Many people inside and outside the local LGBT community know lesbian state representative candidate Deb Mell ( Left, with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Photo by Kat Fitzgerald ) , not only because her father is longtime Chicago alderman Dick Mell or her brother-in-law is Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but also because she has made headlines as an activist for marriage equality.
Mell is running for the open seat in the 40th District, which is located on Chicago's Northwest Side, where she grew up. After moving to California for a number of years, where she received her culinary degree ( she also has degrees in political science and history ) , Mell returned to Chicago in 2000. Upon her return she started working at Christy Webber Landscape, owned by prominent lesbian Christy Webber. She also currently serves on the mayor's advisory council for Human Relations. Both the National Organization for Women and Howard Brown Health Center have awarded Mell for her community activism.
If she wins the seat, she will be the first open lesbian in the Illinois General Assembly.
Windy City Times: I was wondering what first inspired you to run? Was it something you had ever thought of before? Was it prompted by your return to Chicago back in 2000?
Deb Mell: Equality Illinois sent me to a Victory Fund training last May. I went and I started to get kind of excited. I thought it would be something that I would enjoy. I had been investigating my current representative [ Richard Bradley ] . He was severely lacking in representing our district. If he wasn't, well great. If he was doing a great job, I probably would not have made a run for it. But he wasn't, at all. He wasn't around at all this year. He wasn't around Springfield, really. I talked to friends and family and Christin [ Baker ] , my partner. You just have to do a little bit of soul searching and then go for it.
WCT: So Christin has been very supportive? Is politics and activism her cup of tea, as well?
DM: Oh, yeah. It's not [ her thing ] , extremely. She worked for the [ Alexi ] Giannoulias campaign, but she really loves the theater. She opened one up here in the district. She is also the founder of Tello.com . But she is very supportive.
WCT: You've been involved in the local LGBT community for a number of years now, so a lot of our readers know you because of that. They also know of you because of your father and your brother-in-law. So, I was wondering if you could tell our readers about your background—maybe things they might not know about—as well as your experience in activism, and how that experience will help you in office, if elected.
DM: Something they might not know, or maybe they figured it out, but I've never been the person who goes along to get along. I'm not usually the one who follows the crowd. I guess that has to do with my activism, a little bit. But I also feel that I have a good knack for working with people. I think that's going to help me down there. Other than that, I went to culinary school and I'm working at a catering company right now.
WCT: They might not know that!
DM: That's something different, and I don't think you hear often. I think what is different, and what I like about my candidacy, is I am from a middle-class, working-family neighborhood. Out here, you usually hear about the lakefront people. Out here, we are blessed. What I like about it is I've worked in landscaping and manual labor and around a kitchen. Usually you see representatives who are lawyers or long-time politicians. I'm the 'Joe the Plumber' of the 40th District. [ Laughs ] I'm the maverick, 'Joe the Plumber' of the 40th District. [ Laughs ] But, I think that's actually important. I understand working for an hourly wage, you know? I think that's experience that helps me.
WCT: Do you think, then, you are able to relate to the issues people in your district care about, as opposed to your opponents. Are you more in touch with what they need?
DM: I'll be really honest about this. I don't know much about my opponents. They have not been around. I'm not even sure they have Web sites up or anything like that. I know Heather [ Benno, the Green Party candidate ] is really for workers' rights and stopping the war in Iraq, but she is going to have to run for Congress if she wants to make a huge impact on that.
WCT: I don't think the Republican candidate is even running a campaign.
DM: Right. I encourage people to run. I really do. You should actually run, right? I go to community meetings. I'm knocking on doors and going to various events, like meet-the-candidate events, and they aren't there.
WCT: In previous interviews, you made it clear that you didn't want to be, in a way, appointed to office. Instead, you wanted competition and wanted it to be fair. Yet, there are people out there who are leery of voting for someone who is politically connected, just because of your father, which in unavoidable.
DM: I don't blame them, though. I really don't. Especially not in these economic times. People are raising taxes and you see payrolls being padded. I don't blame them. But all I ask of them is that they give me a chance. They'll see that I'm not going to be a typical son or daughter of a politician. There are good ones out there. For example, I think Lisa Madigan is doing a good job. But there are some who just follow the party lines and everything, and in these times, that is not going to fly anymore.
WCT: So, you believe you can serve independently and not be beholden to anybody your family might know.
DM: I'm going to try, Amy. I think I'm going to do all right, and I'm going to do right by the people in this district, for sure.
WCT: It's probably unavoidable that you've learned some things from your dad in terms of politics. What are some things you believe have rubbed off on you over the years.
DM: My dad is really good at using humor to relax people and make them a little more at ease. Everything can be worked out. We aren't talking about launching bombs or something, so let's just chill out for a second. He's very good at that. He's also very good at surrounding himself with a staff that does very well, and I'm doing the same thing. ...I think my father just wants to truly help people. Sure, he loves the game of politics, but also—and this has helped me tremendously—when walking through his ward, people tell me what a great alderman he is. Other people know him as a long-time politician, but you don't really become that unless you are good at it. You don't continue being an alderman unless you are good at it.
WCT: Your activism really helped put you on the map. Back in 2004, you were arrested at a marriage rally, which made headlines. How did that moment impact you, and did you become more active in the community after that?
DM: I did, and then my mom got sick, so I kind of pulled back a little bit to spend time with her.
WCT: You've received a large amount of support from the LGBT community during this campaign. If you are elected, you'll be the first open lesbian to serve in the state legislature. Is it hard to believe that it's 2008 and that still hasn't happened yet?
DM: I don't even like that term, 'open lesbian,' because I'm not assuming anyone's sexuality. Why don't we just say the first lesbian? That's my little pet peeve about it. I even just said it today. I say it, too.
WCT: You're out or you're not out, right?
DM: Right! Am I surprised? I guess I'm surprised. But think of how many gay legislators we have. Just one. I think what is more sad is we probably know there is more, like in the U.S. Congress. What is sad that they don't come out.
WCT: They could change lives.
DM: Right, especially if people get to know them first. If you've been someone's congressman for four years, and they've been voting for you and the next thing you know you are telling them you are a lesbian... And I'm not talking about a Larry Craig.
WCT: Your district doesn't have a very large LGBT population. Do you think your campaign has helped change people's minds in your district as you are knocking on doors and giving people a call?
DM: I think so, because a lot of these people have known me since I've been a little girl. I actually knocked on an older woman's door, and she said, 'It's a pretty rough business, honey.' I grabbed the petition out of her hand and said, 'You know, you're right, I'm not going to do this.' I was joking with her, you know? She grabbed it back and said, 'Oh honey, I've seen you on TV. You're tough. You can handle it.' She obviously knew I was a lesbian. That's what I've been on TV for. Here is an older person, so I feel very comfortable in the community and very accepted. I think in the very beginning, someone was passing around or mailing some weird thing about how I'm going to teach gay behavior in schools or something, but other than that, it's been really quiet. It's been good. I think it's really nice. It's like when you have a Melissa Bean in a conservative area. When you break out of the lake front and go to different areas, it's always good.
WCT: What specific LGBT issues do you feel need to be addressed right away downstate?
DM: I think, obviously, the civil unions bill. I just hold out hope for a federal bill, because that's when you are really talking about serious benefits, in terms of taxation and Social Security. I'm also interested in that insurance companies don't provide benefits to women who want to have a baby. There is some stipulation in there where you have to have unprotected sex with a man for a year before they will cover fertility treatments. I'm paraphrasing it, but that's something I definitely want to work out.
...There are some people I met from California who were being covered, but when they came to Illinois, they were not covered.
I think, overall, for Greg [ Harris ] and I to be a presence there, prove ourselves and be respected, is going to help, overall. I wouldn't mind doing some traveling in the state.
I'm also interested in the [ proposed LGBTQ-friendly ] school they are talking about. I just attended a public hearing a couple of weeks ago. That's going to be interesting.
WCT: What other statewide issues are important to you, specifically issues that might be unique to the 40th District?
DM: Our issues are pretty much the same as what you hear during the presidential debates: healthcare, education, taxes that are too high. I like what they did in Springfield, passing the ethics legislation. I'd like to take that even further and include us in it, the representatives. The reason I say that is because my current representative has a job with the city, also, along with his state job. He gets paid $100,000 for the city job and $65,000 for the state job, and the average family income of the district is around $50,000. That just isn't right. It's okay if you want to get another job, that's fine, ... but I don't think it's good to get another job on the public payroll. It's called double-dipping. It's something that a lot of states have banned. Also, if something comes up in the state legislature where the city is lobbying for something, where is his allegiance? I'd like to do something like that to restore people's confidence and trust. There are also representatives who are also lobbyists, and I don't think that is good. ... We need more ethics legislation.
WCT: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
DM: I'm extremely grateful to the community for all their support and with donations to my campaign. Remember, I do have two opponents. I'm really excited.
See www.debmell.org for more information.