Chicago political legends have always been part chess master, part dynasty builder, part street muscle and part colorful scamp, qualities that perfectly define the storied career of Dick Mell, who on Wednesday announced his retirement after nearly four decades as 33rd Ward alderman.
The 74-year-old Mell will most famously be remembered for making the political career of his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, and then openly regretting it years before federal juries convicted the former governor of corruption.
But there are other hard-to-forget moments filling the Mell scrapbook.
There's the 1987 photo of him standing on a desk, screaming for recognition at a raucous City Council meeting after the death of Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor.
There's Mell as an emissary for a bloc of white aldermen, brokering the deal to install Eugene Sawyer as Washington's successor in a secret meeting that took place in a North Side restaurant parking lot.
There's also Mell wielding his considerable clout as chairman of the powerful council Rules Committee to bottle up action on ethics proposals.
And there's Mell, in the best tradition of the Daleys, Madigans, Hyneses, Cullertons and more, maneuvering to the end to make his council seat a family heirloom with daughter Deb Mell, a state representative from Chicago, the favorite to replace him.
"He is a larger-than-life character," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who holds the final say over picking Mell's successor. "And if you wanted to go to central casting and say, 'Give me one alderman that represents the culture and the history and the kind of spirit of Chicago,' Dick Mell would pop up and he would win the casting call without a doubt."
All that might sound like obituary material, but Mell is far from bowing out of the Chicago political scene. He said he plans to retain his role as 33rd Ward Democratic committeeman, a perch from which he still will command a muscular political war chest and an army of precinct workers who can make or break campaigns.
There were some at City Hall who believed Mell might never retire, though his departure had been rumored for years. A widower since the 2006 death of his wife, Marge, Mell said he had "mixed emotions" about his departure from the council.
"I cannot imagine having a more satisfying career," he said in his retirement letter to Emanuel. "Now it is time for me to move on to the next chapter in my life."
Richard F. Mell has been such a prominent political fixture in Chicago for so long that it may seem hard to believe he's not a native. Mell was raised in Muskegon, Mich., and arrived in his adopted city only as an adult, eventually founding a North Side company bearing his name that makes springs and other parts for cars.
He entered Democratic politics on the low rung of precinct captain, but by 1975 he challenged and beat an aldermanic candidate slated by the Cook County Democratic Party then run by Mayor Richard J. Daley — no small feat. The following year he was elected ward committeeman.
In his earlier years on the council, Mell was a central figure in what became known as "Council Wars." He was aligned with a bloc of white aldermen that sought to thwart Washington at every turn. When Washington ran for election in 1983, Mell and many fellow Democrats backed white Republican mayoral challenger Bernard Epton.
Washington won re-election in 1987 but died unexpectedly late that year. Mell then tried to muster enough council votes to have himself named mayor. When that failed, he helped arrange Sawyer's ascension, thwarting a coalition of mostly minority alderman loyal to Washington who were pushing another candidate.
During the debate that stretched late into the early morning of Dec. 2, 1987, Mell jumped on his desk in the council chambers to demand recognition from temporary Mayor David Orr, who was aligned with the anti-Sawyer forces. The antic was captured by photographers and became forever etched in the Mell legacy.
Another of Washington's stalwarts back then was Danny Davis, now a congressman. Davis recalled that Mell was easier to get along with than others who routinely fought Washington."Even when Dick stood on his desk the night we elected Gene Sawyer, even then, the press played it up quite significantly and it led to significant notoriety for Dick Mell," Davis recalled. "But it still didn't sink in for people on the other side as 'Dick Mell the enemy.'"
Mell's most noteworthy contribution to statewide politics involved Blagojevich, a young lawyer who did political work for Mell and eventually married the boss's daughter Patti. Mell used his political smarts and street organization to first install Blagojevich in the Illinois House and then later the U.S. House, taking a Northwest Side seat that had once belonged to the powerful Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.
Blagojevich was no Rostenkowski, and he made few waves during his three terms in Congress. Nonetheless, it was Mell who took his son-in-law by the hand and created a fundraising juggernaut that would propel Blagojevich to the governor's chair in 2002, the first Democrat to hold the post in a generation.
That tight relationship between political mentor and mentee quickly soured after Blagojevich won and started to distance himself from Mell. In particular, Blagojevich became irked at what he thought was Mell's attempt to strong-arm him over a questionable landfill in the southwest suburbs run by a relative of Mell's wife.
When Blagojevich moved to shut down the landfill, Mell turned on him with a vengeance, publicly contending that the governor had come under the influence of a powerful fundraiser who was swapping appointments to state boards and commissions for big donations.
In a 2005 interview, Mell lamented his role in elevating Blagojevich to statewide power. "I was running around five days a week chasing money for him," the alderman said. "Nobody gave him any chance. ... I feel used."
Mell eventually recanted the accusation under threat of a defamation lawsuit from Chris Kelly, who headed Blagojevich's campaign fund. Years later, Kelly pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in a kickback scheme and committed suicide before he was to report to prison.
Still, Mell's original allegations, spurred by a Tribune investigation of pay-to-play in the governor's office, became fodder for ongoing investigations that led to Blagojevich being arrested in 2008, impeached and removed from office in early 2009, and convicted on federal corruption charges after a second trial in 2011. Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence in Colorado.
The collateral damage from Mell's fight with Blagojevich was that the alderman also became estranged from daughter Patti and her two children. Ironically, the relationship only began to mend with Rod Blagojevich's corruption trials.
As Rules Committee chairman, Mell ran a panel that served as a graveyard for so-called good government legislation.
Mell dated his resignation effective July 24, the date of the next City Council meeting. It is an open secret at City Hall that he wants Deb Mell to take his place, though all the alderman would say Wednesday is that the choice is "up to the mayor."
Emanuel has so far not shown his cards.
Deb Mell is viewed as a heavy favorite, said sources familiar with the months of political jockeying in anticipation of her father's resignation.
While Emanuel instituted a review process to fill aldermanic vacancies, naming a relative to fill the seat could run counter to the mayor's efforts to portray a new, transparent style in a city with a long tradition of political nepotism.
But Emanuel could cite Deb Mell's qualifications as a four-year state lawmaker, and she also would become the council's first openly lesbian alderman.
There are other potential aldermanic contenders waiting in the wings in the 33rd Ward, which has a surging Latino population. Among them is state Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, who on Wednesday said, "I am keeping my options open."
In a possible acknowledgment of Deb Mell's position as the favorite, Ald. Rey Colon, 35th, said much of the discussion in the area's Latino community has centered around working to make sure a Hispanic makes a strong push to be named her successor as state representative. "This is an opportunity to get that representation," Colon said.
Tribune reporters John Byrne and Ray Long contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun