Richard Mell and Rod Blagojevich in 2002
Richard Mell and Rod Blagojevich in 2002 Credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

In his new book, The Governor (see Mick Dumke’s review), Rod Blagojevich blames Michael and Lisa Madigan, every legislator in Springfield, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, and his own father-in-law, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, for destroying his plans to help the hardworking people of Illinois. But the buck doesn’t stop there: he also rips the press for disseminating reckless accusations against him to sell more papers and drive up ratings.

And who does he finger for starting the media onslaught?


OK, not by name. But on page 144, in the middle of a lengthy chapter detailing the ways he believes Mell used the media to spread damaging rumors, Blago writes, “The first story I recall seeing was in the Reader newspaper. I think the title was ‘Mell Gets the Shaft.'” He writes that Mell “began to engineer stories in the press about our problems” because he was angry that the governor wasn’t granting him the favors he thought he deserved, as not only his wife’s father but as his political patron. “I was outraged,” continues Blagojevich. “I felt violated. I felt betrayed. Who goes to the press about his own family? How could you ever trust a guy who does that?”

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Blago’s account isn’t exactly gospel—he didn’t even get the headline right. It was “Rod Gives ‘Em the Shaft.”

But since he’s decided to drag me into this sordid mess, I might as well tell my side of the story:

Early in the spring of 2004 I got a call from Frankie Avila, a maverick politico with close ties to Mell. Avila told me Blagojevich had managed to piss off Mell and many of his top operatives, including Dominic Longo, an old-school precinct captain with a legendary ability to get out the vote.

They were so upset with Blago that this traditionally tight-lipped bunch was proposing to do the unthinkable: spill their guts to me.

My first reaction was surprise—of all the reporters in town, why me? Mell had made no secret of his disdain for me over the years. His aides had told me the old man had a long memory and would probably never get over some of the critical articles the Reader had published about him in the 80s. And he hadn’t returned my phone calls in years.

And yet one day in April 2004, Avila, Longo, and I met for lunch downtown at Volare on Grand. It was a blast to finally meet Longo, one of those larger-than-life political tough guys whose legend was enhanced by the felony rap he took for vote fraud back in ’84.

Initially they explained that lots of what they had to say was not for attribution. Longo didn’t want his name used at all, but he eventually went public with his complaints, so I feel no obligation to kept his secret now. As for Avila, well, he soon said a few things on the record and then just kept going. Both talked in crude and colorful language, peppered with F-bombs. At one point Ronnie Calicchio, another legendary Mell operative who happened to be dining at the same restaurant, wandered over to say hello to Longo.

It was bizarre—after years of writing about the underdog reformer types who’d get throttled by Longo and his lot, I sat there listening to them vent for more than two hours, spewing bile that had been building up for months. Blagojevich, they said, was a two-timing, backstabbing, ungrateful little rat. Without Mell, he’d be a flunky, a coat holder, a political nobody. He owed everything—absolutely everything—to the old man. And what had he done for Mell in return? Nothing! No jobs, no appointments, no favors. It had gotten so bad that the governor wasn’t even returning Mell’s calls. Blago, they concluded, was like the guy who lets his wife put him through law school only to dump her for a hot blond once he starts making the big bucks.

Mell wouldn’t want to talk about it, they told me (and, true to form, neither Mell nor Blago returned my calls). But they assured me that he was humiliated by Blago’s ingratitude. In fact, they said, Mell knew they were talking to me—so it was like he’d signed off on them airing with their gripes.

For the most part, they insisted, they were there because the old man was hurting. But they clearly had their own grievances too. In particular, Longo was incensed that the governor hadn’t put him on the payroll. All the sudden the governor was too good for the warhorse with the felony rap who helped get him elected? Well fuck him!

My story ran on May 6, 2004, and I wrote a follow-up a few months later about another Mell old-timer who felt betrayed by Blago.

But the heavy artillery in this fight was brought out eight months later, on January 8, 2005, when Mell himself sounded off to the Sun-Times. It was much the same lament of betrayal and disloyalty; Mell even used the same metaphor of the husband who dumps his first wife. But he spiced up the story with an explosive allegation that Avila and Longo had not provided. According to Mell, Blago’s new political wife, fund-raiser Christopher Kelly, was trading “appointments to commissions for checks of $50,000” to the governor’s campaign fund. (Kelly’s own story took a tragic twist this past weekend, when, a few days after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, he apparently killed himself with painkillers and rat poison.)

You probably know what happened next: one thing led to another and then another, and four years later, on December 8, 2008, federal agents hauled Blago out of his house in handcuffs at 6:30 AM, drove him down to the federal building, and charged him with wire fraud and solicitation of bribery for allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat for campaign contributions.

Reading Blago’s version of events hasn’t changed my impression of this family feud. I think Avila and Longo—and Mell—were essentially right. Blago used Mell to get where he wanted to go. Once he got there he dumped the old man.

Was Mell, as Blago contends in his book, hot-tempered, unreasonable, bitter, and mean? Well, duh. But Blago certainly wasn’t complaining about his father-in-law’s temperament when Mell was crushing the opposition to get him elected. You can’t sleep with a porcupine without getting pricked.

Incidentally, I have no particular grudge against Blagojevich. I’ve never even spoken to the guy. And, I’ve actually been liking him more and more since his fall. Yes, his book is filled with self-pity and distortions—his account of how he began his career as a crusading reformer is particularly laughable—but I still hope one day he’ll emerge as the Jose Canseco of Illinois politics, the guy who says, yeah, I did it—and now I’m going to tell you about the other guys who did too.

What I can’t stomach is the sanctimonious speeches from the self-proclaimed reformers in City Hall and the state legislature who act like Blago’s shenanigans were merely an aberration. Or, worse, like Illinois politics have been cleaned up since he was impeached. We all know better.

I have as much patience for this as I have for, oh, the north-side “reformers” who pretend Cook County Board president Todd Stroger is the only politician jacking up taxes and wasting money, then sign on to Mayor Daley’s Olympic porkapalooza. I have a hunch that by the time all the insiders, political operators, and campaign donors are finished gorging themselves at that trough Blago’s reign will look like the golden age of good government.

Which reminds me: near as anyone can tell, the race to host the 2016 Olympics has come down to Chicago versus Rio. Most accounts have Madrid and Tokyo falling further behind as the International Olympic Committee gears up to make its decision on October 2.

A crucial factor seems to be President Obama. If he shows up in Copenhagen to charm the IOC delegates, Chicago will probably prevail. If he doesn’t, the favorite is Rio. But even as Mayor Daley and other Olympic boosters urge him on, Obama isn’t making any promises—he’s said only that the First Lady will be there to make a pitch for Chicago. The media’s also calling on him to go: on September 11 the Sun-Times even ran an open letter to the president, begging him to catch that plane for Europe, and the Trib followed suit four days later.

Well, here’s my advice: Don’t go, Mr. President.

It’s not just that you have more important things to do—remember that little health care problem?—or that the games are looking like bad news for your cash-strapped hometown, since they’re sure to mutilate the parks and gobble up billions of dollars that could otherwise go to needy schools and city departments that are reducing services as basic as trash collection.

It’s that having the games in Chicago will ultimately be bad for you and detrimental to all that you want to accomplish.

Once you make a grand pitch for Daley’s games, they’ll become your games too. Every scandal, cost overrun, and delay (and you were around this town long enough to know there will be plenty of each) will be laid at your feet by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and all your other haters.

If you forgot how dirty Chicago politics can be, read Blago’s book and remember you were lucky to get out of this swamp. Don’t be foolish enough to dive back in.   vFor more on Chicago politics, see our blog.