Sixteen years ago Rod Blagojevich was a lowly assistant state’s attorney prosecuting traffic-court cases. Then he met Patti Mell, the oldest daughter of 33rd Ward alderman Dick Mell. Two years later they got married, and soon Dick Mell began maneuvering to pull his son-in-law to the top of the political heap.
And what has Governor Blagojevich done to return the favor? “He’s pissed in Dick’s face, that’s what he’s done,” says a longtime Mell associate who refused to talk on the record. “It’s a disgrace the way he’s treating him and all of us.”
That pretty much sums up how a lot of folks in the 33rd Ward organization see Blagojevich these days, as they’ve come to the conclusion that he’s distancing himself from his father-in-law in order to advance his career. Most of the sniping has been going on behind the scenes. “They have to act cordial,” says another insider who refused to talk on the record. “This could cause huge problems at Thanksgiving dinner.”
It’s a City Hall soap opera with dialogue from The Sopranos and a long list of colorful characters, complicated by the fact that two have the same name–Frank Avila, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and Frankie Avila, a lawyer and political strategist who happens to be the commissioner’s son. Political observers agree that Blagojevich–whom Mell used to affectionately call “the kid”–would never have won an election without his father-in-law’s support. Mell backed him in his first campaign, in 1992, when he ran for state representative against the incumbent, Myron Kulas, who was supported by Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and 32nd Ward alderman Terry Gabinski. As soon as Blagojevich won that knock-down, drag-out fight, Mell started making deals with Rostenkowski and Gabinski to win their backing for the kid’s 1996 run for the U.S. House. He won that one too.
In the 2002 governor’s campaign Mell and his forces stayed loyal to Blagojevich even when it seemed that Mayor Daley’s brother William might run. Eventually William decided not to run–according to Mell associates, in part because he and the mayor couldn’t bully Mell into withdrawing Blagojevich. During the primary Mell’s support in the city allowed Blagojevich to spend more time and money downstate, where he got enough votes to win, albeit narrowly.
Then in the run-up to the general election Blagojevich began pulling away from Mell. When he made his victory-party speech he didn’t even thank his father-in-law. “Rod’s ditching us because he’s decided we hurt more than help,” says one 33rd Ward precinct captain. “He wants to look like some squeaky-clean independent. What a joke. Hey, the machine is what got him to where he’s at.”
The latest betrayal the Mell associates complain about is of Dominic Longo, who, with his thick chest and massive arms, is a classic City Hall character. For the past 30 or so years he’s overseen Mell’s army of city, county, and state workers. And his guys play tough–tearing down posters, intimidating rival workers, heckling opponents at their rallies. Sometimes they play too tough. In 1984 Longo pleaded guilty to charges of voter fraud stemming from the ’82 election. Despite being a felon, he’s managed to stay on one public payroll or another ever since because he’s usually so good at running campaigns.
Longo had worked hard for Blagojevich, and earlier this year he called on the governor seeking a favor. He’d retired from a job with the Park District to take advantage of an early-retirement plan, but he wanted another government job so that his health insurance would be paid for. Mell associates say Blagojevich sent him to his former law-school roommate and current chief of staff, Lon Monk, who also used to be a west-coast sports agent. Then, says Frankie Avila, “Monk asked me if I would intervene on Dominic’s behalf with my father.”
Why send Longo to Commissioner Avila? Because Blagojevich wanted to help Longo but didn’t want anyone to know he was helping him? The 33rd Ward insiders acknowledge that in one sense Blagojevich was “doing the right thing” by dumping Longo on Avila. They just don’t like the sneaky way he did it.
At any rate, Commissioner Avila had to make a tough decision. Hiring Longo would damage his reputation as a good-government reformer. And yet it couldn’t hurt to have on staff a smart political operator with 300 precinct workers at his disposal. “Listen, I’m not saying Dominic’s perfect,” says Frankie Avila. “I’m not saying he’s never done things that are wrong. But he’s smart, he’s experienced, he has a wealth of experience about how government works. Plus I think he’s gotten a very bad rap. I think the media goes nuts when they see Dominic’s name. I think a lot of this stuff is spurred by anti-Italian perceptions against people with vowels in their last name.”
So Commissioner Avila hired Longo as an administrative aide for $54,834 a year. “I knew we’d take a hit,” says Frankie Avila. ” I knew someone would see him working for us and run to the papers, and they’d have a field day with the story.”
Sure enough, one of Frankie Avila’s old political adversaries saw Longo at a Water Reclamation meeting. Looking to embarrass both Avilas, the adversary called the Sun-Times, and on April 14 the paper broke the story, headlined “Blagojevich denies getting new job for felon.” The article said, “Monk, through a spokesman, denied seeking a job for Longo.” The spokesman also said Monk “did not recommend and has never recommended Dominic Longo for a job and he really doesn’t even know Mr. Longo, so he wouldn’t be in a position to do so.” (Monk didn’t return calls for comment.) In a follow-up that ran in the Tribune on April 15, Cheryle Jackson, a Blagojevich press spokesman, went even further, saying, “Despite entreaties, we refused to hire Dominic Longo in state government because of his previous work record. We never recommended him to work anywhere else and never would. We are just as curious as everyone to find out how he got hired.”
Frankie Avila was livid. “I think Lon Monk is destroying Governor Blagojevich, because he makes commitments on the governor’s behalf and then he doesn’t stand by them. He’s a Jerry Maguire wannabe who couldn’t find Halsted Street without a map–and even then he might not find it. For Monk to say he doesn’t know Dominic Longo or that the governor would not recommend Dominic violates everything that Dominic’s done for the governor over the last ten years.”
Mell didn’t return calls for comment either, but so many people are willing to talk for him he didn’t have to. It’s strange to hear tough guys who’ve been hammering independents in Logan Square and West Town for years moaning that their feelings have been hurt. “Rod’s like the guy whose wife puts him through medical school,” says one. “Then once he becomes a doctor he says, who needs her?” Says another, “Oh, so now Dominic’s not good enough for Rod, huh? That’s funny. He was good enough for Rod when Rod needed him to get elected.”
The Mell allies say that by publicly rejecting Longo, the governor’s spokespeople were tacitly rejecting Mell. They also say that Blagojevich has taken the distancing thing too far. He hasn’t returned Mell’s calls, they complain. He hasn’t cut the 33rd Ward in on state contracts and jobs.
“Rod would be an assistant state’s attorney doing misdemeanor traffic court or a rinky-dink lawyer on Elston Avenue without Mell,” says one insider. “Dick went to war against Rostenkowski and Gabinski for him. He made deals for him. He raised money for him. He introduced him to the right people. Now Rod thinks he’s going to get elected president by forgetting where he came from. He thinks he became governor because he’s got a full head of hair and he imitates Elvis and he looks good in a jogging suit. He’s listening to all these rookies in his inner circle–Monk and [Deputy Governor Bradley] Tusk–who don’t know anything about politics. He forgets he got elected ’cause of guys like Dick Mell and Dominic. He should remember–it’s relationships that get you ahead in politics.” (Tusk is a 30-year-old former New Yorker.)
If, as Mell’s allies suspect, Blagojevich’s treatment of Mell is based on polls and perceptions, then the relationship will shift as polls and perceptions shift. If Blagojevich thinks he has something to gain by cozying up to Mell, he’ll probably start cozying.
That may happen soon. Mell’s reputation is changing, particularly since the story broke of how well he accepted his daughter Deborah’s homosexuality. In February she was arrested for taking part in a demonstration in support of gay marriages, but instead of distancing himself Mell embraced her and endorsed gay marriage. In an April 28 Tribune article Ellen Warren wrote that Mell told her, “If your child comes to you and tells you [she’s gay] and you have a problem with it and it becomes a real issue, you really don’t deserve to call yourself a parent.”
After the article ran, Mell aides say, the calls and e-mails to his office were largely positive. Ironically Mell, the old ward boss, now looks more progressive than his cautious son-in-law, who won’t endorse gay marriage. The ultimate irony may be that Mell’s loyalty to Deborah may force Blagojevich to show some loyalty to Mell–if only to win over voters who like the old man.
From Vacant Lot to Hot Spot
The litter-strewn parking lot at Lincoln and Diversey–with a sinkhole that could hold several cars–still hasn’t been fenced. My April 23 story described how nearby residents, notably Jay and Susan Zuckert, have pleaded for months with their alderman, Ted Matlak, to fence it. He hasn’t returned their calls, and he hasn’t returned mine.
I also noted in the story that the last taxpayer of record was Clare Group, Ltd., at 400 W. Huron, but I didn’t know whether the company was the owner or paying the taxes on behalf of the owner, since the title is held by a bank trust whose principals aren’t required to identify themselves. A state Web site a reader pointed out to me (www.cyberdriveillinois.com) shows that W. Harris Smith, better known as Bill Smith, is the president of Clare Group. Smith also owns Smithfield Properties, the development company that’s tearing down the old YWCA at Oak and Dearborn to build a 22-story high-rise.
That doesn’t prove Smith owns the sinkhole. He didn’t return my call for comment, but he did return Susan Zuckert’s call. She says he told her his company had received four offers for the lot since my story ran. Ironically a story intended to shame someone into doing something about a potentially hazardous lot may lead to a sale. So it goes in Chicago.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis, Jim Newberry.