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State Comptroller Leslie Munger, left, and City Clerk Susana Mendoza participated in a comptroller candidate forum with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in September. File Photo | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Independence key issue in costly race for obscure fiscal post

SHARE Independence key issue in costly race for obscure fiscal post
SHARE Independence key issue in costly race for obscure fiscal post

One Republican called it the “first partisan punch” of 2015 —thrown days before Gov. Bruce Rauner took office.

Democrats in Springfield voted to force a special election that would cut in half the term of Leslie Munger, Rauner’s choice to run the comptroller’s office after Judy Baar Topinka died in late 2014, about a month after winning a second four-year term.

Republicans howled about the special election. One even asked, “is it really that important to have that office?”

Apparently, it is — to both sides. Twenty-two months later, millions of dollars have been dumped into the contentious race between Republican Comptroller Munger and her Democratic challenger, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza. The candidates have raised more than $12 million this year, records show, and both have spent six-digit sums with firms specializing in political campaign ads.

Many have labeled it a proxy war between Springfield’s warring powerhouses, Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. That has frustrated the candidates to a point. But Munger still accuses Mendoza of operating in “lock step” with Madigan, and Mendoza says the same of Munger and the governor.

Libertarian Claire Ball and Green Party candidate Tim Curtin are also on the ballot. All four are battling to spend two years finishing Topinka’s term and running an office that has been offered up in the past for elimination.

State comptroller candidates, from left, Claire Ball, Leslie Munger, Susana Mendoza and Tim Curtin participated in a candidate forum with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in September. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

State comptroller candidates, from left, Claire Ball, Leslie Munger, Susana Mendoza and Tim Curtin participated in a candidate forum with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in September. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Munger is a former marketing executive and avid volunteer from Lincolnshire who took over the comptroller’s office at the dawn of the state’s budget stalemate. She says she’s “trying to keep the wheels on the bus” by prioritizing payments to schools, hospitals and human services amid the chaos.

The core of her pitch to voters is her decision last April to put all elected officials’ checks, hers included, at the back of the line for payment. In one commercial she says the elected officials are “hurting Illinois, so why should they get paid?” She told the Sun-Times that June paychecks were not likely to arrive until November, and the July paychecks would probably arrive in 2017.

“I think it’s really important to show that we’re all in this together,” Munger said.

Mendoza worked in Chicago’s city planning department starting in 1998 and served as state representative from 2001 until 2011, when she was elected clerk. She said she would continue Munger’s back-of-the-line payment policy for elected officials, insisting “everybody will be made to wait.” She also promises to be a more outspoken comptroller when it comes time to write the state budget.

“I believe that the comptroller’s office has a much bigger role to play in terms of being an advocate for fiscal sanity in Springfield,” Mendoza said.

Munger last year joined the chorus of those who think the comptroller’s office should be merged with the treasurer’s in an effort to save the state money. She affirmed her support for the idea last month, noting it could bring at least $12 million in annual savings. Mendoza said she is not necessarily opposed to the idea, but she thinks people forget about the office’s role as a fiscal watchdog.

Mendoza said that role was undermined when — in addition to accepting $2 million from GOP mega donor Richard Uihlein and $5 million from hedge fund manager Ken Griffin — Munger’s campaign took $1 million from the governor’s campaign fund. Itaccepted another $1 million directly from the governor and his wife on Halloween.

“He bought that office,” Mendoza said. “She sold it.”

Munger insists she is still the “independent” candidate in the race and owes the governor nothing because that money simply leveled the playing field. She points to Mendoza’s strong union backing, as well as the $650,000 Mendoza accepted this year from the Democratic Party of Illinois, led by Madigan. Munger has also said Mendoza should give back one of two pensions she collected while serving as a project coordinator for the city’s planning department and an elected state representative.

Mendoza says she was docked city pay when she was in Springfield, and her pension contributions reflect the docked hours. She acknowledges that Madigan controls the Democratic party’s campaign coffers, but she said “there is a difference” between that and Munger’s donation from the Rauner campaign because Madigan does not personally fund the state’s Democratic party.

Rauner, meanwhile, has contributed $7.2 million to his own campaign this year, records show.

Still, Munger says Mendoza “cannot be a full-throated advocate for change, because she’s in it up to her eyeballs.”

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