The gloves came off Tuesday night as Republican Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger accused Democratic challenger Susana Mendoza of double-dipping on a public pension, while Mendoza called the appointed comptroller the state’s “chief fiscal launderer” for transferring campaign donations to other political funds.
And Mendoza tried to tie the GOP incumbent to presidential nominee Donald Trump and Gov. Bruce Rauner, as Munger sought to link the Democratic challenger to House Speaker Mike Madigan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Edward M. Burke.
Appearing on a WTTW “Chicago Tonight” forum with just two weeks to go before Election Day, Munger and Mendoza fought to show their independence – despite hefty campaign contributions that each argue show that the other is anything but independent.
While Rauner and Madigan were a recurring subtext throughout the 27-minute debate, the most heated exchange came when Mendoza blasted Munger for refusing to take a stand against Trump.
“Let’s be honest, it takes half a nanosecond to know where you should be with Donald Trump with everything he’s said,” Mendoza said. “It shouldn’t take you a lot of thought to decide and tell voters honestly whether or not you’re for Donald Trump.”
Munger fired back: “Well, perhaps you’d like to talk to one of your mentors, Ald. Ed Burke, who also does business with Donald Trump.”
“He’s not on the ballot,” Mendoza countered. “You and I are on the ballot.”
Munger accused Mendoza of being divisive: “I’m really trying to work to unite people. … There’s a lot of craziness at the top of the ticket … on both sides of the aisle.”
The race for the normally obscure statewide office has made headlines this campaign season as Madigan and Rauner use it as a proxy battle. It has for weeks been the most expensive race in the state.
On Tuesday, Munger had $6.8 million in her campaign warchest, with Mendoza at $2.1 million.
Munger’s campaign fund is in part being used to send money to the Illinois Republican Party, which then sends it to targeted legislative candidates. In early October, $3 million from her campaign fund was transferred to the state party.
Chicago City Clerk Mendoza — who also served 10 years in the Illinois House – said a recent $1 million contribution from Rauner’s political fund shows the governor is running the office of comptroller.
Munger was appointed by the governor in 2015 after the death of Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Both are vying to serve the remaining two years of the term.
“She just accepted, from the person that she’s supposed to be a checks and balances to, a check for $1 million. By constitution, the Illinois comptroller’s office should be an independently elected office that serves as a watchdog for other executive offices,” Mendoza said.
Munger pointed out that some of that contribution was transferred out back to the Illinois Republican Party to fund other candidates’ races, prompting Mendoza to dub it “a legal laundering mechanism.”
Munger countered: “It’s not all coming in to me. My opponent has actually received plenty of money from special interests herself, including contracts that she’s gotten, money from companies she’s given out contracts out to, and money from Speaker [Michael] Madigan himself.”
“The Illinois Democratic Party is run by Speaker Madigan,” Munger said, as Mendoza interjected.
“Can I please finish? I was quiet when you were speaking,” Munger said.
There were numerous interjections during the appearance.
“Comptroller Munger has just admitted that she is allowing her campaign account, Citizens for Leslie Munger to be used as a legal laundering mechanism, so not only has she gone from being the state’s chief fiscal officer, she’s now admitted to being the state’s chief fiscal launderer,” Mendoza said.
Munger touted her standing up to Rauner as a form of her independence when she refused his request to withhold fair share union dues. She also went to court against Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to make sure she could pay out checks to state employees during the budget impasse.
Mendoza denied accepting money from Madigan, pointing out that the majority of the Illinois Republican Party is being funded by Rauner. Mendoza said the Illinois Democratic Party is funded by “thousands of people who support Democratic principles, not fully or either partially by the speaker.”
“The Democratic Party of Illinois is not the personal piggy bank of Speaker Madigan unlike the Illinois GOP, who has also given her money,” Mendoza said.
Munger has accused Mendoza of double-dipping her pensions and salary as she worked for the city and also served in the Illinois House. Mendoza called that claim “absolutely untrue,” saying she was never paid by the city of Chicago for days in which she worked for the Legislature.
“You can buy a lot of lies with $9 million from three billionaires,” Mendoza said, referencing the contributions to her campaign from Rauner, shipping magnate Richard Uihlein and businessman Ken Griffin.
Mendoza repeatedly pushed Munger for not distancing herself from Trump —listing his comments about women, mocking the disabled and saying that immigrants like her dad “are rapists and murderers.”
But Munger distanced herself from the presidential election, saying she’s staying out of the divisive race and focusing on ways to “unite us.”
Moderator Phil Ponce asked whether she supports Trump’s candidacy: “I’m really working very hard to stay out of the issues of the top ticket because no matter who you talk to there is divisive situations on both sides,” Munger said, while denouncing some of his comments.
“Will you be voting for him?” Ponce followed.
“My personal vote is my personal vote,” Munger said.
While Munger said she’s in support of “some” of Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda items, she said it’s most important to look at ways to control the cost of state operations and get a budget that’s balanced.
Mendoza called the governor’s agenda a “Turnaround Upside Down Agenda,” saying the state “by every measurable account” is doing “worse than ever before in our history.”
In her closing pitch to voters, Munger again stressed her independence.
“I’m the right person because I am the most independent person here because I’m not part of any of the problems of the past,” Munger said, touting her private business experience.
Mendoza called herself an “independent truth telling fiscal watchdog” with a history of standing up to leaders.