Columbia teacher runs for office

By Patrick Smith

Columbia instructor Joe Laiacona may be running unopposed for state representative in the upcoming Democratic primary, thanks to a filing his lawyer made last week.

Laiacona’s Nov. 9 objection to the nomination papers of incumbent Deb Mell  will make the legislator ineligible to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination, if his objection is sustained by the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Mell is not registered to vote at 2656 W. Melrose Ave. in Chicago, the address she listed in the nomination papers that she filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections on Oct. 24. According to Laiacona and his attorney Richard K. Means, that discrepancy makes Mell’s nomination papers invalid and makes her ineligible to participate in the upcoming Democratic primary.

The primary will take place on Feb. 2, 2010, in anticipation of the November 2010 general election.

“We believe it is very likely to succeed,” Means said of the objection. “There have been many, many cases in Illinois and particularly in the Chicago area, where candidates have made this very rookie mistake [and that has made them ineligible]. It’s just very unusual to find an incumbent from a powerful political organization who makes this kind of rookie mistake.”

Mell is the sister-in-law of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the daughter of Chicago Ald. Richard Mell (33rd Ward).

According to Means, Mell’s political connectedness made her arrogant and careless.

“It’s arrogance and arrogance tends to breed inattention,” Mell said. “And in this case, I’m sure that the candidate felt very secure in her position, and she didn’t do the normal things that candidates do to be sure all of their papers are in order.”

Ken Menzel, a member of the legal counsel for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said that he could not give an opinion on an issue before the board, but confirmed the statement that a person is registered to vote at his or her address “is a part of the statement of candidacy.”

“[Objections on] this particular ground are fairly uncommon,” Menzel said. “Most candidates make sure that they’re registered at the address that they’re actually living at … if for no other reason than to avoid an objection.”

Laiacona said that he is confident that his objection will be successful.

“It’s not a slam dunk, it has to go through the appeal process and certainly the Mell family has the legal resources to take it all the way to the circuit court,” Laiacona said. “But we have it on very good reliance that she was not registered and that she needs to be. And I believe I’ll prevail. Ignorance of the law is no defense.”

But Menzel said that even if Laiacona’s objection does succeed, this will not necessarily be the end of the line for Mell.

“She can still run as a write-in in the Democratic primary, which is hard to do against people who are on the ballot, but that would still be an option for her,” Menzel said. “She would have the option of running as an independent or third party candidate in the general election. So even if the objection is sustained and she is removed from the ballot for the Democratic primary, she would have a couple of options to carry on.”

Mell did not respond to requests for comment from The Chronicle.

Laiacona and Mell are both vying to represent the 40th district in the Illinois House of Representatives. The district is on the Northwest side of Chicago; its center is roughly the intersection of Irving Park Road and Kimball Avenue. It is one of the most Democratic districts in the nation. In 2008, when Mell ran for the first time as the Democratic Party candidate, she won 75 percent of the vote, compared to 15 percent for the Republican candidate.

Laiacona said he was sure that whoever won the Democratic primary would win the general election.

Laiacona said that his years of experience teaching at Columbia, his experience as a union organizer and his 62 years of living make him the best candidate for the job.

“My platform shows that I have progressive views and that’s what I’m running on,” Laiacona said. “I believe in ethical government that represents the common man.”

If Laiacona’s objection fails, the Democratic primary could be a historical one. Mell is the first openly gay woman to serve in the Illinois General Assembly and Laiacona, her challenger, is an openly gay man.