Logan Square politics used to be a lot more entertaining, back in the days of alderman Richard Mell. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Mell ran the show. He did things his way, and only his way. If you didn’t like his way, well, tough.
Mell’s always been something of a rebel. He’s not afraid to walk into a crowd of voters and tell them exactly what they don’t want to hear. He clearly relishes a fight–I’ve seen him openly torment and tease his opponents. He knows they’ll never beat him at the polls, so he doesn’t give a damn what they think. A businessman who made a pretty good living running a spring factory, he got his start as a precinct captain in John Brandt’s old Democratic organization. When Brandt slated another candidate to run for alderman in 1975, Mell organized a breakaway group of precinct captains who helped put him into power.
He built up his organization, using clout and connections to get his workers hired by the city, county, and state. On election days he’d send them into the streets–big, thick men who stood on corners and looked intimidating. He fortified his position even more in the early 80s, when he became Mayor Jane Byrne’s strongest ally on the northwest side, giving him access to even more patronage jobs. (To his credit, Mell has never been afraid to support a strong woman.)
But he’d probably have gone down in history as nothing more than your typical northwest-side ward boss if Logan Square hadn’t undergone demographic changes in the 60s and 70s, when political independents began moving into the old mansions and graystones along Logan and Kedzie boulevards and Palmer Square Park. In education, profession, and political outlook they were less like their blue-collar neighbors and more like the young professionals along the north-side lakefront. They tended to vote liberal, and they weren’t shy when it came to speaking out against Mell.
In ’87 these changes came to a head when a left-of-center minister named Don Benedict had the gall to run against Mell, the first and only time he’s faced serious opposition. The campaign climaxed in a debate at the Lathrop Homes, near Diversey and Clybourn, where, despite the best efforts of a local chapter of the League of Women Voters, Mell and Benedict wound up trying to outshout each other. At one point an old precinct captain nicknamed the “Toothless Cuban” rose from his chair and started screaming in Spanglish. After the debate Mell’s precinct workers stood lined along the wall hooting at Benedict’s allies.
Mell clobbered Benedict, winning every precinct apart from the progressive havens on the boulevards. At a subsequent meeting, when boulevard residents asked Mell to pave their streets, he replied by suggesting that they get Benedict to do it.
Mell moved from the area after a 1991 redistricting. Albany Park is now the center of the 33rd Ward, and in 1995 Logan Square was officially placed in the 35th. But that didn’t stop Mell from meddling on his old home turf. He virtually anointed Vilma Colom to succeed him.
Colom was as brash and ar-rogant as Mell ever was, but she didn’t have the patronage army to back it up. Soon after taking office in 1995, she made her presence known by killing plans to put a basketball court in the Unity Playlot park on Kimball. Residents had been working on the project for years, and both the city and Park District had signed off on it, but Colom claimed a “silent majority” of residents had begged her to nix it. But it looked more like simple retaliation: many of the court’s supporters had backed other candidates in the election. It was Colom’s way of showing everyone who was boss.
Mell treated Colom like a daughter, and she was very close to his wife, Marge (who died last December). In 1999, with the help of Mell’s precinct army, Colom managed to win reelection over a Park District employee named Rey Colon. But she sealed her defeat in her 2003 rematch against Colon when she walked into a room filled with angry voters and told them, Mell-like, that a Home Depot they opposed was coming whether they liked it or not. Teaming up with the boulevard independents, voters from the north precincts of the neighborhood swept Colon into office.
In 2007 Colom returned for another run. Defeat, she said, had humbled her. She apologized for her former arrogance and promised to manage the ward as a real independent, vowing even to vote against Mayor Daley.
By the start of the campaign many Logan Square independents had broken from Colon over zoning and gentrification issues. They backed Miguel Sotomayor, a local school activist. But Sotomayor, low on funds and name recognition, won only enough votes to keep either Colon or Colom from winning a majority in February’s election. The two went into the March runoffs, leaving Logan Square independents with a difficult decision: support Colon, who many felt had betrayed them, or Colom, whose change of heart they weren’t quite buying. Most went with Colon, who was reelected, winning big on the boulevard and along Palmer Square.
Now the old alliances are fading in significance. Mell has other battles to wage: his daughter, Deborah Mell (another strong woman), is gearing up to run for state rep against Rich Bradley. It’s hard to imagine him bringing back his troops to the neighborhood.
That means the future of Logan Square politics is in Colon’s hands. Despite the efforts of his opponents to demonize him, he’s far too genial for most voters to get worked up against. He says he loves the job and has no aspirations for higher office. All the hopefuls vying for Luis Gutierrez’s congressional seat–so far, aldermen Rick Munoz and Manny Flores and Cook County Board commissioner Roberto Maldonado–are lining up for Colon’s endorsement. It’s less than six months until the election on February 5, but Colon says he still hasn’t picked. “I like them all,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I’m still not sure Gutierrez won’t run again.”
What a difference. If Mell still ran the show, he’d not only have picked his candidate months ago, he’d be out on the corner taunting the opposition.
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.