Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza touts a financial rebound while her GOP opponent questions her ties to Madigan

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In her bid for a second full term as Illinois comptroller, Chicago Democrat Susana Mendoza faced the prospect of fending off a well-financed Republican challenger in McHenry County Auditor Shannon Teresi, who was part of a slate backed by billionaire Ken Griffin in the primary.

But Teresi and treasurer candidate Tom Demmer, who ran unopposed, were the only members of the slate to survive the primary, and Griffin left Illinois for Florida.

Teresi, 38, has since run a low-profile campaign in her bid to unseat Mendoza, attempting to tie her opponent to Democratic corruption while arguing that her financial credentials make her better suited for the relatively obscure state office, which oversees the state’s checkbook.

Mendoza, 50, who made a failed bid for Chicago mayor in 2019 and is often seen to still have higher political ambitions, isn’t shy about taking credit for a modest rebound in the state’s finances during her six years in office — she was elected to a full term two years after winning a special election in 2016.

“It’s incredibly impressive what I’ve done with the horrific, rotten batch of lemons that were thrown my way. And the result of that is six credit upgrades,” Mendoza said. “When I took office, we had almost a $17 billion backlog of unpaid bills, and it got cut down by $9 billion over the course of two to three months.”

Illinois went two years without a budget and experienced a backlog in unpaid bills under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who through most of his single term was locked in a staredown with former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Today, the state is mostly paying its bill within a normal 30-day cycle, and all three Wall Street ratings agencies have upgraded the state’s credit, largely on the strength of budgets approved by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch on Oct. 6, 2022, at the Palmer House Hilton during the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch on Oct. 6, 2022, at the Palmer House Hilton during the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Republican Illinois comptroller candidate Shannon Teresi talks to supporters during a campaign stop at Manny's Ale House in Elmhurst on May 21, 2022.

Republican Illinois comptroller candidate Shannon Teresi talks to supporters during a campaign stop at Manny’s Ale House in Elmhurst on May 21, 2022. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Teresi, of Crystal Lake, was appointed McHenry County’s internal auditor in 2018. A certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner, she repeatedly ties Mendoza, a onetime state representative, to Madigan, who has pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and racketeering charges.

“If you were flying a plane, you’d have a pilot,” Teresi said. “In Mendoza, you have Madigan’s protege without any financial experience or education.”

Mendoza has a business degree from Truman State University in Missouri and said few have questioned her financial qualifications during her six years as comptroller. “They all know I’m qualified to lead the state because I have already,” she told the Tribune.

Teresi entered October with a little more than $26,000 in her campaign fund after raising more than $38,000 from July through September, including $21,000 from the campaign fund of Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, who headed Griffin’s slate of Republican candidates but finished third in the GOP primary for governor.

Mendoza had more than $1.4 million on hand at the start of the month, having raised more than $623,000 and spent a little more than $184,000 in the previous quarter.

Teresi has reported raising just $4,500 in large-dollar contributions this month, compared with nearly $178,000 raised by Mendoza

Mendoza’s pitch to voters has centered on her accomplishments in office. She takes credit for prioritizing payments to nursing homes and schools and helping to right the state’s financial ship so that the previously nearly nonexistent rainy day fund could be replenished to a record high $1 billion.

In her relatively few campaign events, Teresi has hammered on political corruption in Springfield and the state’s historically mismanaged finances and high taxes. She also has pointed to a number of audits conducted by her office that resulted in criminal investigations, employee terminations and improvements in process.

“My background lends perfectly to the modernization that’s needed in the comptroller’s office. Illinois needs someone with proven financial leadership experience in the private and public sector, not just a career politician,” Teresi said in an interview with the Tribune.

She criticized Mendoza and Democratic leadership for creating an environment that she said has led businesses, including Caterpillar and Boeing, to move out of state.

From 2005 to 2010, Teresi worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the Big Four accounting firms, first as an intern internal auditor, followed by a two-year stretch as an associate doing audit and tax work. She said she worked with Fortune 500 clients, including McDonald’s, Boeing, and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Teresi said one of her priorities if elected would be creating a task force that makes “Illinois more attractive” for businesses.

“(Mendoza) doesn’t know the difference between a balance sheet and a bus schedule, (and) if you’re not trained in any financial background, it’s very difficult to lead an army of accountants,” Teresi said.

Teresi’s argument that she’d be better for business in Illinois was somewhat undercut this month when the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, a key ally of Mendoza’s onetime political nemesis, Rauner, endorsed the incumbent for reelection.

In its endorsement, the chamber cited Mendoza’s commitment to fiscal integrity and spirit of bipartisanship.

“They’re the ultimate establishment, they want big general stuff that the Republican Party wants — lower taxes, fewer regulations. What the (endorsement) suggests to me is that she’s settled in, she hasn’t screwed up,” said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Before becoming comptroller, Mendoza served two terms as Chicago’s city clerk before winning six terms as a state representative, a political rise that, as Teresi is quick to point out, was helped along the way by Madigan’s political operation. Teresi’s argument is a valid one, but may not have lasting resonance, according to Mooney.

“She was a Madigan person as pretty much anybody who had any kind of success in the House was in those days,” Mooney said. “But the sell-by date on that is going to be pretty soon.”

One major question surrounding Mendoza — seen as a rising star in the state Democratic Party before her disappointing fifth-place finish in the 2019 mayoral primary — is how long she’ll be content to remain in a low-profile office.

Mendoza entered the 2016 special election for comptroller after winning a second term as city clerk. Four days before she was reelected comptroller in 2018, a video leaked out of her declaring her candidacy for mayor.

Asked about speculation she’s still looking at other political opportunities, Mendoza said, “I love being a leader for our state, and for now, am focused on continuing to right Illinois’ financial ship as comptroller.”

While the comptroller’s office may not be flashy, it plays an important role in guiding the state through difficult financial times and keeping the public informed, Mendoza said, pointing to an online portal her office created showing coronavirus-related state spending.

“We said, ‘We will do what no one is going to expect us to do, and that’s to show where this money is going,’ ” Mendoza said. It was crucial to have the portal up and running during the darkest days of the pandemic, she said, instead of waiting to do it when things were less chaotic.

The portal will continue to be updated on a daily basis as long as there’s COVID-19 spending — “I don’t want anybody out there to think, ‘Oh, they’re stealing all this money, or they’re doing this or that with the money,’ ” Mendoza added.

Just recently, an Illinois Supreme Court decision denied two former Democratic state senators back pay in a lawsuit that named Mendoza as a defendant. The former lawmakers had sued the state, claiming legislation that they supported forgoing pay raises violated a provision in the state constitution that prohibits lawmakers from voting to change their own pay.

“I felt like I was fighting uphill because we had lost twice,” Mendoza said. “They said, ‘we’re going to be so honorable and not take a raise year after year after year.’ And then they retire and they want their money back, and it’s really why everybody hates us.”

Mendoza said she wants voters to understand the work of her office, which can often be lumped into statewide races “no one cares about.”

Going down a list of accomplishments, Mendoza pointed to putting a stop to her office’s role in collecting unpaid red-light camera fines on behalf of local municipalities. The move came after red-light cameras became a nexus of an ongoing federal corruption probe.

“I became very wary, honestly, about all the money that our office had to take out of mostly poor and minority drivers, and then when we really started diving deep into this, we realized that more than 90% of these tickets were not even for blowing through a red light,” she said. “We could argue the state lost some money, but I don’t think you could put a price on doing the right thing here.”

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.

zsyed@chicagotribune.com

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October 21, 2022 at 05:15AM

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