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Friday, July 5, 2013

Remembering Dick Mell (and what he was really doing up on that table)

Posted By on 07.05.13 at 11:35 AM

When the Wall Street Journal in 1984 called Chicago "Beirut on the Lake," the Reader's Gary Rivlin ran with the metaphor and called Alderman Richard Mell and his 28 white allies on the City Council the "radical Shiites of the city's northwest and southwest sectors."

Nothing was more important to them than sabotaging the administration of the new black mayor, Harold Washington. If that meant bringing the city down around them, so be it. In this 1985 Reader article, Mell explained to Rivlin why his council faction—the "Vrdolyak 29"—opposed a $125 million bond issue to patch up crumbling streets and sidewalks. The work needed to be done, and all 50 wards would benefit—nobody denied that. The problem was that Washington could also benefit—in 1987, when he ran for reelection. The improvements might help persuade a few white voters that Washington wasn't so bad after all.

Mell's own 33rd Ward was a case in point—it really needed the work done, he allowed. Yet Mell supposed that in the end he'd vote against the bond issue. "To keep a caucus of people together . . . sometimes you have to compromise your own position. In fact, to keep people together on major issues, you have to vote for things you're not happy with," he told Rivlin. "I will sacrifice a vote that probably won't be popular in my community for the good of the coalition."

Mell's decision to retire from the council has the city awash in memories. There were the Council Wars. There was his audacious but failed campaign to make himself mayor when Washington died suddenly a few days after being reelected in 1987. There was his triumphant campaign to elect his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, governor—and then his falling out with Blago. Now there's his maneuvering to have himself succeeded on the council by his daughter, state rep Deb Mell.

The word for that is nepotism, and of course Blago is in prison. And as Mell conceded all those many years ago, Chicago really did need its streets fixed. But all this . . . human imperfection enhances rather than diminishes Mell's credentials as one of "Chicago's political legends" (which the Tribune just called him).

Rivlin wrote a couple of pieces chronicling Mell's maneuvering to emerge from the chaos that followed Washington's death as Chicago's mayor. One was a conversation with David Orr, the acting mayor during those chaotic few days.

"Dick Mell called several times to ask me to support him for mayor," said Orr. "Mell's a strange bird. It's almost like he had a written speech he was giving to everyone. It was like we had no history between us."

That history included Council Wars, which Orr and Mell fought on opposite sides.

"You read the papers," Orr went on, "you saw all the stuff Mell was offering everyone. Dick is like that. He asked me straight out what I wanted to be. What it would take to get my vote. I remember he called me on Saturday night, which was a key time because as the Trib wrote, Saturday night was the time they were going out to cut the final deal and they needed to know how many aldermen each had on their tally sheets. That night he asked me straight out if I could support him and I said no."

Rivlin's other article, "Seven Wretched Days," was a blow-by-blow account of the week after Washington died. It tracked Mell's campaign to seize the Fifth Floor for himself, which failed, and the council's decision to give it to an acquiescent black alderman, Eugene Sawyer. Luis Gutierrez, then an alderman aligned with Washington, told Rivlin that Mell was so quick to call him he didn't even know yet that Washington had died.

Rivlin wrote:

In Gutierrez's telling, Mell barely hesitates before making his pitch for mayor: "He said, 'Your mayor's dead. I'm calling you because I want you to keep your options open. I don't want you to rush and make hasty decisions.'"

What an asshole, Gutierrez thinks to himself. An ally, a friend, an important man in his life—damn, his political mentor—is hanging on for dear life and this fool is asking for his vote! As though he'd get it if he made a thousand phone calls. (And he'll call several more times, too.) . . .

Gutierrez practically hangs up on Mell, mumbling first that he doesn't believe the mayor is dead. "First I think, this is great," Gutierrez said. "The mayor will come out of this, and I'll tell everyone in the media about Mell's call. Then I'm scared shitless. Then I started to cry. What did that bastard know that I didn't?"

Rivlin slammed the media for the stories it missed that week. One was Mell.

Richard Mell would certainly have made for a good study: licking his chops over Washington lying lifeless on a crash cart; working the phones as physicians worked on the mayor's heart; "offering the world," in his own words, to any two aldermen willing to put him over the top. (Mell later admitted offering Alderman Larry Bloom a highly paid job at a prestigious law firm in return for his vote; Channel Nine reported that the offered salary was $200,000 a year.) On the night of the big vote, Mell was up on a table frantically waving his arms, the city's court jester playing the fool for the cameras. This last spectacle was beamed across the country. Now that is embarrassing. Surely the papers would be full of it.

But they weren't.

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