ILLINOIS (WCIA) In a wide-ranging half-hour interview at a political fundraising office in Chicago, incumbent Comptroller Susana Mendoza repeated a pledge to remain in her post and opt not to run for mayor of Chicago on one condition: if she and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner both win re-election in 11 days.
“I promise you one thing, if Bruce Rauner gets elected, I would not even consider in my wildest imagination running for mayor of Chicago,” she declared. “I will be comptroller every minute that Bruce Rauner is governor.”
The most recent independent poll found Democrat J.B. Pritzker holding a commanding 20-point lead over Rauner, providing Mendoza with enough breathing room to make such a vow, and reducing the likelihood she will ever have to live up to it.
“The only poll that matters is election day and I don’t take anything for granted,” she said of Rauner’s chances at winning re-election. “We have a job to do, and that is the 2018 election. And that is what I am fully focused on.”
Mendoza’s Republican opponent Darlene Senger has challenged her to commit to a full four-year term, claiming that her refusal to do so is evidence Mendoza may have hunger for higher office.
While Mendoza refused to discuss any possibility of officially entering the mayoral scrum, she didn’t hesitate to discuss the many problems that plague the nation’s third largest city.
“I think a lot of people who are looking at the mayor’s job right now, they might think, ‘okay, I better get a good understanding of how finances work here’ because Chicago is going to have to deal with that in a huge way,” she said, hinting that her experience as the state’s Chief Financial Officer could come in handy as next April’s mayoral contest approaches.
“I think I could be up for any job. I think I have proven that as Comptroller,” Mendoza said as she described how in 2016 her friends warned her against running for Comptroller, which they saw then as ‘the most impossible job.’
“And I remember saying that is exactly why I want to run for that job because I feel like the state is burning,” she said. “I have a little bit of a fireman’s complex. You know, I see a huge problem, or I see a building on fire and I am going to run towards it. I don’t really get excited about taking on mediocre challenges or about playing it safe.”
If she doesn’t already see a city ablaze in fiscal ruin, the kindling wood is certainly there. Pension pressure looms in the near distance, and Mendoza predicts an inevitable national economic downturn.
“I think the mayor has done more to shore up pensions in Chicago than has certainly been done on the state level, but the challenges are still enormous. Let’s not forget that there is a recession that will be coming and hitting probably within the next three years. So Chicago’s financial problems are going to probably get worse before they get better,” she said.
“These are not easy challenges, and that is why you need people with competence and the ability to get stuff done,” Mendoza added, perhaps testing an early argument that her fiscal experience sets her apart from other top contenders.
When asked if she thought her financial experience trumped that of any other mayoral candidates, she changed the subject to “the massive, raw, hurt feelings that exist between people who want to be safe in the neighborhoods, the distrust in the police department.” She said “the Chicago Police Department definitely has to go through some significant reforms,” but stressed that “the community has to be a part of that. This is not a one-sided operation.”
Mendoza said she approves of the consent decree that could soon reshape the Chicago Police Department, and said it would “make sense” to impose term limits on “mayors of humongous municipalities like Chicago, LA or New York.”
She also returned recent criticism from Bill Daley. The son and brother of two former mayors targeted Mendoza and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in an ethics speech last week.
“The absurdity of two office holders, running for two jobs at the same time and basically raising and spending money for them, is like cheating the public and treating their sacred jobs as a joke,” Daley said. “It’s not like we don’t have problems in the state, the county or the city. C’mon. I’ve been around this business my whole life, OK? And the amount of time people spend on fundraising is ridiculous. And when you’re running for two offices, holding a public job, it’s kind of crazy.”
“Mr. Daley can have his opinion,” Mendoza retorted, suggesting the former U.S. Commerce Secretary’s stance on running for one job while holding another is one he only recently acquired. “I would remind him that he was the chief strategist of his brothers campaign for mayor at the same time that his brother was running for state’s attorney 20-something years ago. He was re-elected for state’s attorney, and then I think within like 30 days announced his run for mayor. So, there’s that.”
Buzz about a potential Mendoza mayoral run has been building in recent weeks, thanks in part to a campaign commercial that featured the Comptroller wearing a soccer jersey from the Chicago Red Stars, the professional women’s team whose shirts prominently feature the iconic four red stars from the city’s flag.
“It says, ‘Hey, I’m running for Comptroller,’ but it kind of had the riff of you’re not just running for statewide office, you’re running for mayor too,” 30-year-old barista Louis Uhler deduced.
The video caught his eye, and so did Mendoza when she walked into his downtown coffee shop Friday morning. When he asked her how the campaign was going, she told him she was relieved that it was almost over.
“Don’t you have four more months of this,” he quipped with a grin. Mendoza repeated her claim that she’s putting those decisions off until after November’s election.
Uhler, whose mother taught in the Chicago Public Schools while he was growing up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, says he would “definitely” support Mendoza running for mayor.
He described himself as a practical progressive who has grown frustrated with House Speaker Michael Madigan, and he sees Mendoza as “enough of an outsider” to set the city on a new course.
“I don’t think she’s completely an Illinois machine candidate,” he said. “Given her background, I’d say I prefer her over Bill Daley, Gery Chico, [Toni] Preckwinkle or [Paul] Vallas,” adding that he believes Mendoza is “more of an outsider than your Bill Daleys and your Toni Preckwinkles.”
Mendoza denied having any discussions with J.B. Pritzker about her political future, but acknowledged that “clearly, yes,” he would have an ally in the mayor’s office if she won that seat.
“We don’t have those conversations because my full focus has been on running for Comptroller and helping the rest of the Democratic ticket get elected as well,” she responded. “So my number one priority, even besides electing myself, is getting a new governor for the state of Illinois because we cannot afford another four years of Bruce Rauner at the helm. It would just be so disastrous to our state.”
Mendoza’s critics interpret her statement — one of stedfast loyalty to Pritzker and conditional loyalty to her office — as a wink and a nod to Pritzker that he could appoint her replacement, which could be seen as an offer tempting enough to lure donations and political support from a newly elected billionaire governor.
It’s an offer only she can make, setting her apart from the field in Pritzker’s eyes. Such an arrangement would only add to their already chummy relationship, and it would come with very little political risk. IIf Mendoza secures another four-year term, she would be free to run for mayor of Chicago without sacrificing her Springfield office. One might say it would be like a free shot on goal.