Alderman Richard Mell was ready to legislate. Or rage. Or revolt. Or something.
"I guess I don’t know what the answer is," he said during a meeting of the City Council’s buildings committee on Tuesday. "Maybe I’ve been here too long."
Mell, the former owner of a spring-manufacturing company, is one of the last of the old-school machine Democrats. His 33rd Ward organization still controls dozens of government jobs, and no one’s been able to put together a serious challenge against him since 1991. Last fall he managed to move state rep Rich Bradley out of the way so his daughter Deb could be slated for the 40th District seat. "I thought I’d get her in there the first time," he said. "Then she’ll work her ass off and win them over." He’s also a loyal soldier for Mayor Daley in the City Council: in May he used his position as chairman of the Committee on Committees, Rules, and Ethics to help Daley bypass usual council procedures and repeal the city’s foie gras ban.
On Tuesday, though, he sounded ready to drop the whole business and join the antiglobalization movement.
On the docket were three proposed ordinances to deal with problems created by the city’s dramatic real estate slowdown—unfinished building construction and foreclosed rental properties. One would make sure tenants are notified at least a week before banks take over their apartment buildings; the other two would require that secure fencing and the name of the owner be posted around construction sites and open lots.
"Folks have started properties, got foundations into the ground, realized they don’t have enough sales, and in some cases just walked away from them," Mell said. "They’ve got these shoddy fences they’ve put up, and every time the wind blows they fall over. I’ve got one where I’ve had four six-flats in a row with [just] the foundation in there—they’ve left the foundations full of water, right next to a park. All I need is a kid to come over there and fall in and drown."
Only four aldermen had shown up, and just two of them were members of the committee, so the items were all tabled for further discussion. But Mell, who was sponsoring two of them, took the opportunity to offer his colleagues an analysis of the economy.
"It’s not a situation I see getting any better—that’s the problem. I don’t want to launch into the budget, really, but I see this as indicative of what this whole city’s going through right now. We have no more manufacturing in this city, and our housing is dead. . . . I guess I’m just venting. . . . I’ve been here when times were a lot better, and these things weren't happening."
The meeting was over within minutes, but Mell continued to hold court in the hallway and then his office, reminiscing about the industrial economy in his hometown in Michigan, recalling his days as a manufacturer, ripping into corporate CEOs for outsourcing American jobs, marveling at the success of the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, and predicting social upheaval in the future. "Here’s a good example of how bad we are right now," he said. "When I go in the Jewels I see people standing in line at the coin machine and trading in their coins, which tells me these people are really strapped, that they have to tap into their piggy banks to buy groceries. Where are we headed? . . . We’re approaching 2 percent of the population shopping at Nieman-Marcus and the rest shopping at Target and Wal-Mart and the dollar stores, and that is a prescription for revolution . . ."