spectrum assembled to celebrate the Alderman's 30th year of service — and outdo each other in their praise of him — there were assuredly some, elsewhere, who were fuming. Despite his continuing high popularity in the ward, there are many who resent the continued development, gentrification and general autocracy. For years, myriad community groups have fought the Alderman tooth-and-nail, accusing him of cronyism and favoritism, restricting services to those precincts where the voters are the most loyal. Off the record, residents would make allegations of the Alderman clouting no-work jobs at large Chicago firms from his perch atop the powerful City Council Committee on Committees.

Few political organizations are perfect, to be sure. But anybody well acquainted with the 33rd Ward RDO knows that it is a family built on loyalty and friendship. Perhaps an old Chicago political yarn, and one that the Alderman likes to repeat himself, is the best illustration:

During one of the federal ghost payrolling investigations that went after the Chicago political structure in the late 1980s, federal agents descended on the 33rd Ward RDO offices and demanded interviews with everybody on the premises. After interviewing numerous Regulars, the agents turned to one of them and said, "You should demand a raise. Forget 'ghost' payrolling, you guys don't make enough!"

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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