Deborah Mell holding a sign aimed at brother-in-law Rod Blagojevich in the 2004 Chicago Pride Parade. Ald. Dick Mell and daughter Deb when she received the NOW Award in 2004. Mayor Daley at the Center on Halsted groundbreaking June 2005 with Mel (left) and Christy Webber. Mell at downtown marriage protests in 2005 and 2004. Photos by Mel Ferrand, Tracy Baim and Andrew Davis
A prominent lesbian activist with a famous political last name announced last week that she is running for state representative from the Northwest Side of Chicago's 40th District.
So far, the path to office for Deborah Mell, 35, has been non-traditional, including that she expects to run for the post against an incumbent, not be appointed by her famous dad, Ald. Dick Mell.
Deborah Mell returned to Chicago from San Francisco earlier this decade to be closer to her family, and to start a new life. She was already out as a lesbian to close friends, but she immediately became a high-profile activist—with her brother-in-law Rod Blagojevich as governor ( he's married to Deb's sister Patti ) , and her dad as a long-term alderman once opposed to gay rights.
The issue that catapulted her to media fame was same-sex marriage, a passion that got her arrested and into the pages of The Advocate. While she received support in her fight from her dad and even Mayor Daley, her brother-in-law remains against gay marriage.
The younger Mell says her father supports her in seeking the post, although it is an awkward situation given that Dick Mell has backed Bradley in his previous campaigns. That change of heart may be enough for Bradley to not seek-reelection after 10 years in the post, but Deb Mell is not counting on that—she plans to run against him.
While Deb mell planned to formally announce her campaign in early July, the word leaked out after she told fellow members of the Mayor's Advisory Council on GLBT Issues of her plans. Mell is a project manager at Christy Webber Landscapes, owned by prominent lesbian Christy Webber.
'I am getting a lot of support when I tell people,' Mell said Monday morning, the day after she participated in Chicago's pride parade on the Hall of Fame and Equality Illinois floats. 'I want to serve the district, where I grew up, and I look forward to getting our message out there.'
Mell's partner, Christin Baker, is supportive of her run for office. The two women sat down for an interview just prior to Deb's announcement.
Tracy Baim: Talk about when you started to think about your own identity and what was that like for you.
Deb Mell: I remember having a huge crush on a kindergarten teacher, Sister Joyce, and I just always wanted to be around her and it just kind of grew from there. Then when I was in sixth grade, I started to kind of act out on it, and kiss girls and stuff like that. Then I got my first girlfriend when I was a freshman in high school.
I went to St. Scholastica High School. It's on Chicago's North Side, near Evanston. I graduated in 1986. What was interesting was, when I started to date women in high school there were a lot of rumors going around because my father is kind of a well-known politician in Chicago, and I was just so terrified that they knew. Every time that they, my family was in a bad mood, or my father was in a bad mood, I was afraid something got back to them, and they were upset with me about it.
TB: What was the political scene was like?
DM: Well, my father's an alderman, he was elected in 1976, so it's been about 30 years. When I was 18 years old he voted against a gay-rights bill in Chicago, so it was hard for me to gauge me coming out, what his reaction would be like. He was very powerful and very intimidating at times, it wasn't easy. But when we look back on it, it was actually my mother who didn't want to, my father always had suspicions and my mother had suspicions, but my mother wanted me to feel like I could come to them and talk to them about it. But high school was a painful time.
TB: Was there a specific moment that you actually told them, and how old were you when that happened?
DM: I was a sophomore in college, so that was 21. I came out to my family, 'cause before I came out to my family I was out to my friends and college roommates and stuff, but I came out to my family when I was a sophomore in college. I was upset about a particular relationship and I was visibly upset, and I went into a room, and my mom came in and said, first she said, 'What is this about?' and I said, 'You don't really want to know what this is about.' And she says 'Is this about your sexuality?' and I said, 'yeah, it's about my sexuality mom.' [ Deb becomes emotional—her mother just passed away last year. ]
TB: How prominent your father was—did that ever enter into their thoughts, about the public issue?
DM: At no time were my parents or my family concerned about what does it look like to the public, me being gay. They just wanted to make sure that the whole process of me coming out was as comfortable as it could be, and they really didn't know how to handle it. So once I came out and my mom asked me that, and I said 'yes it is, I'm a lesbian,' and my brother and sister were home and we told them and everything was fine. My father was out of town. He came back, and he said, 'I knew about you a long time ago, it doesn't make any difference to me.' I was very fortunate.
TB: Did he know about you when he voted against the gay-rights bill?
DM: My father did vote against the gay-rights bill in Chicago when he had suspicions about me. But he says it was because of politics, at that point in Chicago it was one group of aldermen against another group of aldermen, and no matter what the topic was, they voted against each other.
TB: So you left Chicago for a while. What were the years that you were gone, and what were you doing during that time?
DM: I left Chicago after college, and moved to Washington D.C. to work with Congressman Dan Lipinski. That lasted about six months until I fell in love with this woman, and she was an actress from L.A. So what I did was, I picked up my life, and moved across the country and was there with her. I was there with her for a while, and then I went to San Francisco for nine years. It was mostly the '90s I was out of town.
TB: What were you doing in a GLBT community sense, were you an activist in any way, or politically involved in San Francisco?
DM: No, I wasn't. Not at all. I would go to some events, some group events and everything and I was very out there, but no I wasn't involved in politics out there.
TB: So when did you come back to Chicago, and what was your goal when you came back to Chicago, when that was?
DM: I came back to Chicago in 2000, and the goal was to be with my family more. It was just time to come home. I think I was running away from Chicago in a lot of senses for a lot of different reasons, but I came back and I'd never really lived in Chicago on my own in my own apartment, so it was great.
TB: Talk about the coming out of you, more publicly in relation to being the sister-in-law of a governor etc. What went into that, were you OK with him making you, with Rod taking you to another level of visibility? And when that happened?
DM: I've always been extremely upset about the inequality that the whole GLBT community has faced, and I've always wanted to do something about it. So I found out about protests at the Cardinal's house [ in February 2004 ] regarding equal marriage and it was finally a time for me to go and do something. And so I went to it, and I asked my father to come, because I knew that if he came with me that we were going to get more exposure. So we did that together, and then [ in March ] I was arrested, and then it just kind of blew up into a whole different level. It got a lot of press, and I thought it was excellent. The letters we got from parents, we got hundreds of letters and tons of e-mails about how this affected their lives. My father's reaction to me, and his loving reaction, I think helped a lot of parents.
[ The protest was at ] the Cook County Clerk's Office, because he gives out the marriage licenses. I went down there, just ready to protest with everybody else, and what happened was it was in front of the Cook County building and then someone was like 'let's go in the street.' And so I said, 'OK, let's go in the street.' And it just happened, and I got arrested. I was the only one that was arrested, which I think also created more; you know it was a little more exciting for people.
TB: Were you scared?
DM: I was scared, yeah. I was. I ran out there, the next thing I knew this woman was saying 'OK, now when you stand up, we're going to put handcuffs on you, you're going to be arrested.' I was like 'What?' and I was in the paddy wagon for about a half hour by myself. I was really concerned about was when they brought me to the police station, because I didn't want this to take away from what the protest was about. As it turned out, I think it helped it.
TB: Talk about how this publicly manifested in the press, but also privately in your relationship with your family.
DM: So I'm coming out for gay marriage, and my brother-in-law is Rod Blagojevich, the governor and he comes out and he's against gay marriage. When I got arrested, I was like this is going to be a no-brainer. I really thought that, I thought that this isn't going to be a problem. Then he publicly came out against gay marriage. So there were many long conversations on the telephone with him, many ways to try to not manipulate but to work him, try to get him to see things from a different angle on everything. I think the problem is, the word marriage is so toxic in the political arena that he couldn't really come out for it. But I have my sister's support, and she works on him, too, and he's actually made good strides toward gay equality in Illinois. But it was tough for a little while there.
TB: Why do you think, in your mind, that marriage is what the answer is, as opposed to these pseudo-marriage things like civil union?
DM: I think that having equal playing field is very important. I think the whole separate but equal does not work. I think that if you're going to have marriage as a civil contract given by the government, it doesn't have anything to do with religion; no one should be excluded from those same benefits and rights. I think what's going to happen is that they're going to call it 'civil union', and they're going to do it for a while, and then all of the sudden they're just going to be like, I think the tide is changing, big time.
TB: What do you want to be doing for the future?
DM: I want to just keep pushing gay equality, and I want to do this by living an example. I'm going to be running for office in 2008 for state representative and I think, the more public officials that we have out there that are openly gay, I think ... it breaks down the stereotypes, and creates a more favorable attitude. So by campaigning and knocking on doors and saying that I'm a lesbian, I think that helps. And not so discreetly, or not so, you know, I hope that helps on a subconscious level. And then otherwise, I want to work on legislation that helps our people, and my district. Which is not so gay. The office is for the 40Th District State Representative. It is Chicago's Northwest Side, where I grew up.
TB: And what is it that you think you can bring to the district, not just on the gay issue, politically that you feel you can bring to the table, whether it's from learning from your father or the work you've done in the last few years.
DM: I think it's inbred in me, I can see how the government works and how people work together and alliances and everything like that, and I feel like I am just ready to serve, so I feel I am going to bring a new light and a new energy to that position, that has just been kind of dormant, I feel. To give the people a voice. One thing I would like to do is fund more money to public transportation.
TB: What is your strategy in terms of the GLBT community, an example is, a lot of gay politicians, when they run they run from their district, like a Larry McKeon or a Tom Chiola, but they know that the core of the support that they're getting is from around the country, from GLBTs. Talk about the Victory Fund and other things that are going to assist you in your campaign.
DM: I will be applying for Victory Fund donations, I'm also going to hold fundraisers within the GLBT community. ... This is quick, it is a quick decision, it was decided Tuesday ( June 12 ) . The race is February. I'm not waiting two years, I'm not. I went to the Victory Fund training this last weekend ( June 9-10 )
What I want to do though, what's very important to me, is to run this race. I do not want; you know they were talking about maybe him stepping down, in a year or so. And it's like no, I want to run the race, I don't want to be put in, I want to have my people there. And I would love help from the committeemen because my father's ward makes up a majority of the district. So, it's very important for me to do this.
TB: talk about this whole legacy issue, because in Chicago, the legacy of being related to a politician, it's [ snaps ] you know, you get appointed and you're in. And so it's an interesting strategy you say you don't want that.
DM: Absolutely not. I don't want to be a Dan Lipinski who's father was a congressman. I don't want to be a Todd Stroger, in some backroom deal. I want to run the race; I want to get in myself. I know I have considerable help because of name recognition and my father's organization; I've been fortunate to know a lot of people throughout the years, a lot of powerful people. I'm going to tap into those resources, there's no reason I shouldn't, but it's going to be me making those phone calls, me knocking on the doors, and me running this race.
TB: I'm assuming your father is supportive of this race.
DM: Yes, he is.
TB: When did the two of you get together?
DM: We got together Sept. 25.
Christin Baker: 2004.
TB: Talk a little bit about what your career is, and how it is in the public sphere of GLBT activism.
CB: I am working for the national office of the YMCA, and I do corporate funding. I've been working for the Y for about five years now, and I've used the knowledge of fundraising to help organizations like Equality Illinois with their gala, and I'm currently the chair for the women's outreach group for Equality Illinois, so I'm of helping increase the number of members and the number of donors that are lesbians in Equality Illinois and educating them on what they do. ... I've actually never really been politically active until I met Deb, and probably wouldn't be right now if we hadn't met. I don't like conflict. So Deb is the protester with the sign, and I'm the one in the background who helps get money for things and events with friendly people, so I went to a few rallies, or protests, but its' not my cup of tea.
DM: She doesn't like it. She doesn't like screaming, yelling.
CB: Not at all, so I had to be comfortable being with Deb and knowing that if she meets someone, they know who she is usually and knows she's gay. And I'm with her, and I had to get to a place where I was comfortable with everyone knowing that I was gay, because I usually wasn't. Like at work I wasn't very out, and you know, only if I was sort of hanging out, so I had to very quickly become very comfortable with being Deb Mel's girlfriend.
TB: What about your own family situation?
CB: My parents love Deb very much, and it's actually the first girlfriend that they really like which is also very nice.
TB: Given the support you have for marriage, has marriage entered into the realm of your relatively new relationship?
DM: Well, she's been bugging me about a ring...
CB: [ laughs ]
TB: Running for office is not going to be easy on a relationship.
DM: Right. Going down to Springfield isn't going to be either.
TB: have you talked about, just that part of it? Being a political family?
KB: I don't think we have, actually. It's funny though because a lot of big decisions that we've made, there hasn't' been this huge like 'we're going to move in together, let's talk about that.' There's never been that. ... To be honest, I didn't know who Deb was, who her connections were when I first met her or anything like that, and when I realized that, I thought 'oh, we're going to be running for office soon.' So I actually worked on the Alexi Giannoulias campaign for state treasurer, so I do have a little bit of campaign experience.
DM: I couldn't do it without Christin, there's no way. She keeps me sane, she keeps me on schedule, she calls me on my, shit, you know.
Deb Mell's Web site will go live in early July: www.debmell.org