Five years ago I overheard veteran Alderman Richard Mell explaining to a colleague how he cleared the field to get his daughter Deb elected to the Illinois House.
"I thought I'd help her get started," he said in the lounge behind City Council chambers, well within earshot of myself and several other reporters. "After this she'll be on her own."
In a manner of speaking, of course.
Richard Mell was a powerful guy—he'd spent nearly four decades in the council helping to protect insiders and remapping opponents into oblivion.
To get Deb Mell a seat in Springfield, Mell kicked an incumbent state rep to the senate and kicked the incumbent senator to the curb. Backed by her father's 33rd Ward organization—one of the last to rely on patronage workers—Deb Mell coasted to election in 2008, 2010, and 2012.
By that time, the other family member Alderman Mell had bequeathed to the people—son-in-law Rod Blagojevich—was in prison.
But in Chicago politics, a father's work is never done. Rumors surfaced almost immediately after Deb Mell's first election that the alderman would step aside and hand the seat to his daughter. The possibility that it might not be his seat to hand off was absurd—the law didn't require anything so costly or inconvenient as a special election to replace an alderman. It was the mayor's appointment to make, and by longstanding tradition he did so in consultation with the outgoing seat-holder.
At least that's how it worked before Todd Stroger.
When operatives chose Stroger to replace his ailing father as the Democratic candidate for Cook County Board president in 2006, and Alderman William Beavers was elected to the board as Stroger's political henchman, and Mayor Richard Daley named Beavers's daughter Darcel to replace him in the City Council, and Stroger raised taxes and became a punching bag for reformers—well, things got sensitive for a minute.
In 2010 there was another opening on the council, but this time Daley started a new, unwritten process, overseen by himself, to solicit applications for the job. It quieted the critics and allowed him to bypass the annoying recommendations from departing aldermen. And, on its first pass, it yielded an alderman—Joe Moreno—who almost always votes with the mayor but is a big fan of Minor Threat. By most counts, that's a major improvement over the other aldermen who almost always vote with the mayor.
Emanuel took office and started another new, unwritten process: he added a committee, appointed by himself, to review applications before he made a final decision.
That's how he ended up picking a new alderman when Sandi Jackson was indicted on federal tax charges stemming from abuse of campaign funds—the same Sandi Jackson who'd defeated Darcel Beavers on a promise of reform. Meanwhile, Bill Beavers was indicted on separate tax charges.
Sometimes it's hard to keep track of who's avoided the federal court system and who hasn't.
Anyway, a new round of Richard Mell-is-retiring rumors began circulating last January, when the eyes and ears of City Hall, Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times, reported a deal was in the works to put Deb Mell in the seat.
But Richard Mell is no William Beavers—he wasn't about to bail out until he had things set. So nothing happened until July 3, when Mell finally said he was quitting, then held a lengthy press conference to defend patronage hiring and machine politics.
Emanuel announced that he was launching his new, unwritten process for finding a replacement. A dozen applicants were asked general questions over the phone by members of his handpicked committee. Three finalists were reportedly called in for interviews with the mayor himself.
Along the way, the mayor vowed that the process wasn't just for show. "State rep Deb Mell is not guaranteed the job because her last name is Mell," he told reporters. "And state rep Deb Mell is not excluded from the job because her last name is Mell."
He didn't discuss any of the other applicants.
Everything was in place by this week.
At 6 AM on Wednesday, the mayor's press office sent out an e-mail notifying reporters that he would unveil his pick for Mell's replacement an hour and a half later—just in case anyone was strolling through the 33rd Ward before breakfast.
At 7:30 Emanuel introduced Deb Mell as his choice for the seat. But not because nepotism is alive and well in Chicago—quite the contrary. Deb Mell's experience and leadership will help "usher in a new era of reform and change that's necessary to represent the taxpayers of the city of Chicago," Emanuel said.
The two hurried to City Hall where, at 9 AM, the City Council's rules committee voted to confirm the appointment. That's the powerful committee that was chaired by Richard Mell until he resigned three weeks ago.
The full council then gave its approval within the hour—though several members of the Progressive Caucus stepped into the lounge to skip the vote, and Alderman Robert Fioretti, whom Richard Mell mapped out of his own ward last year, voted no. "I know Deb Mell—I like Deb Mell," Fioretti said. "But this is not a monarchy."
At 10:10 Deb Mell was sworn in as the newest Chicago alderman.
Even she seemed amazed by the efficiency of the process.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," she said. "I know there are some critics out there, but it makes me work even harder. I have something to prove."
At least it was a friendly crowd. Several of her new colleagues welcomed her with speeches and praise for her good heart, her humbleness, and her toughness.
As he often does, council dean Ed Burke offered the last word. He expressed his confidence that the new Alderman Mell would do a fine job, and then read a long list of other aldermen through history who had followed their relatives into the council, including himself—as he had taken over the 14th Ward seat in 1969 on the death of his predecessor, who happened to be his father.
"I can't think of anything that would make someone so proud as to succeed a parent in an office they held," Burke said.