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Mihalopoulos: Dick Mell ‘happy to be out of’ ward boss job

Ald. Dick Mell at a City Council meeting in 2009. | Sun-Times file photo

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Dick Mell is so emblematic of the Chicago Democratic ward boss, jaded observers of local politics will hesitate before declaring the end of his 40-year run as the 33rd Ward committeeman.

With all of the ward’s precincts reporting returns from the March 15 primary, Mell has 62 votes fewer than challenger Aaron Goldstein, who declared victory Monday.

“I don’t think anybody believed I could do it,” says Goldstein, a 41-year-old lawyer in the Cook County public defender’s office.

The election board has not issued final results, though, and there might still be some ballots in the mail. Until then, cynics will suspect the famously wily Mell can somehow find another 63 ballots, maybe under a sofa cushion.

Either way, it looks like the era of another classic ward boss is nearing the end.

OPINION

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Now 77, Mell was considered such a Central Casting powerbroker that the Chicago Tribune published a long profile of him on the first day of the 1996 Democratic National Convention here. The headline: “The Lord of His Ward.”

Six years later, it looked like Mell would lord over the entire state when he engineered his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich’s election as governor. Hundreds of 33rd Ward party loyalists celebrated the win with the new governor in the Horner Park fieldhouse, and they say Blagojevich promised to take care of them.

Mell was so proud of his son-in-law that he expected him to land soon in the Oval Office. He entered the City Hall press room and held up a magazine with daughter Patti Blagojevich’s picture on the cover, telling reporters she would make a great first lady of the United States.

But Mell and Blagojevich rapidly fell out. The Mell people felt Blagojevich brought his troubles on himself by violating a basic tenet of Chicago ward politics, ditching the people who had made him what he was rather than rewarding them.

With Blagojevich behind bars, Mell eventually gave up his seat on the City Council. Still, his clout was great enough that Mayor Rahm Emanuel heeded his wish and installed Mell’s daughter Deb in the seat.

Ironically, it is one of Blagojevich’s former defense lawyers from his corruption case who is poised to send Dick Mell into total retirement.

Goldstein says his bid to unseat Mell had nothing to do with the Blagojevich case. A West Rogers Park native and Lane Tech High School graduate, Goldstein has lived in the 33rd Ward for 12 years and says he has had enough of machine politics as usual from Mell and his organization.

Goldstein sees himself as coming from the same mold as other up-and-coming Northwest Side progressives, including Ald. Scott Waguespack (43rd) and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

“You’ve got this burgeoning group of progressive reformers,” Goldstein says. “I believe in taking care of people as opposed to handing out jobs.”

He says he wants to eliminate political backscratching in the one area where committeemen still wield real power ­— the slating of Circuit Court judges. Goldstein promised not to take campaign contributions from any judicial candidates.

Mell says he isn’t counting every last vote. He told me he had run for re-election as committeeman only to help protégé Jamie Andrade’s re-election campaign for state representative, which was successful.

“I didn’t even want to be in that race,” Mell says, wishing Goldstein well. “I’m just happy to be out of it, honestly. Committeeman is a lousy job. There’s nothing there.”

Goldstein says he doesn’t know what office he might seek next, but concedes he could very well try to use the unpaid committeeman’s job as a stepping stone, perhaps to try to unseat Deb Mell in three years.

Mell says there’s not much left of his old organization, just five or six effective precinct captains.

“Those days are gone, and I don’t think the city’s necessarily better for it,” he says. “It was nice when people knew the precinct captains on every block, so they could tell them about an abandoned car or a drug house or tree roots in some old person’s sewer. You were able to help a lot of people who didn’t have a voice.”

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