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Mell family dynasty ends after 44 years; Deb Mell concedes to socialist

Ald. Deb Mell, left, in January. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times; 33rd Ward challenger Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, right, on Election Day. File Photo.| Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

After 44 years, the Mell family dynasty in Chicago’s 33rd Ward has ended.

The new era will be led by newly elected Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), one of six members of the City Council’s new socialist caucus.

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), daughter of legendary Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), has conceded to Rodriguez Sanchez after a partial recount showed her 13 votes behind.

When Rodriguez Sanchez is sworn in on May 20, it will be the first time since 1975 the Northwest Side ward that includes parts of Ravenswood Manor, Avondale, Albany Park and Irving Park has an alderman with a last name other than Mell.

“When it’s 13 votes, you drive yourself crazy — or you can — figuring out how you could have gotten those,” Mell, 50, said Monday.

“But I am not diminishing my opponent and the race that they ran because they ran a great race. And for us to come up 13 [votes] short in a change election shows that I had distinguished myself from my father and we were doing great work here in the 33rd Ward.”

Signs for 33rd Ward aldermanic rivals Deb Mell and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez are seen side by side in Horner Park on Feb. 26. Mell conceded over the weekend, saying her opponent “ran a great race.” | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
Signs for 33rd Ward aldermanic rivals Deb Mell and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, side-by-side in Horner Park on Feb. 26. Mell conceded over the weekend, saying her opponent “ran a great race.” | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Pressed to dissect her defeat, Mell said: “Alderman Burke being [charged with attempted extortion] right before everything kicked off did not help. … Peoples Gas has been pulling up our streets for the last year and a half. But I also want to be clear: They ran a great race. They were very well-organized. And they’ve been running for a long time.”

In 2013, Deb Mell was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to replace her father in a classic political deal engineered after the midterm retirement of the veteran Democratic warhorse.

In the 2015 election, she barely escaped being forced into a runoff. She was not officially declared the winner until more than two weeks after the February election, once absentee ballots were tallied.

On Monday, Deb Mell was asked whether she would have had an easier time politically if her dad had served out his term, instead of engineering a political appointment that smacked of Chicago-style nepotism.

“That probably would have been better for me. But, don’t forget. I know Dick Mell and he’s gonna do what he wants to do. And he was ready to retire,” Deb Mell said.

Dick Mell refused to discuss the end of the Mell family era.

“I’ve got nothing to talk about,” the patriarch said, before hanging up on a Sun-Times reporter.

For an entire generation of political junkies, Dick Mell will forever be remembered for his jump-on-the-desk antics the night the City Council chose a successor to the late Mayor Harold Washington.

In 1987, during the infamous “Council Wars,” Ald. Richard Mell stood on his desk, demanding to be heard. | Courtesy NBC5 Chicago
In 1987, during the infamous “Council Wars,” Ald. Richard Mell stood on his desk, demanding to be heard. | Courtesy NBC5 Chicago

The infamous photograph that’s part of Chicago folklore captured the deal-making and mischievous essence of Mell’s personality.

Although Mell was a self-made millionaire, he put aside his own political ambitions to advance the career of his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, first to the Illinois General Assembly, then to Congress and the governor’s mansion.

The Blagojevich saga ended badly for Illinois and even more bitterly for Mell.

In 2005, the alderman went on a tirade after Blagojevich’s aides publicly linked him to a Joliet landfill that was shut down amid environmental violations.

The landfill was owned by a second cousin of Patti Blagojevich, the alderman’s daughter.

Mell told the Sun-Times that he regretted the day he backed Blagojevich for governor and hoped that his daughter — who had “blinders on” about her husband — would “wake up someday.”

He compared himself to a spurned spouse who works tirelessly to put her husband through medical school, only to be replaced by a trophy wife.

Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (left) with his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, during Blagojevich’s inauguration in January 2002. | Associated Press
Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (left) with his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, during Blagojevich’s inauguration in January 2002. | Associated Press

Then, he dropped a bombshell that tore his family apart and drew the attention of state and federal investigators.

Mell charged that the governor’s chief fundraiser, Chris Kelly, had traded prime state appointments for $50,000 donations to Blagojevich.

The alderman later recanted the charges under threat of a lawsuit by Kelly, who subsequently committed suicide after his own federal conviction. But the damage was done.

Mell would ultimately be vindicated by the conviction of his son-in-law. But he has endured the emotional pain of watching his beloved granddaughters grow up without their father, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence in Littleton, Colorado.

On Monday, Deb Mell was asked how her legendary father reacted to her defeat.

“My father, as any father, wants their child to be happy. He knows that I’ve come to grips with this and I’m ready to move on with my next chapter. And he’s OK, too,” she said.

Deb Mell said she “has to chuckle” when she hears Rodriguez Sanchez supporters say they “beat the machine.”

“There hasn’t been a machine in the 33rd Ward for a very long time,” she said.