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Dick Mell Misses The Old Ways Of Doing Business

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jul 14, 2013 6:00PM

2011_10_27_mell.jpg If retiring 33rd Ward Ald. Dick Mell had his way, he'd simply name daughter Deb to replace him and not have to worry about any candidate screening process the Emanuel administration sets up for vetting.

At least that's the impression we had after reading Tribune reporter Hal Dardick's interview with the alderman. Mell, the second-longest tenured member of City Council and one of its strongest power brokers, said he missed the good old days of the Democratic Machine's old patronage system.

Q: Politics has totally changed, right?

A: Patronage was a great thing, and I helped a lot of people in that area, when you could do it. ... Today, if I would to go to bat for somebody, it would automatically cost him any chance of getting promoted. ... I was helping people who lived in the community, whose job was to work the precinct, to know their neighbors, to do whatever they could to help their neighbors and obviously to do whatever they could to get a big Democratic vote out. And that was the goal, and we did.

Mell surmised that he helped land close to a thousand people jobs when the system was at its peak and, while he is sincere in his belief he was helping people in his ward by landing work they may or may not have been qualified for, it's still a rigged system. Especially after reading this particular passage.

The jobs that I really thought were great ones were the bridge tender jobs. At one time we had three people on every bridge. I put four kids through college as bridge tenders. I would get them on the second shift, from 3 to 11, where they could do their homework. Or 11 to 7, where they'd sleep, and they were getting electrician's pay, and it was great. I helped. We helped a lot of great people who did great jobs for the city. ... This was a time when you could take parking tickets and you could take them and non-suit (dismiss) 'em. Stacks of parking tickets. They would non-suit 'em. It was great. You could make lots of friends.

That, readers, is the very definition of "The Chicago Way."

Mell went on to tell Dardick he sided with the Vrdolyak 29 during the Council Wars era specifically because Harold Washington—who he called "Martin Luther King, Obama, Jesse Owens, everybody wrapped into one"—and his top lieutenants intended to end the patronage system. "There was nothing racial about it all," he said, although the patronage system seemed to benefit predominantly white wards.

Mell, who's used his influence to elect everyone from precinct captains to governors, added that his one regret was helping his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich become Illinois governor, and we all know how that turned out. The rift between Mell and Blagojevich dates back to 2005, when Blagojevich excercised a seldom used power to close a Will County garbage dump that was allegedy operating illegally and owned by a cousin of his wife Patti. Mell responded by lashing out at Blagojevich publicly, a foreshadowing of things to come for Blago.

It turns out Mell may have responded to Blagojevich's move then for more than we knew at the time. The Sun-Times reported last week that Mell may have been a silent partner in that landfill. A lawsuit filed in Will County Court by Robert Pruim Sr. and his son, Robert Jr., claimed Mell helped create the business that owned the landfill, took a one-third ownership stake and defrauded the Pruim's of $3.7 million when the dump sold for $17.7 million in 2008.

Another example of The Chicago Way.