After loss in mayor’s race, Susana Mendoza’s political future in limbo – Chicago Tribune

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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.

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.”

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PetrellaReports

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March 3, 2019 at 05:18AM

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