Note—Still slogging through the Illinois ballot. Today we cover the sparse state-wide ballot.
Susana Mendoza for Comptroller
This is an off year for most Illinois constitutional offices. Only one, Comptroller—the most obscure and least understood state elective office—is on the ballot. How a special election to finish a regular term is as complicated as the office murky in the public mind.
After the 2012 general election the incumbent, Judy Barr Topinka—the most popular Republican in the state—died after a re-election romp. Governor Patrick Quinn, who had just lost his re-election bid, appointed his former budget director Jerry Stermer to fill the remaining days of Topinka’s first term. But he refrained, as some partisan Democrats had urged from making an appointment to the new term allowing incoming Republican Bruce Rauner to fill the job with a member of his party.
In a special session of the lame duck legislature in January of 2013 Democrats passed legislation requiring that a special election be held at the next regular statewide election for any vacancy in any statewide executive office that occurs more than 28 months before the end of the term. That limited Rauner to filling the office for only two years instead of a full term. Republicans cried foul, but they were still getting the office filled by one of their own who could stand for re-election in two years with the advantages of incumbency.
|Rauner Comptroller appointee Leslie Munger.|
Rauner appointed Leslie Munger, an executive of Helene Curtis, the cosmetics and hair care division of Unilever. She was a protégée of one of the governor’s richest and most influential allies, retired CEO Ron Gidwitz. Munger’s only political experience was a run for the State House in November, a race she narrowly lost to Democrat Carol Sente. Seen as a marketer without fiscal experience, the appoint drew criticism and raised some eyebrows for reeking of cronyism.
Which brings us to the office Munger moved into. Just what the hell does a comptroller do? The office is responsible for maintaining the State’s fiscal accounts and for authorizing the payments into and out of them. It is not a policy making office, but an accounting function. The office was created by the Illinois Constitution of 1970, replacing the office of Auditor of Public Accounts. Few states have elected comptrollers. The office has been criticized as wasteful and unnecessary and there have been attempts to fold it into the office of Treasurer. But it is seen as a first rung on a career ladder for state wide politicians. Ambitious pols of both parties have resisted calls for reform.
In her term Topinka, a former state Treasurer and unsuccessful Republican candidate for Governor against Rod Blagojevich in 2006, raised the public profile of the office by refusing to sign off on some of Gov. Quinn’s short term borrowing putting a hole in his budget.
In the two year long standoff between Gov. Rauner and the Democratic legislature, especially House Speaker Michael Madigan which has left the state without a budget and in fiscal crisis, Munger has been a surrogate for the Governor. She made headlines by threatening to withhold the paychecks of Legislators when many other state workers went without pay. The move was denounced as blackmail by Representatives, but was a popular hit. In her current campaign commercials she pledges to put legislator’s salaries last if the budget impasse again disrupts state payrolls or other payments.
Inevitably, that has made the race an unofficial referendum on Rauner’s stubborn refusal to approve a budget until his so-called Turn-around Agenda—primarily a bundle of anti-labor and union busting proposals only tangentially related to the budget—was approved. As social service agencies collapsed and laid off critical employees, state vendors went unpaid, and services like state parks and museums were closed to the public, political bickering between the governor and the powerful Speaker, who doubles as Illinois Democratic Party Chair escalated to all-out war. Both have lost public support, but Rauner has succeeded in painting Madigan as the arch villain particularly in the Chicago suburb where Democrats had been making inroads in traditional Republican territory. Despite slightly better polling numbers than Madigan, Rauner’s actual agenda is deeply unpopular with voters.
Inevitably the Democratic nominee to finish the rest of the term would be perceived as Madigan’s surrogate in a proxy war.
|Chicago City Clerk, the Democratic challenger.|
State Senator Dan Bliss, a young liberal representing the North Shore and considered a Democratic rising star, first announced his candidacy for Comptroller in 2015. He dropped out of the race, however, when Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza entered the race. He was pressured by state party officials—meaning Madigan forces—to get out probably with the promise of support in future races.
But Mendoza is no knee jerk Madigan supporter. Her rise in Chicago politics was more beholden to the city’s ethnic politics and her obvious talents which also appealed to progressive and reform Democrats.
Mendoza was born in Chicago in 1972 to Mexican immigrant parents. She grew up primarily in suburban Bolingbrook where she graduated from high school and was an All-State soccer star. She attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri on a soccer scholarship and graduated with a B.A. in business administration in 1994.
In 2000 she was elected to the State House of Representatives from the 1st District representing the heavily Latino Chicago neighborhoods of Brighton Park, Little Village, Gage Park, and Back of the Yards. She was sworn in at age 28 making her the youngest member of the Legislature. She rose quickly in the House and became Chair of the International Trade and Commerce Committee and Vice-Chairman of the Bio-Technology Committee. She also served as Co-Chairwoman of the Conference of Women Legislators, and also co-founded the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus.
Mendoza was seen as an early ally of Governor Blagojevich but broke bitterly with him in 2007 over his ambitious Capital Bill, a Christmas tree of road construction and pet projects. She joined nine other Chicago Democrats in opposition, dooming the bill. Outraged, the Governor retaliated by charging Mendoza with double dipping for taking both a legislative salary and pay as a project manager for the City. Mendoza pointed out that she waved her city salary when the legislature was in session or she was on state business. Although not required by law, that meant she took home less than half of her listed $73,000 city pay. The brouhaha caused Blagojevich a black eye, undoubtedly to Madigan’s delight.
In the supposedly nonpartisan 2011 municipal election Mendoza made a bid to replace Miguel del Valle who resigned to make an unsuccessful run for Mayor. She was opposed by African American Patricia Horton in what was seen as a confrontation between the city’s two major minority communities. Mendoza not only reaped the growing Latino vote, but she put together a coalition that included white ethnics and liberal Lakefront voters and won election with over 60% of the vote. She easily won re-election in 2015.
Despite coming into office in the same election as Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, she has largely avoided being too closely associated with him as his popularity has faltered.
In her race for Comptroller Mendoza has also pledged to be a watch dog on state expenses and pledged independence.
A flurry of slick and expensive TV ads for Munger was answered by smaller buys by Mendoza. Munger blew the lid off campaign cost caps by accepting at $260,000 “loan” from her husband. Under Illinois law if a candidate or family member contributes more than $250,000 to his or her own race, the limits come off for all candidates. Governor Rauner and his supporters and surrogates are now expected to pour virtually unlimited money into Munger’s campaign which Mendoza has accused of being “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Governor.”
Democratic donors, including Madigan controlled PACs are expected to answer with a donation surge of their own.
Despite Munger’s spending Mendoza leads her 40% to 32% with 22% undecided reflecting the growing hold of the Democrats on the state and a jump in Latino voter registration fueled by fear and anger over Donald Trump.
Also on the ballot are Libertarian Clair Bell, an accountant and member of the College of DuPage Board of Trustees and its Budget Committee and Tim Curtin of the Greens, a former organizer and official of the United Electrical Workers (UE) a historically progressive and radical labor union.
|A proposed Constitutional Amendment would place fuel tax revenue in a Lockbox for transportation projects.|
No On the Illinois Transportation Taxes and Fees Lockbox Amendment
Aside from the Comptroller race and Senate seat the only other item on the state-wide ballot is the Illinois Transportation Taxes and Fees Lockbox Amendment, a proposal that looks at first glance to be both logical and appealing. But as always in Illinois politics, there is more here than meets the eye including buck passing, tail covering, and murky special interests.
The measure is part of a growing trend of Lockbox amendments in states including Maryland, Wisconsin, and California intended to protect designated funds raised by fuel taxes for transportation projects by prohibiting their use for anything else.
In Illinois it would apply to the revenue generated from the 19 cents per gallon gasohol and the 21.5 cents per gallon on diesel fuel but not the sales taxes on fuel, which are available to the General Fund.
The measure was sent to the Ballot by an unusual, large bi-partisan majorities in the legislature with just four Democrats in the House voting no—Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25), Laura Fine (D-17), Elaine Nekritz (D-57), and Pamela Reaves-Harris (D-10). They pointed out the legislature could protect transportation funds simply by directly refraining to vote to raid them. More importantly, in the other states which have adopted Lockbox amendments there are escape clauses with mechanisms to over-ride the ban in the event of an emergency like a natural disasters or an extreme economic meltdown. The Illinois ban as drafted has an absolute ban with no exception.
None-the-less the Amendment has the support of the powerful Illinois Chamber of Commerce, a slew of construction industry associations and interests, the state AFL-CIO, trucking interests, right wing Prosperity Illinois, and both the Democratic and Republican County Chairmen’s Associations. That is a hell of a lot of collective clout. Too much clout. Makes a guy suspicious.
There is also sub-rosa support for the amendment from the oil industry which has a more devious agenda than just promoting road building. It is meant to block any future carbon tax, a part of many comprehensive plans to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change by encouraging development of alternative energy and conservation.
This is not a progressive proposal no matter how attractive it may sound on the surface. It is protection of special interests written into the Constitution.
Luckily despite the big push to pass it, including slick TV ads, it can be stopped. The Illinois Constitution demands a high threshold to adopt changes. It must be approved by at least 60% of those voting on the question or by a majority of those who cast a ballot for any office in that election.
This is the introduction of the Amendment as it will appear on the ballot.
The proposed amendment adds a new section to the Revenue Article of the Illinois Constitution. The proposed amendment provides that no moneys derived from taxes, fees, excises, or license taxes, relating to registration, titles, operation, or use of vehicles or public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, or airports, or motor fuels, including bond proceeds, shall be expended for other than costs of administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes, including the State or local share to match federal aid highway funds. You are asked to decide whether the proposed amendment should become part of the Illinois Constitution