Gov. Blagojevich’s Sister-in-Law is Prominent Gay Equality Activist, State Rep. Elect

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 10, 2008

Even as Ill. Governor Rod Blagojevich faces federal charges of influence peddling and soliciting bribes in an apparent effort to sell the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, the sister of Blagojevitch's wife is set to take office as a state Representative--and, should Blagojevich face an impeachment vote, incoming lawmaker Deb Mell may have to weigh in on his fate.

Or, maybe not: last month, Mell announced her candidacy in a special election to fill the U.S. Congressional seat scheduled to be vacated by Obama appointee Rahm Emanuel. The question of how and whether Mell will respond to any legislative action against Blagojevich depends on when any such action might take place, and whether Mell wins the Congressional seat.

Mell, who is openly lesbian, has not shied in the past from controversy. A Wikipedia article on Mell notes that in 2004, she was arrested as part of a protest against an Ill. state law denying couples such as Mell and her same-sex partner, Christin Baker, the right to solemnize their committed relationship through marriage.

Mell's domestic life has not stopped her from being an effective activist and politician. She was recognized with an award by the National Organization of Women in 2004, and drew support this year from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund for her successful state House of Representatives campaign.

Although her father, Dick Mell, had voted against a gay rights ordnance prior to Deb Mell's coming out to her family, Alderman Mell later had a change of heart on the issue. Gov. Blagojevich, a Democrat, has remained opposed to marriage equality.

In 2002, Blagojevich's successful run at the governorship was touted as a chance to turn the state's government around, and move away from what the then-candidate called Republican Gov. George Ryan's "legacy of corruption, mismanagement and lost opportunities."

Ryan himself is now in jail, having been convicted on corruption charges.

An Dec. 10 column by Carol Marin that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times noted that, "the Blagojevich-Mell family dynamic brings a high level of complexity to a jagged political landscape."

Tracing the rise of Rod Blagojevich, Marin wrote, "It began with Chicago clout. Blagojevich married the boss' daughter.

"Patti's dad is Dick Mell, the political powerhouse of the Northwest Side's 33rd Ward.

"Blagojevich," continued Marin, "child of working-class Serbian immigrants, was a comer. He learned early on how to kiss the rings of power brokers such as indicted-and-soon-to-be-sentenced-former-Ald. Edward Vrdolyak to get a government job."

Recounted Marin, "With the help of Ald. Mell, he got elected to the General Assembly, then Congress and then, in 2002, governor."

Dick Mell, Marin wrote, accused an adviser to his son-in-law the governor of "trading $50,000 in campaign contributions for big contracts and seats on government boards--allegations Mell later recanted."

Federal investigators, however, were looking closely at Blagojevich, and their efforts culminated in a daybreak arrest of the governor on Dec. 9.

Wrote Marin, "On Jan. 14, Deborah Mell will be sworn in as the new state representative from the district her brother-in-law once represented.

"She could be called up to vote on his impeachment. What will she do?"

Continued Marin, "Freshman legislators are often counseled to keep their mouths shut in the beginning," adding then, "Not, alas, in this case."

United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, speaking on Blagojevich's arrest, was careful to point out that although the governor had seemingly been involved in an attempt to trade Obama's senatorial seat for a high-paying job or other favors, Obama himself had no connection or knowledge of the deals that Blagojevich was attempting to forge.

Indeed, Fitzgerald culled a quote from profanity-filled transcripts of wiretaps recording Blagojevich's conversations in which the governor said of Obama and his team, "...they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation."

According to a Dec. 9 AP article, Emil Jones, the state Senate President, Emil Jones, vowed to fill the Senate seat through a special election, rather than by gubernatorial appointment.

In a statement, Jones said, "I will call the Senate back in to session to pass legislation that would create a special election for the U. S. Senate seat to help restore the confidence of the people of Illinois during this difficult time."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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