Leslie Munger landed in the comptroller’s office last year with the only vote that mattered: Bruce Rauner’s.
But in a rebuke to the first-term Republican governor who gave millions to keep Munger in her post, Illinois voters rejected Munger in favor of Democrat Susana Mendoza — lifting yet another outspoken female personality to the comptroller’s office.
Mendoza, the Chicago City Clerk, led the state’s big-money comptroller race with 49 percent of the vote with 94 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night. Munger, a Republican from Lincolnshire, had 45 percent of the vote. Libertarian Claire Ball and Green Party candidate Tim Curtin each had 3 percent.
Tuesday’s election gave voters a chance to finally choose a replacement for late Republican Judy Baar Topinka, a larger-than-life politician known for playing the accordion, dancing the polka and shopping for bargains at garage sales and thrift stores. She died suddenly in December 2014, one month after winning a four-year term in the comptroller’s office, but one month before she could start it.
Now a daughter of Mexican immigrants who promises to be a vocal Rauner antagonist is poised to finish that term.
Rauner appointed Munger to serve as the state’s new comptroller when he first took office in 2015. But former Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, had already signed legislation triggering a special election. The result was this year’s big-money race for an obscure office that has at times been targeted for elimination.
Shades of Topinka’s quirky personality re-emerged Tuesday night at Mendoza’s election night party, where the Democratic declared victory in an outfit that once belonged to the late Republican, a bright red skirt suit.
Mendoza finally appeared at her party to declare victory around 11:15 p.m.
“I couldn’t have done this without you,” Mendoza told the crowd.
Mendoza’s supporters gathered at The Palmer House Hilton, snacking on French pastries and watching election results on ABC and CNN. Even before the numbers began to roll in, one staffer told a reporter confidently that, “Susana’s earned it.” The crowd seemed more nervous about the presidential election than the comptroller race.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an appearance as Mendoza appeared poised to declare victory.
Thirty miles to the north, Munger posed for photos as her team gathered at the Marriott Lincolnshire, sipping on wine and domestic beer and listening to classic rock giants — Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The crowd was loose but tight-lipped when it came to how the night might play out.
Around 11 p.m., Munger told supporters that she had conceded to Mendoza. Even in defeat, Munger said she was proud of her campaign and added, “I can’t think of anything I would’ve done differently.”
Tuesday’s vote concluded a highly contentious race between the women, which many have framed as a proxy war between Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. The candidates raised at least $12 million combined and each spent six-digit sums with firms specializing in political campaign ads.
The candidates themselves decried the proxy war narrative while also playing into it, accusing each other of operating in “lockstep” with their political captains. Mendoza at one point told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I don’t feel like I’m running against Leslie Munger any more,” but rather against Rauner.
At Munger’s party, Ron MacFarlane, of Buffalo Grove, said Mendoza would be “another rubber stamp” for Madigan. He added, “every Democrat in the state, sadly, is a rubber stamp for Madigan.”
Munger, a former marketing executive, declared herself the “independent” candidate in the race despite taking $1 million from the governor’s campaign fund and another $1 million directly from the governor and his wife.
Mendoza accepted $650,000 from the Democratic Party of Illinois, led by Madigan. She worked in Chicago’s city planning department starting in 1998 and served as state representative from 2001 until 2011, the year she was elected clerk.
Munger’s central message revolved around her decision last spring to put all elected officials’ paychecks — hers included — at the back of the line for payment. In one of her campaign commercials, she says elected officials in Springfield are “hurting Illinois, so why should they get paid?”
Mendoza said she would continue that policy. But she also promised to be more of a watchdog 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 told the Sun-Times.