Deborah Mell
Deborah Mell

You’d think Richard Mell would have learned his lesson the last time he pushed a family member to the head of the line. That was back in the summer of 1991, when the 33rd Ward alderman let his fellow northwest-side power brokers know that his daughter Patti had a husband, Rod Blagojevich, who’d be running for state rep whether they liked it or not.

In the 1992 primary, Mell and his mighty organization of city, county, and state employees helped Blagojevich eke out a victory over Myron Kulas, a seven-term incumbent backed by rival chieftains Terry Gabinski and Dan Rostenkowski. But it was a knock-down, drag-out fight, and after that Mell took care to get all his ducks in a row. When Blagojevich ran for Congress in 1996, then governor in 2002, Mell ensured that he had the backing of Rostenkowski and Gabinski as well as other powerful Democrats. What thanks did he get? A long and very public feud with his son-in-law the governor. Plus Blagojevich has managed to make a royal mess out of pretty much of everything in Springfield, not to mention he’s facing federal investigation into his fund-raising practices and political appointments.

But here comes the proud papa once again, this time pushing Patti’s little sister, Deborah Mell, into office through one backroom deal after another.

It started last summer, when Deborah announced she was running for state rep in the 40th District, a seat held by Richard Bradley since 1997. As legislators go, Bradley hasn’t been any great shakes. Basically, he does whatever house speaker Michael Madigan tells him to do. (Of course this could be said of just about every statehouse Democrat and quite a few Republicans.) Bradley got his start in the late 70s as a precinct captain in the political organization of none other than Richard Mell, and for his loyalty over the years he’s been rewarded with not one but two relatively cushy, well-paid positions he holds simultaneously: state rep ($60,000 a year) and assistant general superintendent in the Department of Streets and Sanitation (about $100,000). His wife, Cynthia Santos, makes $50,000 a year as a commissioner on the Water Reclamation District board, and his brother, Shawn Bradley, is ward superintendent for 30th Ward alderman Ariel Reboyras. Obviously, this is a family that knows how to work the system.

Bradley says Alderman Mell approached him over the summer and made it clear his daughter would be running regardless of whether he stayed in the race. “Dick said, ‘Rich, my daughter wants to run—what do you think?'” Bradley says. “I said, ‘I want to continue to serve.'”

For a few weeks, Bradley says, Mell played rough, spreading word that the only reason he wanted to stay in office was to get himself vested in the state pension system. Greg Hines picked up the rumor in a column on the race for Crain’s Chicago Business. “This has nothing to do with my pension,” says Bradley. “Mell was just muddying things up when he thought I might be running against his daughter.”

Richard Mell

For Bradley the choice was a tough one: make Mell happy at the price of his office or make him mad by running against his daughter. Then a third option emerged: run for somebody else’s office.

Like Bradley, Iris Martinez, state senator for the 20th District, got her start as a machine loyalist—specifically with the notorious Hispanic Democratic Organization, run by former mayoral aide Victor Reyes. In 2002 the HDO got out the goons on Martinez’s behalf, helping her defeat Mike Wojcik. Once in office, however, Martinez showed a few signs of independence. In 2004, for instance, she didn’t endorse Toni Berrios for state representative in the 39th District.

Toni Berrios happens to be the daughter of Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joseph Berrios, who seems to share Mell’s passion for advancing the political careers of his children. After Toni won, Joe made it clear to anyone who’d listen—myself included—that he’d neither forgive nor forget Martinez’s lack of support for his daughter.

Why would Martinez risk the wrath of the chair of her own party? “Joe Berrios has always hated me—he didn’t want me to have my seat in the first place,” she says. “Now that I’m in he’s always trying to tell me what to do. But let me tell you, I don’t take orders from no one.”

Not even from Victor Reyes, apparently. As Martinez tells it, she fell out with Reyes last year over who would serve as the senate’s assistant majority leader. Senate president Emil Jones wanted a Latino senator in the position, and Reyes sought her support for Tony Munoz. “Victor came into my office with a letter supporting Munoz and told me, ‘You’d better sign this,'” Martinez says. “I told him in the spirit of working together I would.”

But then Jones asked Martinez to assume the post.

“When Reyes found out that I had been offered the job, he sent [his lobbying partner] Mike Noonan over to my office to threaten me,” she says. “Noonan told me if I took that position I was through politically. ‘We will take you out’—those were his exact words.”

Martinez decided to take the job anyway. “There comes a time when you have to stand up,” she says. “I told Noonan to get the hell out of my office. I walked up to Jones’s office and said, ‘Mr. President, whatever decision you decide to make, I’m with it.'”

With all this in the background, the stage was set for Reyes, Berrios, and Mell to strike a deal that would leave Deborah Mell unopposed and give Martinez her comeuppance. According to Bradley, the three came to him last fall to offer their support for him in the state senate race. Apparently it didn’t matter that Mell had already endorsed Martinez, appearing with her onstage at her reelection campaign kickoff in August.

For his part, Bradley says, “I was ready to run for either office. I had 4,000 signatures for state rep and 4,000 signatures for state senate.” But “the stars were lined up for me to run for the senate,” he says. “Instead of everybody lining up against me, they were for me.”

There was one last little inconvenience: a guy named Carlos Guevara, who was already in the race against Martinez. On leave as chief of staff to Alderman Reboyras (where he works alongside Bradley’s brother), he’s a longtime machine loyalist who’s been waiting for years for the chance to run for office. In their eagerness to betray one ally, the big boys wound up shafting another.

Guevara seems to be taking it well. He says he doesn’t hold a grudge against Reyes or Berrios, whose support he had originally counted on. Instead he rips into Martinez, calling her “ineffective.” My sources in Mell’s and Berrios’s camps tell me that’s his primary function in the race—his campaign literature doesn’t attack Bradley. In exchange, there’s the hope that the power brokers will endorse him somewhere down the road.

Meanwhile Deborah Mell is backing Martinez. “I’m supporting Iris because she’s the best candidate in the race,” she says. “Just look at the bills she’s introduced—they’re far better than Bradley’s.”

And what does your father think about this?

“Ask him,” she says. “It’s not a problem [between us].” (Richard Mell didn’t return my calls for comment.)

Deborah says she hasn’t really been following all the backroom maneuvering being done on her behalf. “I’m really trying to stay out of everything,” she says.

Still, her and her father’s support for rival candidates has many observers shaking their heads. “You’ve got to give it to the Mells—they’re like the Jacksons,” says one longtime northwest-side politician, referring to Jesse Jr. and Sr. “You got one supporting Clinton and the other supporting Obama. No matter who wins, they’re covered.”

Most local independents seem to be supporting Martinez on the grounds that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as activist Bruce Embrey puts it. They’re hoping she’ll turn into a modern-day version of congressman Ralph Metcalfe, who became an independent after breaking from the first Mayor Daley over the issue of police brutality. It’s a long shot, but these are desperate times for independents. Long shots are about all they’ve got.   

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