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Alderman Mell reflects on years in politics, Blagojevich

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Retiring Chicago Alderman Dick Mell reflected Friday on his decades as a player in the city's old-school machine politics and said one of his only regrets is aiding the rise of son-in-law and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now in prison for corruption.

Mell helped Blagojevich make it to Congress in 1996 and later the governor's mansion, but the two men subsequently had a public falling out that Mell said left a "terrible schism" between himself and his daughter. He said he wished he had done things differently.

With the benefit of hindsight, "I think that he would have probably stayed a state representative," Mell said of his son-in-law.

The 75-year-old Mell handed in his resignation letter this week after 38 years as alderman in the 33rd ward on Chicago's North Side. It takes effect July 24.

He spoke with reporters at City Hall Friday about key moments including the time in 1987 when he stood on his desk demanding to be recognized as a raucous City Council session battled over who would replace Mayor Harold Washington, who had died.

Mell said his falling out with Blagojevich and the turmoil endured by his family continued to weigh on him. He said that and his wife's death were two painful episodes that blemished what he otherwise regards as a lucky and fulfilling life.

"It's difficult to tell you how I really feel," Mell said. But he said he hopes for Blagojevich that his 14-year federal prison sentence is reduced.

"You've not been able, or you have not talked to him since he went to Englewood, Colorado, to federal prison," FOX 32's Mike Flannery said in an interview with Mell.

"Obviously, I'm with my granddaughters and my daughter and hopefully he'll get some relief from the burden that he has in the appeal process," Mell responded.

As the 75-year-old Mell recounted his own long career, there were moments of loud laughter. He talked at length of the patronage system that, under the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, controlled City Hall's contracts and jobs. He got a call from Daley the night he first won his Council seat in 1975.

"First thing I do is I get rewarded for just getting elected. ‘Can you send a few guys down who'd like to be truck drivers?' Oh, sure. I'd love to, Mr. Mayor," Mell recalls.

But when Mell announced he was going to vote against a proposed West Side expressway plan, Daley's patronage chief brought down the hammer.

"He said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you vote against that (bleep) thing, you'll never get one job from this administration. I'll guarantee that,'" Mell explains. "I immediately realized that was something that wasn't that important to the people of my ward."

Mell's own 33rd Ward Democratic precinct captains would also bring the hammer down on voters who failed to get to the polls as they had promised. One family appealed to Mell after a precinct worker named Wayne reclaimed a garbage can he'd given them.

"I said, ‘Don't worry about it. There's another election.' She said, ‘Would you ask Wayne to bring the cans back?' He went over and dumped the garbage out of the can and took the cans away. I said, ‘Wayne, get your ass back and take the cans back, put the garbage back in the can. And apologize to 'em.'"

Mell claimed his opposition to Mayor Harold Washington was about political power and had nothing to do with the race of Chicago's first black mayor. He said he did not understand at the time what Washington stood for in the minds of millions of African-Americans.

"I had no idea that the reverence that the African-American community held in Mayor Washington," Mell continues. "I think Mayor Washington to a lot of African-Americans was Dr. King and Obama and many other African-Americans rolled into one.

Turning to the future, he said he hopes his daughter, state Rep. Deborah Mell, would get serious consideration as a possible replacement for him on the City Council.

Mell said Friday that he has spoken with Emanuel about the possibility of his daughter succeeding him as alderman, but that there is "no understanding" between himself and the mayor that she will get the job.

"I think she's a very bright girl. I think she works very, very hard. But again, the mayor's going to make that choice," Mell said. "I will live with the choice that he makes."

Emanuel has promised an "open process" to choose a replacement, whom he hopes to have in office by July 24.

"I am looking for a candidate with a strong background, solid ties to the community, and a willingness to tackle the tough issues facing Chicagoans," Emanuel said in a statement this week.

Friday was the first day residents of the ward could apply for the job. Emanuel will appoint what he described as a community-based commission to vet applicants and submit a shortlist from which he will choose Mell's replacement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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