It takes a certain level of audacity to kick political opponents in the teeth the night they lose an election.
But that's what Democratic Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza did on Nov. 8, 2016, and her aggressive, in-your-face approach hasn't calmed in the months since. She ran promising to be an independent comptroller. But in less than four months, she has become in Springfield the most intensely partisan critic of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. She demands no such accountability of her fellow Democrats who have held majorities in the General Assembly for 15 years.
Mendoza beat Republican Leslie Munger, who was appointed to complete the term of the late Judy Baar Topinka. Traditionally a low-profile office, the comptroller is the state's bookkeeper. The Illinois Constitution assigns the comptroller two primary duties: take in the bills and pay them.
Mendoza is no circumspect bookkeeper.
Since election night, she has blamed Rauner for all of state government's dysfunction.
Mendoza takes aim through long, invective-filled news releases, biting television and radio interviews, commentaries submitted to area newspapers and wherever there's a podium and a microphone. Pull her string and away she goes.
Former comptrollers, including Republicans Munger and Topinka and Democrat Dan Hynes, were far more temperate. If and when they spoke out on fiscal matters, their criticism was mostly bipartisan.
Hynes routinely pointed out how overspending by his fellow Democrats affected the state's cash flow and hurt social services. Topinka famously described Republican Gov. George Ryan and Democratic legislators as spending money "like a bunch of drunken sailors." She prided herself on her bipartisan approach.
One of Munger's first acts as comptroller was to defy Rauner's attempt to end fair-share deductions from the paychecks of state workers. During her two years in office, Munger was cautious in her approach and often blamed Democrats and Republicans for the state's financial mess. Was she an ally of the governor? Absolutely. And she now works for him. But she did not spend her time lashing out at Democratic leaders.
There is no such mute button for Mendoza. She is a mouthpiece for the Democrats, and an acerbic one at that. Surely they find it energizing and entertaining. But it actually hurts her credibility.
Everything she does as comptroller, including weighing in on Attorney General Lisa Madigan's legal strategy to question the appropriation for state workers' paychecks, has to be viewed through a partisan lens. None of Mendoza's fellow Democratic statewide officeholders — not Lisa Madigan, not Treasurer Mike Frerichs, not Secretary of State Jesse White — has been so transparent about taking sides.
Based on Mendoza's petty election-night stab, we should not be surprised. Here's what happened:
When it was clear Mendoza was the winner, Munger called to concede the race. It was over.
Munger's campaign manager, Phil Rodriguez, then headed to a hotel suite her campaigners had reserved where they could commiserate. Inside, Rodriguez noticed bags of tortilla chips and bowls of guacamole but didn't think much of it. Then he saw an envelope with his name on it and a hand-written note inside addressed to Munger.
"Dear Leslie, Enjoy the guacamole and tostada chips. Make sure not to double dip! Love, Susana A. Mendoza, Comptroller Elect."
The chip-and-dip was a dig at Munger for campaign commercials she ran that claimed Mendoza had double-dipped on the taxpayers' dime. Mendoza worked for the city of Chicago while she was a member of the Illinois House from 2001 to 2011, getting paid for both government jobs. Mendoza provided paperwork to show she requested her city hours be docked on the days she was in Springfield. An independent group rated Munger's campaign ads half true.
But the ad apparently got under Mendoza's skin so much that she needed to take a final shot. Thus, the chips and dip.
Rodriguez stuffed the note in his pocket before the rest of the campaign staff arrived. They were at a hotel in Lincolnshire, Munger's hometown. The food from Mendoza appeared to have been delivered from Chicago.
That's at least a two-hour drive, round trip. That takes some serious planning.
No, politics is not for the weak. But on election night, premeditated gloating is pretty tacky.
Mendoza followed up a month later during a radio interview with an accusation that Munger's staffers "looted" the comptroller's office before they left. There was no evidence of that, resulting in a sharp Chicago Sun-Times editorial aimed at Mendoza titled, "Forget the furniture and do the job."
Mendoza ran for office claiming Munger was a Rauner shill. Mendoza said she would be the independent voice. Wouldn't that involve being a steward for both sides?
Mendoza has long been described as an ally and admirer of House Speaker Michael Madigan. It shows.
Read more: http://trib.in/2n3vb1j