2016 comptroller’s race looking to be proxy war


A good comptroller is nice to find. Or is it a nice comptroller is good to find? Whatever.

Expect at least $20 million to be spent to elect Illinois’ next comptroller in 2016, in what will be a proxy battle between Governor Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. The post is on the ballot in 2016 because incumbent Judy Baar Topinka died in December 2014 after being re-elected to her second term.

The comptroller’s office is as a steppingstone to nowhere. Four of the office’s seven occupants since it was created in 1972 have run for governor, and all have lost. One ran for U.S. senator and lost, one was defeated after one term, and two who lost for governor also were defeated for senator.

However, hope springs eternal. There’s no line winding around the block, but at least two credible Democrats are panting to run, city Clerk Susana Mendoza and state Senator Daniel Biss of Evanston. Both want to get "on track," which means win for comptroller in 2016 and then swiftly move up the chain in 2018, running for secretary of state or lieutenant governor or biding one’s time until 2022 to run for governor.

The incumbent is Republican Leslie Munger, who was appointed by Rauner after he was sworn in. There was a brief contretemps after Topinka died, with outgoing Governor Pat Quinn claiming that he had right to name a replacement and the Republicans claiming that Rauner had the right to name a replacement for the rest of Topinka’s 4-year term. However, Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton convened a special session of the General Assembly, which set a special election for the post in 2016.

The expectation, of course, is that Hillary Clinton will be the Democrats’ 2016 presidential candidate and that any Democrat on the statewide ticket will win. The only statewide offices on the 2016 ballot are U.S. senator and comptroller. Whomever the Democrats nominate for comptroller will be a slam-dunk winner.

Munger, fresh off a loss for state representative, was an unexpected appointee. She has a name recognition factor of about a tenth of a percent, and she had raised $3,321 through March 31. While controversy swirls about Illinois’ $2.2 billion fiscal year 2015 deficit, the 2016 budget and the state’s $111 billion pension shortfall, Munger is silent. Nary a peep issues from her office.

Historically, the comptroller has been the state’s "Chicken Little," forever proclaiming that the sky is falling and prophesizing fiscal doom and gloom. Other than issuing state checks payable to employees, pensioners and vendors, the comptroller has little to do except grandstand and nag, repeatedly warning that there’s not enough money to pay the state’s bills. That gets headlines, without a downside. The comptroller doesn’t have to propose any solution, such as raising taxes or cutting spending, the comptroller just says that there isn’t enough money to pay the bills.

During Jim Thompson’s administration (1976 to 1990), Comptroller Roland Burris (1978 to 1990) was the chief nag. Burris parlayed that prominence into election as state attorney general in 1990, but he then lost the 1994 Democratic primary for governor. During Jim Edgar’s first term, Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch was the chief nag, and her foolish musing about raising state income taxes enabled Edgar to paint her as a big spender and a tax hiker. Netsch lost to Edgar in 1994 by 914,468 votes (getting 34.0 percent of the vote). Lesson to be learned: Just criticize, don’t suggest solutions.

Netsch’s successor was Loleta Didrickson, who could not be the chief nag because she was a fellow Republican. So obscure was Didrickson that when she ran for senator in 1998 after 4 years in state office she lost the primary by 26,310 votes to Peter Fitzgerald, an equally obscure state senator from Palatine who went on to beat then-Senator Carol Moseley Braun. Lesson to be learned: If you’re not Chicken Little, nobody notices.

One of the what-ifs of the 1998 race is that it set the table for Barack Obama to win in 2004. What if Didrickson had been nominated? If Fitzgerald beat Braun, so would have Didrickson. Didrickson would not have retired in 2004, Obama might not have run against a moderate woman incumbent, and Hillary Clinton would have had a clear shot in 2008.

Then along came Tom Hynes, the powerful county assessor, Democratic national committeeman and 19th Ward Democratic committeeman. Memories of his disastrous 1987 mayoral run persisted. He decided that his 29-year-old son Dan Hynes, fresh out of law school, needed an entry-level job. Why not comptroller? Hynes was slated, had no primary opposition, and beat the Republican candidate by 614,413 votes (getting 58.6 percent of the vote).

Surrounded by astute 19th Ward advisors, Hynes avoided the Netsch pitfall. He decided to be Chicken Little, bemoan exploding state debt, declining revenues and unpaid vendors — and blame the governor, first Republican George Ryan (1998 to 2002), then Democrat Rod Blagojevich (2002 to 2009). Hynes was especially disdainful of Blagojevich, who borrowed heavily to balance the budget and who never cut spending. Hynes just criticized, never proposed. Being a Scrooge made him well known, but not well loved. That was obvious in 2004, when Hynes, the slated Democrat for Fitzgerald’s seat, was thrashed by Obama, getting 294,717 votes (23.7 percent of the total) to 665,923 votes (52.8 percent) for Obama in an eight-candidate field.

By 2010, with Blagojevich gone, Hynes ran for governor against Pat Quinn. Would 12 years of publicity pay off? Would voters reject Quinn because he was Blagojevich’s lieutenant governor? Would South Side clout and money prevail? Hynes came close, losing to Quinn 462,049-453,677, a margin of 8,372 votes. The key was the black vote in Chicago and the suburbs, which went 2-1 for Quinn. Black voters remembered Tom Hynes and his challenge of Harold Washington.

Quinn went on to eke out a 31,834-vote win over Bill Brady, and Topinka, following her 367,417-vote loss to Blagojevich in 2006, staged a comeback, winning Hynes’ job. She benefited from voters’ "guilt trip" of remorse for having rejected her for Blagojevich. Topinka had been the state treasurer for three terms, from 1994 to 2006. In 2010 she beat obscure black state Representative David Miller by 429,876 votes. With Quinn as governor, Topinka played the chief nag role to the hilt, and she just got re-elected in 2014, topping Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon by barely 30,000 votes. Topinka’s ballot magic dimmed, but she was a useful ally of Rauner.

The Republicans’ bench in Illinois is weak, but Tom Cross, who lost the 2014 treasurer’s race by just 3,500 votes, was the obvious choice to replace Topinka. However, Rauner picked Munger, who had lost a nasty contest for state representative in the Lincolnshire-Vernon Hills 59th District by fewer than 1,000 votes. Munger’s 2016 election prospect is zero, even with Rauner providing campaign cash.

First, voter turnout spikes in presidential election years, and pro-Democratic minorities vote in greater numbers. State turnout in 2010 was 3.7 million, but with Obama on the ballot in 2012, turnout spiked to 5.2 million. Turnout dropped to 3.5 million in 2014, and Rauner won by 118,098 votes, after having spent $70 million. It will increase again in 2016, to over 5 million. If Clinton wins Illinois by 500,000-plus votes, every statewide Democrat will win and Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk will lose.

Second, the comptroller’s office is a voter afterthought. The Democratic nominee just needs to have a pulse to win in 2016.

Third, Madigan, the state Democratic Party chairman, will ensure that Mendoza, who was elected clerk in 2011, is slated. That’s a done deal. Mendoza was elected a state representative from the South Side 1st District in 2000, a heavily Mexican-American area. She now resides in the 39th Ward. In Springfield she was a loyal cog in the Madigan machine.

The clerk performs such mundane tasks as issuing vehicle stickers, printing the City Council Journal and collecting parking ticket and license fees. Two of Mendoza’s predecessors, Walter Kozubowski and Jim Laski, went to jail on federal corruption charges. Since Mendoza is not under federal investigation, it means she is doing an honest and competent job. She was unopposed in 2015.

Biss is the boy wonder of North Shore politics, and a fund-raising machine. With a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Biss, at age 33, was part of the Schakowsky machine, and he ran for an open Glenview-Evanston House seat in 2010, which was held by a Republican for a century. Biss raised and spent nearly $1 million and won 23,134-19,096. In 2012, when Democratic state Senator Jeff Schoenberg retired, Biss moved up, and he was re-elected unopposed in 2014. He can run for comptroller in 2016 and keep his Senate seat. As of March 31, Biss had $870,000 in his campaign account.

Biss has been a policy wonk in the legislature, focusing on such issues as pension reform and ethics. It was presumed that he wanted the seat of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9) when Schakowsky, age 71, retired, but a 2016 race is a win-win situation: He gets much publicity, he might win, and he broadens his donor base.

My prediction: A Latina woman against a Jewish man? Biss will win the North Shore, and Mendoza won’t sell Downstate, and black voters will split. Then Biss will bury Munger.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.