Sunday, October 30, 2016

What the Illinois comptroller race is really about



Crain's illustration

Crain's illustration

Both are self-made women. Both say that in this time of fiscal trouble, Illinois needs an independent watchdog as its chief financial officer. And both claim to be that person.

Yet for most voters, the contest for Illinois comptroller between appointed GOP incumbent Leslie Munger and the Democratic challenger, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, isn't so much about them as it is about two men: Bruce Rauner and Mike Madigan.

Call it the battle of the surrogates. Though there are plenty of good issues to debate in the contest for comptroller, the election fundamentally is a test of strength between the strongwilled GOP governor and the equally stubborn Democratic speaker of the Illinois House.

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger - AP

Photo by AP Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger

Munger, 60, who got the job when then-Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka died shortly after winning re-election in 2014, hails from Joliet. A University of Illinois graduate, she ran the domestic hair-care business at Helene Curtis under CEO Ron Gidwitz, who also was the state's top GOP fundraiser. She ran, unsuccessfully, for state representative in the northern suburbs in 2014.

"I feel we've been fighting for Illinois' financial future," she says. "I've been working very hard to bring fiscal responsibility."

Mendoza, 44, was a soccer star at Bolingbrook High School and Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State), where she earned a degree in business administration. Her political activity goes back almost that far: Elected a state representative from a Back of the Yards district at age 28, she served into her sixth term before becoming Chicago city clerk.

Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza - AP

Photo by AP Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza

"This race is about getting people to elect an independent truth teller," she says. "The question is, who will focus on the fiscal health of the state?"

While both meet the qualifications for being the state's chief bill payer, whether either qualifies as independent is debatable. In fact, each has plenty of ammunition against the other, and both are firing away.

Mendoza points out that Munger not only was appointed by Rauner but has allowed her campaign fund to "launder" big contributions from top Rauner allies, transferring $3 million to the Illinois Republican Party within days of receiving $5 million from Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein. The move was intended to help Rauner circumvent campaign donation caps, since the money was parceled out by the state party to other candidates, Mendoza suggests.

Munger replies that she just was following rules written by Democratic lawmakers in an effort to create "a level playing field" with Madigan's candidates.

Mendoza, in turn, was a loyal Madigan partisan in the House, accepted a salary for being a state lawmaker and a city planning official simultaneously, and gained when the speaker helped ease another Democrat out of the comptroller's race, Sen. Dan Biss. ("I made a judgment she has a level of support," Biss says. "There's no question [Madigan] was a crucial supporter of hers.")

Mendoza replies that she was careful not to accept a city salary for days in which she was in Springfield on state business. Records she supplied indicate she gave back roughly a third of her city pay in most years but still earned $114,000 combined in 2008. Mendoza also says she originally won office by twice having to overcome Madigan-backed candidates.

In fairness, both have shown streaks of independence. Munger, for instance, bucked Rauner on withholding union dues. Mendoza was an early advocate of impeaching then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Still, I suspect most voters, after seeing the smear ads on TV, have figured out that more is at stake on Nov. 8 than electing the better finance manager.

Whoever wins likely has a bright future—comptroller is one of the better steppingstones to higher office in Illinois. But first, she has to win. For those who can't wait for Rauner's presumed re-election race in 2018, consider this contest a foretaste.

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