Phil Reese

Profile: Openly lesbian Illinois lawmaker Deb Mell

Filed By Phil Reese | January 26, 2010 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: candidate endorsements, Chicago, Deb Mell, election campaigns, Illinois, Illinois assembly, LGBT Community, political campaigns, politician, politics

Over the past few months I've told you a lot about the folks who are aspiring to be out LGBT elected leaders in Illinois, but two people I would love to tell you a lot more about are our two openly gay lawmakers Deb Mell and Greg Harris. s-MELL-large.jpgBoth serve the state in the Illinois Assembly. I got a chance to interview Chicago resident, political family scion and freshman lawmaker Deb Mell and talk about her first year in the Illinois Assembly.

Deb Mell may be new to writing the law, but she's no newbie to activism. Mell was arrested at the Cook County Clerk office in the earlier part of the last decade while demonstrating for marriage equality.

"Actually, I got arrested for storming into the street." said Representative Mell with a laugh when I asked her about it, "It was a marriage protest--we did a sit-in a couple weeks later--I don't want you to think I got arrested for getting a marriage license; I wasn't even dating anyone at the time. Now I would definitely. Now I have a partner"

Representative Mell and I had a very long and delightful conversation about how she got to Springfield and what the past year has been like for her. The daughter of popular Chicago Alderman Richard Mell and sister-in-law of former Governor Blagojavich, it would seem Deb was destined for politics, but she says it was a long road.

"I was working at Christy Webber Landscapes. I was there for five years. I loved my job there as project manager for her, but I felt like I wanted something different--I needed a change. Equality Illinois sent me to the Victory Fund candidate training." Though Representative Mell lived in the heart of San Francisco for nearly a decade, she had never been interested in Politics, "I was like 'yeah, I'll go,' but I didn't really know [what was in store], but I went there and I kind of got the bug a little bit."

A long time LGBT advocate, Mell began to get interested in the politics of her home district for the first time, "I went home and I started doing some research. I knew who my State Representative was, but I handn't really looked into him. He was a 'double dipper.' He had another job with the City of Chicago. Between he and his wife, they had four pensions, four incomes from the public payroll. He was a state Rep, he worked for the City of Chicago. His wife was on the Water Reclamation Board and she also worked for the Secretary of State office. I, on principle, had a problem with that--and I thought I could beat him. So I did what the Victory Fund taught me. I got a kitchen cabinet together with my friends. My father tried to convince me not to run--big time. I started raising funds, had a little fundraiser. It started to catch on. The gay community really came out big for me. [My father] really saw that."

In the end, however, Deb Mell ran unopposed in the Democratic Primary in her heavily Democratic district. "Bottom line, I knew I would be a very active representative. I had fresh new ideas, and so I went for it!"

A turbulent first year

Representative Mell has had a very intense first year. Illinois has a $7 billion budget deficit and is struggling with major scandals in government--some of which have involved Deborah's sister, Patti Blagojevich. In one of her first votes, Representative Mell made the hard decision to cast the lone vote against impeaching her brother-in-law, certainly making her transition into the legislature a little more difficult.

"When you're a freshman and a new legislature, and everyone's been down there a long time, you don't want to be sitting all alone at the lunch table."

She feels confident, however, she's got her sea legs now. "I'm [currently looking to introduce] quite a few 'good Government' bills. I'm a staunch believer that we need to reform our Government before we start raising taxes to get more money in it. We haven't really tried to change the way we're doing things. I don't mean cutting services. We should start thinking out of the box ways of doing things."

She gave me an example of what she's talking about. "I visited a Human Services Center on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago here, and the amount of paperwork that they have to do is astonishing."

Deborah draws a solution from our President. "[President Obama] is talking about health records--making them all electronic--we could do that and we could save a lot of money. We could save a lot of time, and we could save a lot of paper and save the environment. I don't feel like anyone is coming up with these kinds of ideas, and I hope to be that person to say 'let's look at every single little thing we can do before we go raise taxes on people. That was my biggest criticism [about this year]. That was the first place we went, and the easiest place to go, but in my area, there are neighborhoods that could go either way, just with a few more dollars taken out of their paychecks."

"Another big thing, when I go knocking on doors--you know [my district] has a lot of young families--and they say "You know, when our kids get to school age, we're moving to the suburbs. And that's because they feel they don't have a good choice in education."

She continues, "My district needs a good high school and we need a new library. We're having a little bit of a rise in gang activity and our property taxes are high. That's district stuff that we're working on."

"I also put in a bill yesterday for teachers for pensions benefits to go to their Domestic Partners," concluded the Assemblywoman.


Deb Mell is really excited that there will be some more LGBT lawmakers joining her and Greg Harris in the Assembly chambers in this next session. So far Ed Mullen and Jim Madigan (on the Senate side) are fighting hard for their seats and have announced pretty big endorsements lately. On top of that, its looking more and more every day like Tribune and Sun Times-endorsed Dave Schroeder is poised for a certain win. "Right out of the gate being a freshman, I didn't think I would be endorsing anybody--not publicly--but privately, what I pray for every night is my business."

"I think I might be adopting a policy soon that if there is any solid progressive gay candidate I'm going to look into endorsing them. I don't subscribe to the whole 'well, they've been good on our issues.'" Representative Mell thinks we'll get more progress from a solidly progressive openly gay candidate than someone who pays us lip service.

I asked Representative Mell about some of her frustrations in her first year in the legislature. She mentioned the pace of change and the challenge of working with some of the party leadership wasn't always what she'd imagined when she first ran.

"Another frustration was lack of access to information," Mell laments, "I heard about things second-hand through lobbyists. We're not given first-hand knowledge... like the numbers in our deficit kept changing. I was saying "so what's the real number?"

"What I love most about it is going back into the [40th] district." Mell said enthusiastically, "its a great area of the state. What I particularly like about it is its not like your liberal Lakefront. We're working class. We have a high percentage of Catholics. A big percentage of seniors. A lot of single-family homes."

Though the LGBT population isn't high, she insists that's also growing. They're joining good company in the neighborhoods Mell remembers from her childhood. "Its the people I grew up with, you know? I grew up here. Its really an honor to be representing them in Springfield. I can honestly say I'm really proud of the fact that we've had constant dialog with people who have been calling us, giving us feedback on how we're doing."

"We're a really good presence," she continues, "so I'm very happy about that."

"I really enjoyed the debates between the Republicans and the Democrats. Especially Bill Black, when he pontificates, and there's all this drama--that's really exciting to watch. Its pretty nice to see a different point of view. Its not all the same. I like for us to get some push-back on some of the stuff we're doing."

"There's time when I'm sitting in the chamber [in Springfield] and I can't believe its my job! Its really beautiful and we're doing important stuff, the people sent me there and its really an honor."

An openly gay challenger for Mell? An interesting scenario

Representative Mell has one challenger in the election--openly gay Joe Laiacona. I reached out to Mr. Laiacona about chiming in on the campaign, but had never heard back from him. Laiacona has had some interesting press in this campaign as a popular author and columnist on leather culture and sadomasochism--something that's generally no big deal with most progressives, but may not sit very well in the more conservative working class 40th district. Laiacona came out of the gate sprinting by lobbing a challenge at Mell's candidacy from the start.

"My partner and I bought a house and closed on it December 1st, after last year's election, and we moved December 15th." Representative Mell begins explaining about the challenge.

"Ultimately, for some reason, she got registered to vote at our new address, and I never kind of checked that I got registered at our new address, I just kind of assumed. I was not registered at our new address. I met all of the requirements for running as a State Representative--one of them is not being registered at your current residence. I got the vote of the board and the vote of the hearing officer, and Joe decided not to appeal it. I'm not happy about it. It was a little embarrassing for me. I should have checked that I was registered. I didn't break any laws, though, or any rules. At no point were we really concerned."

"He's for raising the income tax, but its not contingent on any reforms. That's the biggest difference that I the voters will see."

Representative Mell and Illinois' LGBT future

I asked Representative Mell about what had been most frustrating about her first year, and was surprised by her answer.

"Most frustrating by far is the fact that Illinois does not have same-sex marriage. For me--on a personal level--that's been the most frustrating part [of the year]. And the fact that we can't even get a Civil Unions bill passed is utterly ridiculous. We need Unions and PACs and our leadership--we need everyone to get on board. This is a priority for Illinois. This is what we need for our state. But its just not on anyone's radar."

"We got to get organized, but I don't think we're talking to the right people. If the Speaker wanted same-sex marriage or at least Civil Unions in Illinois, we would have it. I just don't feel like its a priority."

On relationship recognition in Illinois, Deb Mell has a plan to move us over the hill to get a bill passed.

"I'm in favor of getting a vote. Experts say they don't want to get it to a vote unless its going to absolutely pass. This is what we need to do. We need to make it really clear that the anti-gay vote isn't the vote you want to take these days. That's not the safe vote. I don't think you really see that unless you get people on the record--and then go campaign for their opponent." mell221_head.jpg

"I do think we're too cautious here. We're being too nice here. I think we need to be a lot more demanding from our leadership. That's where I hope we would go."

"I feel like we're letting everyone down. We need to be more active."

"One thing that bothers me is that at these [strategy] meetings, I'm like the only woman. There's like two women and like ten guys. A really hardened right-winger would be a little more receptive to women making the case. This is just human nature."

Deb Mell does not believe in partial rights, but believes that if incrementalism is the only way to get some rights to people who are right now desperate for some relief, we may have to look at creating a winning strategy. "I'm kind of torn. If we can't get Civil Unions or marriage, should we start chipping away at these things--go right by right almost."

"The great benefit of that is that on the floor we're talking about gay issues. Its getting talked about in some form or another. We're hearing it. Its becoming less toxic to [our enemies]. I got up on the floor when Iowa [passed] marriage and thanked [Iowa] and I think it was one of the first time the word gay was announced on the floor of the house. That's ridiculous. We really have to talk about it more."

"I believe that there will be a point when they'll say "Oh wow, we basically have everything. Let's just face marriage."

Representative Mell believes that Illinois--a state with non-discrimination protection for both gender identity and sexual orientation--could lead nationally to help pass a Federal employment non-discrimination law that covers all LGBT people.

"We could write letters to our President who is from this state," says Representative Mell, "we could continue to reach out. We need to be more vocal about it."

"There is noone down there [in Springfield] talking about lesbian issues. Lesbians have a higher rate of breast cancer, alcoholism, obesity and smoking. No one down there is talking about these issues."

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I loved it that shortly after you put up this post, Phil, we got an e-mail from Greg Harris addressed to you. Apparently he'd love for you to tell us more about him too!

You mean her opponent, Joe Laiacona. Greg Harris actually has my phone number, email, AIM, facebook and SMS number so he gets at me when he wants to! ;-)

Yeah, I plan on talking to Joe, but unfortunately, he picked a bad time to get back to me. This was the first week of classes, and Creating Change is next week. I just don't have time to do ANOTHER interview. Besides, I have one with Todd Connor I'm still turning into a post from the audio file. Joe's going to have to wait til later in February.

When I'd reached out to Joe almost a month ago now, I was on break and had plenty of time on my hands. I wanted to do back to back pieces on both of them, or a post comparing the two interviews, but since Joe never responded to my emails, and Representative Mell was awesome enough to give me quite a bit of her time, this is how it went down.

A lesson to all candidates out there: when the media comes a callin, don't blow them off! Especially the LGBT media when you're gay! When you're finally ready for them, they could be knee deep in 20 page research paper by then!