Though their names aren’t on the ballot, former 33rd Ward Ald. Dick Mell and former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios are looming over two races on the city’s Northwest Side.
In the 33rd Ward, community organizer Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is seeking to unseat Ald. Deb Mell and her family’s political dynasty in the April 2 runoff.
The sitting alderman is the daughter of former Ald. Dick Mell, who stepped down in 2013. Deb Mell was appointed to replace him and narrowly avoided a runoff four years ago.
A bit farther west, 31st Ward Ald. Milly Santiago is battling for a second term against Felix Cardona Jr., who worked for Berrios, when the longtime Democratic ward committeeman was Cook County assessor.
Berrios says he’s not involved in the race, but he’s still a power in the ward — and a potent campaign issue, along with President Donald Trump, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) and Cubs World Series tickets.
No candidate won a majority in either ward in February, requiring the April 2 runoffs.
In the 33rd, Rodriguez-Sanchez finished ahead of Deb Mell — by less than one percentage point — in February, winning 42.05 percent to Deb Mell’s 41.29 percent.
Rodriguez-Sanchez says her campaign is racking up endorsements, including from former Cook County Clerk David Orr and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi — who beat Berrios last year.
“It shows people are ready to do away with the old way of doing politics,” she said.
“[Deb] Mell is the daughter of machine politician Dick Mell. She was appointed to the position. … I feel like nepotism, and the idea that people should just have access to a position of power because of a parent or some political connection is very politics-as-usual in Chicago.”
Deb Mell said she’s feeling good about her team but vowed to do a better job getting her voters to the polls.
“Regardless of what people thought of me, everyone needs to get out and vote.”
As for that stuff about her dad and politics, Mell says that’s “not who I am, that’s not how I operate.”
“In my core, I’m a public servant, that’s what I believe this job is,” she said. “I wish we could talk more about the issues. Quite frankly I’m 50 years old, enough.”
In the 31st Ward, freshman alderman Santiago says that she’s brought a sense of hope, trust and transparency in the four years since she defeated Berrios’ political ally, Ald. Ray Suarez.
The rookie alderman made headlines in 2016 when she went on a tirade against a Board of Ethics ruling that forced the Cubs to yank a lucrative offer to let City Council members purchase World Series tickets at face value.
After an outcry from constituents — and embarrassed fellow aldermen — Santiago apologized for her rant. She says that moment “doesn’t define me as a person or as an elected official.”
Cardona has sparred with Santiago over her handling of The Fields, a massive project in the ward. Cardona said she didn’t hold a community meeting about until residents protested in front of her office, and even then the meeting was a “dog and pony show.”
Santiago swatted away the criticism, saying “there was no hidden agenda whatsoever because that’s not the kind of alderman I am.”
In mailers Santiago has circulated around the ward, she has tied Cardona to Trump and Burke. That connection stems from the property tax breaks Burke and Cardona’s former boss Berrios helped secure for the president’s Trump Tower.
Berrios, who is also the former chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, said he’s not involved in Cardona’s campaign but called him a hard worker, someone who will “work his tail off” for the benefit of the ward. He said Santiago’s Trump argument makes no sense because Cardona didn’t work on property tax valuations.
“I have no idea why she would criticize,” Berrios said. “She’d rather be out trying to get Cubs tickets than working the ward, and it shows.”
Cardona says that despite his ties to the Berrios family — he acted as treasurer for Maria “Toni” Berrios’ campaign for state representative and says he’s friends with Berrios’ son and nephew — he’s his own person.
“Berrios has not been part of my campaign,” Cardona said. “He hasn’t been part of my campaign since I started because I broke free, and I’m doing this on my own.”
Cardona argues Santiago has her ties to party regulars, pointing to state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who contributed nearly $47,000 to her campaign from 2015 to May 2018.
Santiago counters “those are elected officials that you have to work with.”
She says she dismantled “the machine.”
“When I took that ward it was in complete disarray and disaster. … That’s why we brought down a 24-year veteran and vice mayor that happens to be a good friend of my opponent here that was also part of the machine,” Santiago said. “And so when we look at four years ago what happened and now Joe Berrios has been defeated, someone who was so powerful, something has to be wrong about that organization and the people that worked for him.”