Veteran Chicago Ald. Richard Mell, a colorful fixture of City Hall politics, announced Wednesday that he will retire later this month after nearly four decades in office.
Mell, who has represented the 33rd Ward on Chicago’s North side since 1975, said in a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel that his final City Council meeting will be on July 24.
Mell, 75, tendered his resignation “with mixed emotions,” according to the letter, though he did not cite a specific reason for retiring except to say it is time to “move on to the next chapter” in his life.
“My goal has always been to positively impact the community in which I’ve lived and work,” Mell wrote. “I woke up eager every day to support those in my community. It has been a sincere pleasure to see my community grow and thrive; I hope those I have worked with, and for, over the years agree that I have succeeded.”
Mell did not immediately respond to interview requests from WBEZ.
Rumors of Mell’s retirement have echoed through City Hall for months, prompting speculation that his daughter, Illinois Democratic State Rep. Deb Mell, is interested in taking his aldermanic seat.
In a press release, Emanuel quickly promised to launch an “open process” to appoint Mell’s successor. The mayor will begin accepting applications on Friday from people interested in filling the seat, and will then make his final pick from a short list provided by a “community-based commission,” according to Emanuel’s office.
“In a city known for its colorful characters, Alderman Mell is a larger-than-life Chicago character who, just like the Billy Goat and Second City, is a Chicago institution and, in his own way, he has defined what public service and class look like,” Emanuel said in a statement.
Representative Mell did not respond to WBEZ’s interview requests.
But her father’s departure means City Hall will lose something of its old, if controversial, ways. Mell has been an unapologetic defender of political patronage, saying it encourages people to have a civic stake in their communities.
And while some progressive aldermen shift their focus to the council’s legislative role, Mell has maintained a hands-on approach to constituent services, even buying a chainsaw for his Ward office to hurry along tree-trimming requests.
“The alderman is a guy who tries to make life in an urban a little easier for people - to cut through the red tape of city government and bureaucracy,” Mell told WBEZ in a recent interview. “To help people with problems that they feel are insurmountable. If the alderman is doing that, they can be re-elected, unfortunately like me, for 38 years.”
For those outside Chicago political circles, Mell is perhaps most recognized from the famous 1987 black and white photo of the alderman standing stop his desk in the chaotic City Council chambers, shouting to be recognized. The snapshot has come to represent the racially divisive “Council Wars” that began with the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.
Mell was a vocal opponent of Washington’s, and counted himself among the so-called “Vrdolyak 29,” a majority bloc of mostly-white aldermen who stymied the mayor’s legislative agenda during the early 1980s.
Mell has since become a powerful committee chairman, and has been a staunch ally to both Mayor Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.
Al Keefe covers politics for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe