To say that Deb Mell has had an intriguing first term as an Illinois state representative would be a huge understatement, having dealt with, among other things, voting on the impeachment of her brother-in-law, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
In an exclusive, candid talk with Windy City Times, Mellwho made history as the first out lesbian General Assembly member in Illinois' historydiscussed the lessons she's learned in Springfield, her opponent in next year's election and her motivation for being the only representative who voted in favor of Blagojevich back in January just after being sworn into office.
Windy City Times: How would you characterize your term so far?
Deb Mell: Well, it's been quite a freshman year. It's difficult for anyone to be in the General Assembly right now [ because of ] state budget issues, a change in leadership and elections coming up. Plus, you're a freshman and you're trying to learn things like where the bathrooms are. [ Smiles ]
WCT: I'm sure. You have to feel your way around, so to speak, and you have to learn how to work with people...
DEB MELL: You don't want to step on any toes. You don't want to push an issue that another representative has been doing for years. You want to be respectful.
I did a lot of listening, and I asked a lot of questions. And there are some things I don't like about Springfield; I don't like the way things go sometimes.
[ For example, ] you get invited by lobbyists to go out to dinnerand, at first, I did that and I let them pay. Then, I just didn't like it; it just didn't feel right. So I started paying for my own dinners, but then it can become uncomfortable. At this one dinner, I pulled out my money and, in front of everyone, [ the lobbyist ] was like, "What's this for?" I said, "It's for my meal. We can have a nice conversation but you don't need to pay for me." So now I don't go out to dinner.
So the first year is basically like that: getting your feet wet, learning when to speak up and not to speak up.
WCT: What's been the biggest surprise for you so far?
DEB MELL: The biggest surprise has been how quickly things happen. At first, it's a [ wait-and-see ] , but when they happen, they happen quickly.
Alsoand I'll be quite honestI didn't know that I voted to tax Twizzlers, which have flour in them, at a different rate than Hershey's, which don't have flour. We raised taxes on candy, and the difference between candy and food is flour. It was in the bill, but the bill is hugeabout 50 pages. You don't have time and staff; you have one staff person you share with reps, and then you have another secretary who schedules and things like that. There's a lot of stuff in those bills. You do the best you canseeing who's voting.
I've really been talking with a lot of female reps down [ in Springfield ] , like Julie Hamos, Elaine Nekritz and Kathy Ryg, who's moved on to Voices for Illinois Children. They're independent, thoughtful legislators.
WCT: How do you feel about the civil-unions bill? Do you feel it might pass soon?
DEB MELL: My whole attitude has beenand I haven't been quiet about itis that we should just go for marriage in Illinois. I think it's [ about ] technique. I've been asked to go talk with another representative, and I'll try to put my legislator hat on, but I can't; it's just so personal to me. They'll tell me they can't vote for it and I'm like, "Why not?"
If you [ were heterosexual and married ] , and you died in office, [ your wife ] would get the rest of your pay for that year. Christin [ Baker, Mell's partner ] gets nothing. I feel like we should go for marriage.
WCT: And it's interesting how we have this state-by-state battle instead of having the federal approach. You're glad about what happened in Iowa, but you look over at California, which some see as this bastion of liberalism...
DEB MELL: I was recently in Los Angeles, and there were people with their clipboards saying, "Let's get marriage," and I'm like, "You shouldn't have lost it." I'm upset with California. I think they took it for granted.
WCT: It was interesting because the movement against [ anti-same-sex-marriage initiative ] Proposition 8 had more money than the movement for it.
DEB MELL: They didn't employ the right people. I wasn't asked for money; I wasn't asked to help. You would think that you'd approach an openI don't know. It was a bummer, though, to [ find out about Prop 8 passing ] after Obama's election.
I think it's good to have [ openly gay State Rep. ] Greg [ Harris ] and I down there on the floor as a visible presence.
When you're in session, you can only have immediate family members down on the floor with you, but they let Christin in. It was the first time in history that [ a same-sex ] partner was on the floor of the House. And people saw itand the more you see it, the more you become accustomed to it.
I'm very hopeful. I think it's like the [ women's ] suffrage movement, with the state-by-state approach and then, it just happened.
WCT: Let's say that some reps would vote "yes" to a same-sex marriage billin exchange for you voting for...
DEB MELL: ...Gun legislation? [ Laughs ]
WCT: Well, you never know.
DEB MELL: I have yet to be approached for something like that. I think that [ the quid pro quo approach ] is frowned upon these days.
DEB MELL: I don't know. I haven't been asked. Maybe politics don't run that way now.
WCT: What accomplishment are you proudest of?
DEB MELL: I have a huge interest in drug-treatment programs; [ I believe in ] treating alcoholics and drug addicts like they're sick instead of criminals. I found out that it's up to the prison to allow recovery meetings in their prisons. My billand I'm really proud of this because it's a bill I thought of myselfsays that all prisons have to open its doors once a week for at least an hour so these meetings can take place. Let's just start getting recovery in the heads of addicts and alcoholics. Plus, it doesn't cost the state a centand the community is there once the prisoner gets out. It's the most proven way to stay sober.
The governor signed it into law this summer; now, I'm going to work with the prison community to make sure they do it.
I was also proud of [ Public Act 096-0574, which requires institutions of higher education to put up posters stating sexual harassment laws and policies ] . I'm also happy that I voted against the income-tax increase, because I got a lot of pressure to vote for it. I felt that it was wrong to ask people we representwithout taking any steps at all, without making any cuts [ and ] without asking me to take a pay cutfor more money. I got picketed, and got [ letters ] and phone calls from the union.
WCT: I do feel compelled to ask about the former governor, Rod Blagojevich. Why did you decide to vote against his impeachment instead of just voting "present?"
DEB MELL: I thought a lot about that vote. One of things is that I didn't want my first vote out of the box to be a "present" vote. I try really hard not to do any "present" votes; I've done three, maybe.
Also, I truly felt that a "yes" vote [ to impeach ] wasn't the vote to make. What's interesting is that people came up to me afterwards and [ indicated ] they were happy I did that. Then, I heard from people in my district. Not everyone thinks that Rod Blagojevich is guilty, especially in this district.
Now you can argue that people wanted me to vote "yes," and I heard from peoplebut not many from my area. The day I made that vote, the Rod I knew and the Rod they were talking about didn't match up. [ So, it was ] the input from the district, coupled with the fact that he's my brother-in-law and I felt I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Someone said, "I think that's the hardest first vote anyone's had to make."
But that vote was so long ago, and I've taken many more votes on [ issues ] I feel are much more important. I've been walking the district, and I feel pretty comfortable with how the [ Blagojevich ] vote's been taken. And if anyone wrote or e-mailed me, I immediately [ contacted ] and spoke with them, because I thought that was important.
We'll see how it all plays out. ... People are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
WCT: Have you read [ Blagojevich's ] book [ entitled The Governor ] ?
DEB MELL: No, I haven't. Have you?
WCT: Not yet. How much do you know about your opponent in this race [ Joe Laiacona ] ?
DEB MELL: I know very little about him. I read his bio, and I know through other people that he was a writer for [ a gay publication ] .
The funny thing is that he came down for Equality Lobby Days. I said "hi" to himand this was before I knew he was running against meand he said that he was a constituent in my district. I asked, "How do you think I'm doing?," and he said, "I think you're doing good." I invited people for a community advisory paneland then I find out he's running against me.
I feel so comfortable with the job we've been doing. I have a great staff, and I call people back. I'm very active in the community; I go to events, CAPS meetings. I have a good relationship with [ Chicago Police Department ] Commander [ Mike ] Mealer of the 17th District. We have a good Web site and we have a program called "There Ought to Be a Law" [ an essay contest involving schoolchildren ] . Also, I was able to bring in $1.6 million for projects in the district.
So I really feel good, especially since the guy I replaced [ Rich Bradley ] didn't do much. I'm pretty proud of what we've done. I feel that [ Laiacona ] is going to try and hold me on that [ Blagojevich ] vote; he also mentioned something about cleaning state government. But it's really not fair to lump me in with other stuff. We are so not like that.
WCT: And who are "we?"
DEB MELL: The new generationanyone who's related to another public official, like Lisa Madigan.
WCT: So what do people misunderstand about you?
DEB MELL: The biggest misunderstanding is that my father put me in officethat's not true. My father discouraged me from running.
The fact that my dad's ward makes up a lot of my district, and that has helped me because he has been a good alderman. But, in a lot of ways, that could work against me; if they have problems with him, they have problems with me. But in the [ most recent ] state senate race, we backed different people: I backed Iris Martinez and he backed Rich Bradley.
People told me that Bradley [ Mell's original opponent until he withdrew from the race to compete against Martinez ] said he felt he couldn't win [ against Mell ] . He also said that he was waiting for me to run, which I thought was interesting.
WCT: Have you endorsed anyone so far for next year's elections?
DEB MELL: I have endorsed [ U.S. Senate candidate and current state treasurer ] Alexi Giannoulias. That's it. I've been asked to endorse, but it's really not my area. I do like gay candidates, though.
WCT: Why Alexi?
DEB MELL: Christin worked for him briefly. She worked for him as a volunteer coordinator for a couple months, and she liked him. And I got to know him a little bit. At the time he asked me, I believe he was the only one who had declared [ his candidacy ] . He called me and asked me.
WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?
DEB MELL: There is something else I'm proud of: I actually voted for a stronger ethics bill. I voted against the speaker and my party; I wanted stricter campaign-finance limits.
When I go down there, and I'm sitting in my chair in the chambers and I look up, I can't believe I work there. I'm so proud to represent an area I grew up in. These people have known me my whole life, and the fact that I'm down there representing themI love my job, [ despite ] the frustrations and misconceptions.
Deb Mell will hold a reception Thursday, Oct. 22, 6-9 p.m., at Chief O'Neill's Pub & Restaurant, 3471 N. Elston, complete with "BFF," "Twitter" and "Facebook" contribution levels. See www.debmell.org .