Throughout her two-decade political career, Susana Mendoza has cast herself as a fighter who takes on tough battles and wins.
In her biggest race yet, however, Mendoza came up short, finishing fifth in Tuesday’s 14-way race for Chicago mayor and receiving just over 9 percent of the vote. As former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle campaign for an April 2 runoff, Mendoza returns to her duties as Illinois comptroller — the office to which she was re-elected in November, eight days before officially entering the race for mayor.
“I haven’t lost an election in 20 years,” Mendoza said in her election night concession speech at Moe’s Cantina in River North. “It stings.”
Mendoza’s first election defeat since her initial race for Illinois House in 1998 is a major disappointment for a candidate who was considered among the front-runners in the crowded mayoral field. The loss stalls the upward trajectory of a rising star in the state Democratic Party, leaving her without a clear path forward — the next race for mayor isn’t until 2023, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been in office less than two months, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has said he plans to run for a fifth term next year.
Through a spokesman, Mendoza, 46, declined to comment on what’s next for her politically.
Despite her loss, the mayor’s race raised Mendoza’s profile in Chicago and displayed her energy as a campaigner and prowess as a fundraiser. She brought in more than $2.8 million in campaign cash despite her late entry into the race and secured endorsements from powerful labor groups including the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Given her age and her position as the most prominent Latina elected official in a city and state with a growing Hispanic population, Mendoza figures to be a fixture on the political stage for years to come.
Losing a high-profile race is “a setback, but it’s not the kiss of death,” said Chris Mooney, a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and longtime observer of state politics.
“She had this chance, and she took it, and it didn’t work out for her,” he said. “What she can hope for is that she learned enough from the experience that will help her in the future and that it didn’t damage her brand.”
Mendoza didn’t get out of the mayor’s race unscathed.
Even as she closed out her race for comptroller in the fall, her interest in replacing outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel was among the worst-kept secrets in Illinois politics. Four days before the November election, a video clip of Mendoza declaring her candidacy for mayor leaked out, underscoring the criticism she’d faced throughout the comptroller’s campaign that she was eyeing her next office while still running for re-election.
Once she entered the race for the fifth-floor office at City Hall, she became one of several candidates forced to answer for their ties to embattled Aldermen Ed Burke and Danny Solis, who are at the center of a major corruption probe.
Mendoza ended up giving away campaign donations from Burke, who was charged in January for an alleged shakedown scheme that was linked to a campaign donation to Preckwinkle, and also contributions tied to Solis, who wore a wire for federal authorities as part of the investigation and secretly recorded Burke. Preckwinkle has not been charged with any wrongdoing and has said she also gave away the campaign donation connected to Burke.
It wasn’t just the campaign cash that drew barbs from Mendoza’s opponents. She faced repeated attacks for her close political and personal ties to Burke — he backed her in her first two races for the Illinois House, and his wife, state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, officiated Mendoza’s wedding at the Burkes’ Southwest Side home.
But the mayoral campaign also gave Mendoza an opportunity to display some of her strongest political skills: fending off attacks from opponents while landing jabs of her own. She went on the offensive against Preckwinkle, attacking the leader of the Cook County Democratic Party for trying to get Mendoza and four other female candidates knocked off the ballot over issues with their nominating petitions. Later, she went after former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley for his role on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s transition team in 2014.
Mendoza, UIC’s Mooney said, is “a great campaigner,” has a breadth of experience and is well-known after being elected to six terms as a state representative, two as city clerk and two as comptroller.
“She’s still certainly one of the … bright young lights in Illinois politics,” he said.
Always looking for new opportunities, Mendoza ran for clerk shortly after being re-elected for the last time as state representative, then entered the race for comptroller after winning her second term as city clerk.
In January, Mendoza was sworn in for a new four-year term in statewide office. Overseeing the state’s checkbook as comptroller will allow her to maintain her public profile across Illinois, although she now may have fewer opportunities to grab the spotlight.
After winning a special election for a two-year term as comptroller in 2016, Mendoza proved adept at garnering attention by criticizing Rauner over the financial damage his long-running budget fight with Democratic lawmakers was doing to the state.
But with Rauner gone and Democrats running the show in Springfield, Mendoza’s focus likely will be working with Pritzker to manage the state’s chronic cash-flow problems.
“That’s important work, it’s workaday work, but it’s not going to get you in the paper on the front page,” Mooney said.
Statewide offices are widely seen as steppingstones to jobs such as governor or U.S. senator, but almost no one who’s served as comptroller since the position was created in the 1970 Illinois Constitution has successfully made the leap.
Democrats Michael Bakalis and Dawn Clark Netsch won their party’s nomination for governor, but they lost to Republican Govs. Jim Thompson in 1978 and Jim Edgar in 1994, respectively. Democrat Roland Burris made a successful run for state attorney general in 1990 and was appointed to fill Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in 2008 by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich after the governor was arrested on corruption charges.
That history has more to do with the individual candidates and races than the nature of the comptroller’s office, Mooney said.
Despite her loss in the mayor’s race, Mendoza’s party remains optimistic about her future.
“An election defeat does not define a candidate or their future,” Mary Morrissey, executive director of the Illinois Democratic Party, said in an emailed statement. “As comptroller, Susana Mendoza has a proven record of fighting for taxpayers and a bright future ahead of her.”
Political consultant Becky Carroll, a longtime friend and informal adviser, said Mendoza is ready for a break from campaigning after three election cycles in three years.
“For now, she’s going to bury herself in her job as comptroller,” Carroll said. “She has to get back to her job. Despite the fact that we have a new Democratic governor who she’s clearly aligned with on many levels, she still has work to do.”
Among the items on Mendoza’s Springfield agenda are a bill that would require more financial transparency from private insurance companies that manage Medicaid benefits for the state and another that would create a program to certify financial products for low-income customers.
At her swearing-in ceremony in January, Mendoza said she looked forward to another term as comptroller because of — not in spite of — Illinois’ financial challenges.
“That’s exactly why I want to be comptroller,” she said, “because when I see a problem, I need to fix it. I can’t just sit on the sidelines.”
Those remarks came even as Mendoza was engaged in a fiercely contested campaign for mayor.
In conceding defeat in the mayor’s race Tuesday night, Mendoza hinted at a possible future run.
“You may not always make it the first time, but you never give up,” Mendoza told supporters. “I didn’t give up 20 years ago; I’m not giving up today. And I need you to not give up either.”
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March 3, 2019 at 05:18AM