The Governor-in-Law

Rod Blagojevich learned politics from a master. Who is Richard Mell? ( . . . and why do people keep saying those terrible things about him?)


On the last week of the old year, Governor-elect Rod Blagojevich swung through the state greeting friends at rallies and meetings to celebrate his coming inauguration.

But one friend curiously absent from the celebrations was the man most responsible for getting Blagojevich elected--Richard Mell, alderman of Chicago's 33rd ward.

Mell is, of course, the father of Blagojevich's wife, Patricia. It's common knowledge, among politicos in Chicago anyway, that Blagojevich would have never been elected governor--might not, in fact, have ever been elected to any office--if not for Mell. It was Mell, after all, who plucked Blagojevich from obscurity, pushing him ahead of all the other young wannabe politicians waiting in line to get slated for office. And it was Mell (along with his powerful ward organization) who got Blagojevich elected, first as a state representative, and then as a Congressman, in districts to the north and west of Chicago's Loop.

In return, Blagojevich has given Mell very little, at least not publically--a snub for which Mell seems forgiving. For Mell understands better than most that the last thing Blagojevich needs is for downstate voters to think he, Blagojevich, is some puppet of the Chicago Democratic Machine. They play this odd little game, the governor-elect and his daddy-in-law. They pretend as though they're independent of each other, even as one operative who knows them both puts it: "Dick's involved in almost every key political decision that Rod makes."

So as Blagojevich prepares to move to Springfield, it might be helpful to know a little something about the man who made him king, and what his presence in the back halls means for state government.

For starters, Mell is nothing like his son-in-law. In fact, Mell's the anti-Blagojevich politician. Whereas Blagojevich is cool and calculated and carefully controlled, Mell is crude, brash, and bombastic. He doesn't care whom he offends. At times, he seems to enjoy being offensive. He is, as he once put it, "a non-political politician." He didn't work his way up the ranks the conventional way, by cultivating friends in high places (as Blagojevich did). No, Mell was a successful businessman (he made his money operating a spring factory) who ran an insurgency campaign in 1975 against the incumbent alderman, some hack backed by the first Mayor Daley. Once in office, Mell made an arrangement with Daley, exchanging his loyalty for future party endorsements.

Mell has also made his deals with the second Mayor Daley, which is not surprising. Mell loves to make deals. He loves to make deals almost as much as he loves to talk. And he loves to talk very much. In fact, he talks even when he's supposed to be quiet, like at City Council meetings. Mell hates to sit still. You'll rarely see him sitting at his desk, quietly listening to the debate (well, once a photographer caught him sleeping at his desk, but that's another story). He usually has a foot shaking or fingers tapping. Or he'll pick up a pen and doodle. Or he'll swivel in his chair and talk to his neighbors. Or he'll walk around the room and talk to his fellow aldermen. He hovers over them--most are much shorter--and taps their chests and pats their backs and calls them endearing diminutives like kiddie, kiddo, bucko, and pal.

Sometimes his talking is a tactic. He's a great filibuster--particularly when you're a constituent asking for something he doesn't want to deliver. He'll talk and talk and talk and talk, about fishing (he loves talking about fishing), what he saw on TV, or what he recently said to the mayor--anything but the topic at hand--until you've presumably forgotten whatever it was that you wanted to know. Along these same lines, he's got an amazing ability to make people think he's doing something for them even when he's not. I know activists in his ward who shower him with praise for his efforts to build a school, even though it never got built. "But he tried so hard," they say.

He's impulsive. He says the first thing that pops into his mind. He once told Gary Rivlin, a reporter for the Chicago Reader, that he had voted against a perfectly good bond measure only because Mayor Harold Washington had proposed it and he wanted to make Washington look bad. Maybe "two years of not having this [bond] is worth ten years of political stability in this city," Mell told Rivlin. "It's a legitimate position. Arguably, not voting for this bond is in the best interest of this city."

He said that back in 1984, when the city was in the midst of "Council Wars." Twenty-eight of the city's 33 white aldermen had allied against Washington, the city's first black mayor. No member of the anti-Washington faction seemed to enjoy fighting Washington as much as Mell. In general, he loves a good fight. He rarely shies from one, and he usually wins. He runs one of the city's tightest operations--an organization filled with husky brutes with stubby arms and thick necks who stand on the corners of the ward pushing palm cards into the hands of voters as they pass on their way to the polls. He really doesn't need this show of force since his opposition's weak and divided. But he has it anyway, often lending it out on behalf of politicians from neighboring districts. There must be at least five local elected officials who owe their seats to Mell.

Mell appreciates his workers. He gets them city or county jobs and meets with them once or twice a month. He's big on pep talks. I've seen him pound his fist, his face fiery red, as he implores his troops to "get out the vote--because we got a lot at stake!"

And he doesn't leave elections up to his precinct workers. He gets involved. He makes the rounds on election day, schmoozing the judges. He keeps track of the details--who wants this permit, or who wants that property rezoned. He never forgets a favor. He makes speeches to block clubs and neighborhood organizations, but rarely from a prepared text. He opens his mouth and whatever comes out comes out. I've heard him make bizarre references to "the fecal odors emanating from the [Chicago] River" or "the hair growing out of the mold in these [Chicago Housing Authority] apartments."

He's a real instigator. He loves to tease and taunt. I've seen him stand on the corner and tell precinct workers for other candidates, "You're gonna lose--you're going down!" I once saw him spend the better part of ten minutes at a Democratic Party meeting, loudly whispering into the ear of the white liberal who sat in front of him. He called the guy "Mr. Apartheid" because he, the liberal, represents a predominantly black ward. Mell didn't just say it once. He said it over and over again, perhaps because he was bored and had nothing better to do.

He shows a remarkable, almost refreshing, propensity for standing before a hostile crowd of angry voters and telling it exactly what it doesn't want to hear, as though he relishes the boos. I remember one meeting held to discuss one of the stupidest plans to ever emanate from the city. A few years back, some politically connected contractor was allowed to tear down the woods behind Lane Tech, one of Chicago's biggest public high schools, and use the field as a dumping ground for concrete ripped up from construction on the Kennedy Expressway. All day long the dump trucks hauled in debris, as kids walked by on the sidewalks--it was a miracle no one got hurt. Within a week or so there was a huge mound of debris on the site. As word of the dump spread, the city scrambled to pretend it had been against the contractor all along. Other aldermen called the dump's location an outrage. But not Mell. He stood before the crowd--300 strong--and said he still thought it was as good a place as any to store the debris.

He can afford to be stubborn because he knows no one can beat him, just as he can afford to be vindictive. And he can be vindictive. "You want your streets re-paved," he told a group of neighbors whose precinct had voted heavily for an opponent. "Go talk to [the opponent]. Let him re-pave your streets." For years he wouldn't return my calls. "He's still mad at you for that thing you wrote about Washington and the bonds," one of Mell's aides explained. "He thinks I'm Rivlin?" I responded. "I'm not Rivlin! We don't even look alike."

Then one day, not long ago, my phone rang, and it was Mell. He was, he said, returning my call from his car phone. He had a meeting to get to, but he'd be happy to answer any questions I had. He was chummy--like we were long-lost friends.

Folks who know him tell me he's mellowed at age 63. But I don't know. I think he was just being shrewd. I figure he was doing what he had to do to make sure that I held nothing against his son-in-law. I think he was making sure he did nothing to hurt Blagojevich's gubernatorial campaign.

The fact is that Mell has been in so many fights--he's burned so many bridges--that he can't realistically compete for any position beyond the dimensions of his ward. That's not to say he has no larger ambition. Over the years, he's talked about running for everything from mayor to Congress, but now he must live out his ambition through Blagojevich. "Dick understands that Rod's as close as he's gonna get," one ally explains. "He's living vicariously through Rod."

Which brings us back to our original question: What does the Blagojevich-Mell relationship mean for Illinois politics? Well, it probably means Mell will be involved, at least behind-the-scenes. He's not about to forego the fruits of his long, hard labor to get Blagojevich elected. He'll probably use the connection to get a few more jobs. That means more fat guys on the street, tearing down posters and forcing flyers into the hands of voters come election day.

If all goes as in the past, few voters will blame Blagojevich for the behavior of Mell's boys. Once again, Blagojevich will look like he's walking on water, when he's really standing on the back of Mell, who's up to his elbows in mud.

About The Author

Ben Joravsky

Ben Joravsky writes about politics and other matters for the Chicago Reader. He is the author of Hoop Dreams: A True Story of Hardship and Triumph (Harper Perennial).

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for more than 40 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Now more than ever, we’re asking for your support to continue providing our community with real news that everyone can access, free of charge.

We’re also offering a home delivery option as an added convenience for friends of the paper.

Click here to subscribe, or simply show your support for Illinois Times.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment