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Fact-check: Peeling back Vallas’ swipe at Mendoza’s city sticker record

Little more than a week after handily winning re-election as the state’s chief financial officer, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced her campaign for Chicago mayor.

That long-anticipated announcement was met with a flurry of attacks from potential opponents in the mayoral race, including former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. He criticized Mendoza for touting her opposition to a vehicle sticker price increase in 2011 during her time as Chicago’s city clerk as part of her campaign launch.

“Susana Mendoza’s assertion that she fought Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to drastically raise city sticker prices is absurd,” Vallas said in a statement sent out by his campaign. “As news stories earlier this year by WBEZ and ProPublica painfully show, Mendoza pushed a draconian city sticker penalty program that led to the financial ruin of thousands of Chicago’s neediest families.”

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His press release linked to a July story from ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ in which Mendoza expressed regret for backing an increase in the cost of city sticker violations, a policy that ProPublica and WBEZ revealed had exacted a painful financial toll on thousands of Chicago’s poorest residents, in particular African-Americans.

But just as clearly documented is Mendoza’s outspoken opposition to the sticker price increase Emanuel proposed in his first budget as mayor.

It sounded like Vallas was conflating these two pieces of the sticker policy puzzle. So we asked for clarification.

“I think it’s a pretty clear statement,” Vallas said in a phone interview. “I define what I meant and what I meant was, these draconian fines are bankrupting families. … I gave the specific example of what Mendoza did that was so egregious and what the impact was.”

A Vallas spokesman followed up several hours later to explain the statement his candidate had characterized as “pretty clear” needed some clarification.

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas is interviewed by Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall in August. Vallas wasted no time attacking rival mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza over city vehicle sticker claims. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times candidate Paul Vallas is interviewed by Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas is interviewed by Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall in August. Vallas wasted no time attacking rival mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza over city vehicle sticker claims. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“There was inadvertently a word change,” spokesman John Holden said, explaining the original draft had called absurd Mendoza’s assertion that she fought Emanuel over sticker policy rather than sticker prices specifically.

That was not, however, a distinction Vallas attempted to draw when he discussed the matter with PolitiFact. Holden, while acknowledging a lack of clarity in the initial statement put out in Vallas’ name, said the campaign did not plan to issue a correction.

Still, it’s worth noting that while Vallas’ public statement attempts to cherry-pick the part of Mendoza’s city sticker record that casts her in the worst light, Mendoza did some cherry-picking of her own when referencing the sticker issue in her campaign launch announcement.

Back in 2011, Emanuel prevailed in hiking sticker prices, although he reworked his plan in response to Mendoza’s criticism, opting to spread out a lower increase among all drivers rather than dramatically hiking rates on larger passenger vehicles alone. The city also adopted the kind of increased ticket penalties for sticker scofflaws that Mendoza had pitched as an alternative to an increase in sticker prices. Citations for failing to have a required vehicle sticker jumped from $120 to $200.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to City Clerk Susana Mendoza before presiding over a Chicago City Council meeting in 2011. As she runs for mayor, Mendoza is touting her opposition to Emanuel over city vehicle sticker prices. File Photo.| Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to City Clerk Susana Mendoza before presiding over a Chicago City Council meeting in 2011. As she runs for mayor, Mendoza is touting her opposition to Emanuel over city vehicle sticker prices. File Photo.| Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

In the announcement that Vallas ridiculed, Mendoza highlighted only her opposition to higher sticker prices while not mentioning the corresponding increase in violation penalties she backed.

ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ found that debt from sticker tickets soared, compounded by late penalties and collection fees, with drivers collectively racking up $275 million in dollars owed to the city for tickets issued since 2012.

We reached out to Mendoza’s campaign to hear how she reconciled her actions on city sticker policy. Spokeswoman Rebecca Evans sent us a response that included a statement from the candidate.

Mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times newsroom last week. Mendoza and rival mayoral candidate Paul Vallas are sparring over city vehicle stickers. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times newsroom last week. Mendoza and rival mayoral candidate Paul Vallas are sparring over city vehicle stickers. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“I said long before I announced my candidacy that the city should revisit these penalties and how they are enforced, which overburdens our city’s low-income residents,” Mendoza said. “As mayor I plan to do so.”

Evans elaborated by calling the comparison between the two issues a “false equivalency,” writing that Mendoza’s efforts to halt the sticker price increase and how the city’s Department of Revenue has enforced sticker penalties are separate issues.

Our ruling

 Vallas said, “Mendoza’s assertion that she fought Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to drastically raise city sticker prices is absurd … Mendoza pushed a draconian city sticker penalty program.”

Vallas is correct that Mendoza backed hiking tickets for violating city sticker requirements during her time as city clerk, a policy that has financially burdened thousands of low-income Chicagoans.

But he’s off base in calling into question Mendoza’s well-documented opposition to Emanuel’s sticker price increase.

We rate his partially accurate statement Half True.

The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking service has teamed up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.

Sources

“Susana Mendoza already on the defensive on day one of mayoral campaign,” Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 14, 2018

 Vallas press release, Nov. 14, 2018

Mendoza campaign announcement, Nov. 14, 2018

“Chicago Hiked the Cost of Vehicle City Sticker Violations to Boost Revenue. But It’s Driven More Low-Income, Black Motorists Into Debt,” ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ, July 26, 2018

“Emanuel raised vehicle sticker prices, but city clerk likely to take heat,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 24, 2011

Phone interview: Paul Vallas, Nov. 14, 2018

Phone interview: John Holden, Vallas spokesman, Nov. 14, 2018

Email interview: Rebecca Evans, Mendoza spokeswoman, Nov. 16, 2018