No one had a bigger smile at Monday’s City Council inauguration than 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon. During the swearing-in ceremony he looked overjoyed during even the most tedious moments of Mayor Daley’s 30-minute speech. He beamed through the repeated prayers from clergy carefully selected to represent Chicago’s diversity (and the mayor’s multicultural grip on power): Cardinal Francis George, Bishop Arthur Brazier, a rabbi, an imam, a Buddhist leader. After the ceremony Colon lingered in the council chambers, even wandering up to the mayor’s seat at the front of the room, taking a seat in it, picking up the gavel, and posing for a couple of pictures.
Colon had reason to enjoy the moment. He’d run for reelection this winter with all the baggage of a sitting official–a public record of council votes, zoning and development decisions, and campaign contributions available for dissection and critique–and few of the assets. For one, his leading opponent was Vilma Colom, the former alderman Colon had defeated after a bitter race in 2003 (and lost to in his first stab at the City Council, in 1999). Though Colom had managed to alienate thousands of her constituents during her time in office, she still had a political base, access to cash, and operatives ready to pull some dirty tricks–thanks largely to her political benefactor, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell. Colon ran as a go-it-alone guy, and though he hasn’t tried to forge an identity as a Daley opponent, he also hasn’t cozied up to the mayor. He had some union support, but not tons of it. In many ways, he really was on his own.
To no one’s surprise, Colon had to battle, especially when an “anonymous” pamphlet began circulating that detailed all his past history, both real and imagined, with courts and cops. Colon didn’t say it directly, but he hinted in all ways possible that he believed Mell had secretly bankrolled the mailing; Mell denied it, saying he told Colom the pamphlet was “scurrilous.” But Colon took to referring to Colom as “Mellma.” He won the runoff with 62 percent of the vote.
Mell and Colon began to make up at a committee meeting a couple weeks ago, when the powerful 33rd Ward alderman went up to Colon, offered his hand, and told him, “You’re the man.”
“I think he ran a great race,” Mell explained afterward. He added that he’d backed Colom because she’s a friend who’d backed Mell’s son-in-law, Governor Rod Blagojevich, during each of his runs for office. “I felt that I owed her that effort.”
Mell insisted that there was no bad blood between him and Colon–and that he didn’t have a problem with his council colleague’s ridicule of Colom. “Why not?” Mell said. “If he’s fighting for a victory, he had to do whatever he had to do.”
“I was surprised, because he didn’t treat me like that when I won four years ago,” Colon said of Mell’s turn to cordiality. “But he said he didn’t realize how many people hated my opponent.”
Colon said he appreciated Mell’s effort to reach out to him, but he continued to link Colom’s nasty campaign tactics to the 33rd Ward alderman. “I think the fear of Mellma was enough,” he said. “I think the negative stuff backfired.”
On Monday, as Colon chatted with some reporters and friends outside council chambers, Mell strode strode up and slapped him on the back. “Congratulations, big guy,” Mell said.
Colon looked so happy he was ready to burst. “Thanks, man,” he said. As Mell continued on his way, Colon went back to what he’d been doing: ripping the Tribune for describing him as “quiet” in a piece the day before.
“I think if I would’ve provided some public entertainment value to the council I wouldn’t have been labeled like that,” Colon said.
Then again, sometimes entertainment backfires.