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Mendoza, Preckwinkle tangle over sexual harassment, Burke, hypocrisy and lies

(From left) Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

(From left) Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Susana Mendoza on Tuesday sparred over sexual harassment, Ald. Ed Burke and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan as each accused the other of being tied to wrongdoing or corruption.

Mendoza accused Preckwinkle of having a “code of silence” in dealing with harassment complaints, prompting the County Board president to fire back that the state comptroller is a hypocrite, for scolding her on ethics after being “married in Ed Burke’s house.”

And former Chicago Police Board head Lori Lightfoot and former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico disagreed on CPS’ performance under the current leadership, in the second of two endorsement sessions before the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

(From left) Mayoral candidates Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in the second of two sessions, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

(From left) Mayoral candidates Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in the second of two sessions, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Asked about the handling of sexual harassment within their own staffs and what it takes for action to be taken, Preckwinkle immediately offered, “I have a response.”

Instead, Mendoza chimed in to launch an attack on Preckwinkle’s handling of a sexual abuse scandal involving the County Board president’s former chief of staff.

Just after kicking off her run for mayor in September, Preckwinkle discussed the departure of top aide John Keller for “inappropriate and disrespectful behavior,” insisting she had no knowledge of any harassment or sexual abuse issues involving him before mid-September.

But months later, Preckwinkle conceded she had heard “an unsubstantiated rumor” against Keller six months earlier. She eventually released a statement saying a victim had not come forward at first: “In September, I received an allegation that was corroborated, and I acted immediately.” Preckwinkle has also asked the county inspector general to investigate Keller’s tenure.

Mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meets with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meets with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

But Mendoza wasn’t buying it on Tuesday.

“There’s been a code of silence with President Preckwinkle’s office and how she’s dealt with sexual harassment, with her chief of staff, who she knew about it six months before she acknowledged,” Mendoza told the Editorial Board. “She actually lied to the press, not to me, but to the press corps when she said she didn’t know about it.”

Preckwinkle defended her actions, saying she fired Keller “immediately.”

“As a woman, as a mother, I have no tolerance for sexual harassment. None,” Preckwinkle said, while fighting off interruptions from Mendoza.

Then Preckwinkle went for the jugular, attacking Mendoza for her close ties to Burke — who is charged with one count of attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise owner — and Madigan — who the Sun-Times last week reported was recorded by the FBI in his private law office in a federal investigation into Ald. Danny Solis.

“I’m being challenged by somebody on ethics issues who is, you know, who got married in Ed Burke’s house, who is a protege and described Ed Burke as a mentor, as a protege of Michael Madigan, who has had some real challenges these days,” Preckwinkle said. “You know, I think it’s hypocritical. I think it’s hypocritical to challenge me and challenge my record in that way.”

The bickering continued. “At the end of the day I’m not the one who’s listed in a federal complaint by the FBI for having received an illegal contribution,” Mendoza said.

Burke is also accused of shaking down the same businessman for a $10,000 campaign contribution for Preckwinkle, whose campaign returned the donation, which exceeded the legal limits. Her campaign also said it knew nothing about what prompted the donation.

Mendoza, who touted her experience in pushing for transparency in the state’s finances, earlier said she’d “put forth the most comprehensive anti-corruption ethics and accountability plan of any of the mayoral candidates,” which she said would get to the “root cause of why most of the aldermen end up going to jail.”

(From left) Mayoral candidates Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

(From left) Mayoral candidates Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Preckwinkle said she’s taken the “strongest position against Ed Burke,” saying she called for him resign his leadership posts in both the City Council and as Democratic committeeman.

“The real challenge is that we can’t allow dual employment for our city elected officials. We shouldn’t have to wonder whether or not the elected official is serving their client or their constituents,” Preckwinkle said. “Let me just say, if Ed Burke is guilty of the allegations against him, he should be in jail.”

Discussing education, Chico praised the current leadership under CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Chicago Board of Education head Frank Clark, prompting Lightfoot to scoff.

“Gery, I don’t even know how you can say that,” Lightfoot told Chico. “They got notice in January of last year that there’s a looming sex abuse crisis. Four hundred cases of kids being abused by teachers, by staff, by coaches, and they sat on it for five months. … How can you say that Frank Clark and Janice Jackson are doing a great job on that kind of record? That’s embarrassing.”

Chico stuck by Clark and Jackson: “Nobody is perfect. Nobody is perfect. When this was brought to their attention, they took action.”

“No they didn’t,” Lightfoot said.

Vallas, who led CPS from 1995 until 2001, agreed with Lightfoot.

“I am really frustrated. Suddenly Janice Jackson is doing a great job, and I like Janice Jackson. She’s an excellent educator but the jury is still out,” Vallas said. “Frank Clark, forget it. That whole board needs to go.”

(From left) Mayoral candidates Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Throughout the endorsement session, the candidates —including state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago and former Ald. Bob Fioretti — sought to capitalize on their knowledge of their specfic areas of expertise. Lightfoot showed off her precise knowledge of the contents of the federal consent decree for the Chicago Police Department; Chico credited his work with the Chicago Board of Education and at his private law firm; Vallas spoke of being meticulous as head of CPS — even providing eyeglasses for students who couldn’t get them — and later in rebuilding a school district ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Ford painted himself as a candidate that isn’t “more of the same,” and as someone would fight the machine politics and battle the city’s racism and segregation.

In many instances, the candidates nodded in agreement over policies. The seven candidates — of a total of 14 — have spent weeks together, participating in a seemingly endless number of mayoral forums and debates, all building up to the Feb. 26 election and a likely runoff.