Deb Mell calls talk of dad and dynasty ‘unfortunate’ in 33rd Ward race
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Ald. Deb Mell is heir to one of the most powerful families in Northwest Side politics — but she’s clearly tired of having to answer for that on the campaign trail.
“I’ve been in public service for 10 years now,” Mell said. “I’m my own person. I’ve been called daddy’s little girl, and I think that’s slightly misogynistic. I have my own record, and they can’t attack me on that so they attack me on this.”
But whether Deb Mell likes it or not, her family name is one of the issues in the hotly contested 33rd Ward aldermanic race.
“We need someone who is independent, someone who doesn’t come from a dynasty family and someone who represents all the people in the ward,” said Katie Sieracki, 39, one of two candidates vying to unseat Mell in Tuesday’s election.
“This is nothing personal against Mell, but she’s very much a reactive voice, she waits for others to lead the way and then reacts accordingly … and I don’t see her taking an active stance on significant issues either,” Sieracki said.
Sieracki is director of summits at Endeavor Business Media, which brings together city leaders from across the country to talk about common challenges. The third candidate is Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, 40, a community organizer for much of her life both in Puerto Rico, where she’s from, and in the city.
Sieracki and Rodriguez-Sanchez are seeking to pull the rug out from under a family that has dominated the ward for more than four decades.
Mell, 50, is the daughter of powerful former 33rd Ward Democratic committeeman and Ald. Dick Mell. Dick Mell, who was first elected in 1975, famously jumped up on a desk during the tumultuous 1987 City Council meeting to decide a successor to the late Mayor Harold Washington.
Years later, he was briefly known as “governor-in-law,” after he helped his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, get elected governor in 2002. The two had a falling out, and the former governor is now in prison.
Deb Mell, sister of former Illinois first lady Patti Blagojevich, was appointed to her father’s City Council seat in 2013 after Dick Mell announced he was stepping down — she was previously a state representative.
Deb Mell has had a tougher time holding onto the City Council seat.
In the 2015 election, she barely escaped being forced into a run off. She was not officially declared the winner until more than two weeks after the February election, once absentee ballots were tallied.
But in the last five and a half years, Mell says the ward has developed a great cohesiveness, and she wants to keep it going. To only talk about her dynastic ascent to power is “unfortunate.”
Rival candidates say they have more to talk about than Dick Mell.
Sieracki also says there seems to be unequal access to services in the ward, and some “feel ignored or feel like she’s not hearing them.” Sieracki also wants to establish a municipal composting program, create a preservation plan for affordable housing in the ward and has committed to having no other employment.
Rodriguez-Sanchez worked on the 2015 campaign of Tim Meegan, the candidate who nearly forced Mell into a runoff.
“An alderman should be a community organizer, someone who can identify problems, who can listen and develop strategies to help the most vulnerable people,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “I don’t think that’s happening in our community — I see people doing that, but that’s not the direction the office is going.”
Rodriguez-Sanchez says that the ward’s residents deserve to participate more in community decisions. That means participatory budgeting processes so that undocumented people in the community can have a voice, and equally distributing services, she says.
She also supports rent control and sees it as a way to curb the affordable housing crisis they’re seeing in the ward and around the city, would push for small business incubators and cut aldermanic salaries in the hopes of using that money for projects or hiring more staff to help with outreach and constituent services to help ward residents.
“There are so many challenges we need to face and we need to act urgently,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.
Deb Mell says the ward has seen a lot of development and she makes sure community members are involved.
She points to a record that includes the $5.6 million Horner Park restoration project, a dog park — the largest in the city, she says — demanding more oversight for the city’s inspector general, voting against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget and five-year housing plan “because it didn’t go far enough.” Deb Mell says her record shows she’s “definitely independent.”
“I’m from this community, I was born and raised here — I spent 10 years in San Francisco in the ’90s, but I came back home and I want to represent the areas that I know, love and grew up in,” Mell said. “I ask folks to stick with me. We have our challenges, but we’re tackling them head on and we’re going in the right direction.”