Foreshadowing the bitter feud that is to come, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s entry into the Chicago mayor’s race Wednesday was greeted by an onslaught of attacks from opponents new and old, political noise she tried to drown out with a message that she will represent a new wave of leadership at City Hall.
Mendoza was accused of having sold out progressive Latinos, called a puppet of powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, dismissed as representing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s third term, slammed for running for two offices at the same time and even labeled an ageist. And that’s just an appetizer of the political backlash that’s still to come for Mendoza, who immediately became one of the race’s front-runners with her status as the only candidate who has won election to both city and statewide office.
In her 17 years as a state lawmaker, city clerk and comptroller, the 46-year-old Mendoza has relished such sparring and eagerly swatted aside anticipated attacks while seeking to set herself apart as the only candidate in the race experienced enough to handle the job of mayor while having the energy to connect with a younger generation of Chicagoans eager for change.
“I’m really looking forward to representing all voices, especially the voices of the youth population that really has felt they have been unseen, and I think that is very exciting to me,” Mendoza said, noting that millennial voters accounted for the highest turnout in Chicago in the November general election. “I’ve got the best years of my life yet to give in public service to this city, and I’ve got a ton of energy, and I’m ready to take charge and get things done for Chicago.”
While she didn’t say their names, the attempt at contrast was clear: Mendoza is in her 40s while many of the other top candidates are longtime political players in their 60s and 70s, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, 71; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, 70; former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, 65; and 2011 candidate and City Hall veteran Gery Chico, 62.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, who is backing Preckwinkle, wasted no time in labeling Mendoza a proponent of “ageism,” who was discriminating against senior citizens, while calling her out of touch for not realizing many progressives continue to back 77-year-old Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders as a potential presidential candidate. At the same time, the 29-year-old Northwest Side alderman reflected the sensitivity around the issue by volunteering that he recently had trouble keeping up with Preckwinkle while going down a staircase and had inquired about the Cook County Democratic Party chair’s “workout regimen.”
Ramirez-Rosa labeled Mendoza’s candidacy as “Rahm’s third term,” saying she comes from the machine and corporate wing of the party and has not embraced its more liberal progressive wing made up of so many of the young voters she’s trying to reach. He noted she served as Emanuel’s “No. 2” as city clerk and aggressively campaigned for him as a co-chair of his re-election campaign four years ago.
The Chicago Tribune previously has reported how some top Emanuel advisers have started to gravitate toward Mendoza’s camp. The mayor’s popularity has declined during his second term amid the fallout of the Laquan McDonald police shooting.
For her part, Mendoza, had little to say about the mayor Tuesday, as she entered the Feb. 26 election to replace him as the field’s 16th candidate.
Instead, she contrasted her candidacy against the idea of a “caretaker” mayor who would just hold the job for four years, but not transform City Hall. Asked if she was referring to Daley or Preckwinkle, Mendoza declined to say. She did, however, take a shot at Daley’s brother, Richard M. Daley, who served as mayor for 22 years.
“Mayor Daley did a lot of great things for the downtown area, but frankly, the last four years he was more of a caretaker mayor,” Mendoza said. “He didn’t take on issues like pensions, police reform or the exodus of the loss in population at our Chicago Public Schools and investing in our neighborhoods. That’s what happens when you get a caretaker mayor, and that’s not the type of mayor I’m going to be.”
Told that Emanuel has been criticized on some of the same issues, Mendoza said the mayor’s surprise decision to drop his bid for a third term showed self-awareness of the difficulty of the job and a refusal to get sloppy. She also favorably compared herself to Emanuel.
“I think Mayor Emanuel doesn’t want to be a caretaker mayor, which is why he stepped aside and let Chicagoans decide who their next mayor is going to be. To be mayor of a city like Chicago, you need to have endless energy, and you’ve met someone who might have energy equal to me, that’s the mayor,” Mendoza said. “We’ve seen that over the last few years, he himself will tell you he doesn’t think he can do another five years at the level of energy that you need to really run the city effectively.”
After Mendoza’s candidacy became official, Vallas issued a statement slamming her for presiding over increases in vehicle sticker fees and penalties as clerk during Emanuel’s administration. Activist and mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green put out a news release calling her “Rahm’s favorite girl” who “acts just like him.” And former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy called a news conference to attack Mendoza.
McCarthy accused Mendoza of having “disrespected her constituents” by winning re-election as comptroller and quickly moving on to running for mayor. He also criticized Preckwinkle for running for re-election to the County Board while campaigning for mayor of Chicago, but gave her credit for announcing it publicly before Election Day. Preckwinkle, though, was unopposed on the November ballot.
“I want you to think about the fact that individuals who live in places like Naperville and Springfield, who may have thought that Susana Mendoza was the best individual to be comptroller of the state of Illinois, have put their trust in her, and she’s now turned her back on them to run for (mayor) here in Chicago,” McCarthy said.
Asked about the criticism of her back-to-back campaigns, Mendoza said she loved the state, appreciated those who voted for her and stressed that she had committed to working a full term as comptroller if Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was re-elected. Given that Rauner is “now history” and can’t appoint a Republican in her place should she be elected mayor, Mendoza pivoted to her mayoral run by describing it as a historic opportunity.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity to have a mayor for the first time in the history of Chicago who understands what the needs of the entire state are, who understands that, of course, Chicago is the economic engine of the state, but nonetheless has a real love in her heart for the rest of the state,” Mendoza said. “We’ve never had a mayor of Chicago who knows much more outside of what’s north of I-80.”
Foreshadowing the complexities of appealing to the city’s Latino voters, longtime Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd, was unsparing in his criticism of Mendoza, who like Munoz used to represent portions of Little Village as a state lawmaker. He was quick to point out Mendoza’s history with the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a party machine run by former Mayor Daley, that was at odds with the progressive efforts of Munoz and U.S. Rep.-elect Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who in 2015 forced Emanuel into a runoff in the mayoral election.
“The past proves the future with any politician, and her past is sketchy from starting under the corrupt Hispanic Democratic Organization, which basically was disbanded after several of its leaders got indicted for patronage efforts,” Munoz said. “HDO was the protection of the status quo, and we were reformers and progressives looking to make sure government does right by the working-class folks on the Southwest Side. So, the new and improved Susie is neither new, nor improved.”
Asked about her HDO history, Mendoza quickly waved it aside.
“It’s Latino politics, and that stuff is going to happen,” she said. “But here’s the deal: You know HDO, whatever. Those guys weren’t even effective when they were around. I’m focused on the future.”
HDO, however, was plenty effective politically for a number of years. It formed a major patronage army that for several years starting in the mid-1990s helped win elections for Mayor Daley and his allies on the City Council, the Illinois General Assembly and Congress. The group lost much of its power in the mid-2000s amid a series of City Hall hiring scandals that led to the convictions of some tied to the group.
Mendoza’s Springfield ties led McCarthy, Green and Ramirez-Rosa all to stick Mendoza with the dreaded “machine politician” label, especially for her long-standing association with Madigan, the powerful House speaker and chairman of the state Democratic Party.
“I don’t ask the speaker or anyone else for permission to take initiatives that I think are important to take,” Mendoza said Wednesday. “I told the speaker I was interested in running for mayor, and I would likely be putting that together. I did not ask for his endorsement or his support. I thought as the speaker of the House and chairman of the party that it was important to know that I’m going to be focusing on Chicago.”
Asked how Madigan reacted to her decision, Mendoza replied, “The speaker is a man of very few words. I can just tell you it doesn’t matter. One way or the other, I don’t know what he’s thinking. No one ever knows what he’s thinking. But I know what I’m thinking about, and that’s the future of this city.”
Mendoza went public with her mayoral bid early on the same morning that Preckwinkle gave a breakfast speech to the City Club of Chicago about a five-year strategic plan for Cook County government — even though she hopes to be departing it soon. Afterward, Preckwinkle, wouldn’t bite at a chance to critique the newest candidate in the crowded field, even though some of her allies had.
“Susana Mendoza, and anybody else, is entitled to run for mayor,” Preckwinkle said when asked why she’s a better candidate than Mendoza. “I have three grandchildren, and I want Chicago to be a great place for them to go to school. They attend our public schools. I want them to have economic opportunities. I want them to live in safe neighborhoods. I want that as a grandparent.”
The invocation of her grandchildren’s CPS attendance came after Mendoza made the same point about her son in her mayoral launch video.
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November 15, 2018 at 05:30AM