The last time Dick Mell helped a relative climb Illinois' political ladder, son-in-law Rod Blagojevich ascended to governor before being sent to prison for corruption. Now the longtime Chicago alderman, who is admittedly nostalgic for the old days of patronage politics, is talking up his daughter to fill his City Council seat when he retires this month.
It's creating a sticky situation for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who ultimately will decide who fills the vacancy. The former White House chief of staff touts his efforts to change the way business has always been done at City Hall, by hiring based on merits rather than who's related to whom and who's owed a favor.
But what if the daughter of a Chicago patronage champion also happens to be the most qualified candidate?
While Dick Mell is most famous for once standing on his council desk to command attention as an opponent of Chicago's first black mayor, his daughter, Deborah Mell, is a progressive state representative whose views align closely with the Democratic mayor's and who would become the council's first openly lesbian member.
Well aware of Chicago's tradition of politics as family business, in which seats are handed down from one generation to the next, Emanuel said Tuesday he'll use an open application process and consider candidates based on their resumes and what they would bring to the job.
He also made clear he's a fan of Deborah Mell and that he won't hold her lineage against her.
"State Rep. Deb Mell is not guaranteed the job because her last name is Deb Mell," Emanuel said. "And State Rep. Deb Mell is not excluded from the job because her last name is Mell."
Whatever he decides, there is political risk for Emanuel, who left a job as a top aide to President Barack Obama to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of another longtime mayor and a member of one of Chicago's many political family dynasties.
Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, whose landmark lawsuit more than 40 years ago led to a federal court order that bans political patronage, said choosing Deb Mell would be perceived by many as nepotism — whether or not she's the best candidate.
"It does not look very good, and justifiably so," Shakman said.
Not choosing her also could bring repercussions. Emanuel has already said he plans to run for a second turn, and Mell's father, who announced his resignation last week after nearly 40 years on the council, is still the powerful Democratic committeeman for his ward. That post allows the elder Mell to wield influence by turning out campaign workers and voters on Election Day.
Dick Mell made clear in an interview days after he resigned that he sees no problem with patronage, part of the old Chicago machine that rewarded voting loyalty with jobs and other spoils. Waxing poetic about earlier days on the council, Mell said being able to hand out jobs to supporters helped build community in Chicago's neighborhoods. He spoke warmly of getting rid of parking tickets for people and said his best precinct captains got jobs tending bridges, where they could sleep or do homework and get paid for it.
One of his few regrets, Mell said, was supporting Blagojevich, who was ultimately sentenced to 14 years in prison for trying to sell Obama's former seat in the U.S. Senate. Mell raised money for Blagojevich's campaigns for congressman and governor, but now says his son-in-law should never have risen beyond state representative.
To pick Mell's replacement, the mayor is using the same process that he earlier this year to find a replacement for Sandi Jackson, who resigned as she and her husband, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, were under federal investigation that eventually led to charges against them. The process was widely applauded for being open and leading to the selection of a fresh political face.
Emanuel is expected to make a decision regarding Mell's seat by July 24.
Deb Mell said Tuesday she's getting her application together and that she thinks the job of alderman would be a good fit for her "hands-on, neighborhoody type" style. As far as her father's support, she thinks he's watched what she's done as a state representative the last four years and has liked what he's seen.
"I think he believes, and I do too, that I would be a great alderman," she said.
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