Now that Susana Mendoza has breezed to re-election as state comptroller, it’s on to what Chicagoans have long viewed as the main event: the race for mayor.
Assuming Mendoza joins the crowded field — and there’s little doubt, considering the video declaring her candidacy that leaked last week — what is her path to victory and what are the roadblocks?
Mendoza’s camp pointed to results from Tuesday’s election as a sign of the comptroller’s strength.
They show that Mendoza beat Toni Preckwinkle in the County Board president’s home 4th Ward by 734 votes and out-performed Preckwinkle in all of the city’s African-American wards.
That’s even though Preckwinkle was unopposed and Mendoza faced Republican Darlene Senger. Mendoza also beat Preckwinkle’s citywide showing by 22,239 votes.
In the crowded race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel, others wonder whether Mendoza’s longstanding political alliance with embattled Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) is a liability heavy enough to sink her candidacy.
A Democratic operative not yet aligned with any of the mayoral candidates places Mendoza, 46, in a “top tier” of candidates that includes Preckwinkle, Bill Daley and Gery Chico.
The operative advised Mendoza to use her charismatic personality, tenacity and generational appeal to younger voters to rise above the historic tension between blacks and Hispanic voters that doomed 2015 mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“People are engaged in a way they haven’t been. You have different types of voters, new voters. They’re looking for people who are different. Not the same old, same old. That’s where her strength is. She’s different. She’s worked with and against the establishment,” the operative said.
“The first instinct for everyone is to go into tribal mode and start counting votes in different parts of the city. … But her real path is … to make this race about what the future of Chicago should be. If she can be the dynamic candidate with the energy, focus and persistence to move this city into the future, she’ll appeal to voters across all spectrums.”
A Mendoza operative, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed there is a “hunger” among Democrats nationally and in Chicago for a “new generation of progressive leaders.”
The operative compared her to African-American gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida. Like them, “Susana is the only candidate in the field … who has that potential, because she’s in her 40’s. She has that kind of enthusiasm,” the Mendoza operative said.
“She’s shown her executive chops by standing up to Rauner, speaking truth to power and bringing some sanity to the state’s fiscal mess. … Having executive experience at the city and state level gives her a leg up. And the potential to make history as the first Latina mayor of Chicago is a big deal.”
Former Hispanic Democratic Organization chieftain Victor Reyes is a political operative who has spoken to several of the top-tier mayoral candidates but is “leaning toward” joining the Preckwinkle campaign.
Reyes argued that Mendoza is Preckwinkle’s “strongest challenger” — but has weaknesses. Chief among them, Reyes said, is a voting record in Springfield that includes “a lot” of tax increases and hard-line votes on criminal justice issues that earned her the nickname, “Electric Suzy.”
“Preckwinkle is a criminal justice progressive. The voting record would show that Mendoza voted for harsher penalties and does not have a progressive criminal justice record,” Reyes said.
Mendoza’s political consultant, Eric Adelstein, countered that Mendoza was the “deciding vote in Illinois in getting rid of the death penalty.”
Yet another liability, Reyes said, is that Mendoza has run only two ministerial offices — city clerk and state comptroller — and has not proved she has the “gravitas” to tackle the monumental problems the next mayor of Chicago will face, Reyes said.
“Preckwinkle can at least say that she’s run a huge organization — whether you like the way she’s run it or not. She has a track record to run on. Susana doesn’t,” Reyes said.
As for Mendoza’s close and longstanding political relationship with Madigan, Reyes said that liability could be offset by the speaker’s still-formidable political organization and fundraising muscle.
“If he’s all in, it’s a major asset,” Reyes said.
But Madigan always has been what Reyes called a “reluctant kingmaker” in mayoral races. He’s likely to remain on the sidelines, at least until the runoff.
That means Mendoza’s next best hope to replace the campaign cash and organizational help she has long received from Madigan is Emanuel’s fundraising machine, including the mayor’s chief donor Michael Sacks.
Sacks could not be reached for comment.
Mendoza’s first hurdle is to gather 12,500 valid signatures — and three times that many to survive any petition challenge — to get on the ballot by the Nov. 26 filing deadline.
The quick turn-around explains why her supporters got a running start by circulating her nominating petitions at the Columbus Day Parade.
After that, she must catch up in fundraising.
Mendoza closed the third quarter with $1.7 million in cash on hand and has raised $265,000 since then, much of it from the same trade unions who bankrolled Emanuel’s campaigns.
But she also spent some of that money on television commercials showing her playing soccer and talking about standing up to bullies.
She’ll need to rev it up if she hopes to compete with Daley, the undisputed fundraising leader; he’s already topped the $2 million mark.
If Mendoza ultimately gets more than 60 percent of an energized Hispanic vote and 25 percent of the white vote — including lakefront wards where she got 54-to-78 percent of the vote in her 2016 race for state comptroller against Rauner appointee Leslie Munger — she almost certainly will make the runoff, Reyes said.
But Reyes argued that there is a “lane” for Daley or Chico to win a spot, particularly if Chico and Mendoza evenly divide the Hispanic vote.