Rauner, Madigan battle over state comptroller





by RUSS STEWART

"Who gets stiffed?" That is not the title of a new television game show or Donald Trump’s business plan. It is a job description, and that job is the Illinois comptroller, a glorified bookkeeping post with a salary of $135,669. It could not be any easier. All the incumbent need do is pay the state’s bills and payroll they are when due.

Unfortunately, when the accounts payable exceed Illinois’ revenue flow by about $15 billion, and when the state spends $3 for every $2 in taxes collected, complications arise. The comptroller must decide who doesn’t get paid — which vendors, pension funds, doctors, dentists, clinics, social service agencies, day care centers and taxing districts are going to be stiffed.

Even though the state has a "stopgap" budget, with spending capped at fiscal year 2015 levels, the fact remains that expenditures are roughly $39 billion and revenue is $32 billion. Add to that another $8 billion in unpaid bills and the bookkeeping isn’t simple any more, and nor is the comptroller obscure any more. Everybody wants to get paid.

Two candidates are on the Nov. 8 ballot, appointed Republican incumbent Leslie Munger of DuPage County, a protege of Governor Bruce Rauner, and Democrat Susana Mendoza, the Chicago city clerk, a protege of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. Each candidate blames the other’s mentor for the log jam. Munger contends that she needs a state budget authorizing her to write the checks of up to $39 billion, and Mendoza follows the Madigan line, blaming the governor for not "compromising" and increasing taxes. The Illinois Constitution is clear — there can be no deficit spending.

State spending in a fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, is supposed to be prorated over the 12-month period, but the money that was available in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016 was exhausted after 9 months, as it will be in Fiscal Year 2017, which began on July 1 of this year. Munger has been very careful to avoid state funding cutbacks for education, transportation and law enforcement services, the result being non-payment to other entities that receive state funds. Rauner can use his line item veto to cut spending in various departments, and Munger has been supportive.

The unexpected death of Judy Barr Topinka in December of 2014, just after her re-election and before her new term began, set off furious jockeying to control the succession. Madigan, of course, was in the thick of it. No office is too insignificant to grab, even though voters had chosen a Republican. Article V, Section 7 of the Constitution vests appointment power in the governor. The document says that the person appointed shall hold office "until a successor is elected," which meant after Topinka’s term through 2018. However, the Machiavellian Madigan had a plan: pass a law, with the Democrats’ super majorities and an outgoing Democratic governor, setting a 2016 special election for the last 2 years of Topinka’s term.

Never mind that over the past 116 years, when a state office holder died or quit, the governor’s appointee completed the remainder of the 4-year term.

In Mendoza, age 44, a career politician who served six terms in the Illinois House, Madigan has the perfect under-the-radar candidate. In the innocuous job of city clerk, Mendoza makes few headlines and even fewer enemies, unless one counts auto vehicle sticker scofflaws. She reads the aldermanic roll call at City Council meetings, publishes the council journal, collects fees for stickers, permits and revenue stamps, and otherwise campaigns full-time for advancement to higher office. In November she will be listed fourth on the ballot, beneath Clinton-Kaine, Tammy Duckworth for the U.S. Senate and the Democratic U.S. House nominee, and just atop the Democratic state legislative candidates.

Madigan has given three key Democratic constituencies — liberal women, Asians and Hispanics — a woman to vote for, and he got Mendoza on the ballot in a high-turnout presidential year. Downstate polling shows Trump with a 20-point lead, but Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton will be putting the squeeze on their lavishly funded legislative candidates to at least deliver for Mendoza.

In Cook County, Mendoza will get a huge majority in Hispanic areas, the usual 65 to 75 percent Democratic vote in predominantly white ethnic and Lakefront wards, 85 to 90 percent of the black vote, and a 2-1 majority in the suburbs. Madigan wants to "burn" the governor, leaving him without allies, and a sizable Mendoza win would to the trick. Mendoza had $1,32,604 on hand as of June 30, mostly from union donors. Madigan, the state Democratic Party chairman, will pump in another $3 million, with coordinated expenditures in other races.

Madigan’s pro-Mendoza mailers and media ads will be brutal. If you like Rauner, you’ll love Munger, they will blare. If you’re not getting state services, blame the Rauner-Munger team. Rauner has more than $15 million in campaign cash on hand, but there is a statewide Republican ceiling which even millions can’t shatter. Rauner likely will reprise his 2014 "Shake Up Springfield" theme with Team Rauner. That may prevail Downstate and in some Collar Counties, but Munger will be buried in Cook County, losing by well over 500,000 votes. Barack Obama won the county in 2012 by 945,040 votes.

In the 2012 Obama-Mitt Romney race, state turnout was 5,154,728 and Obama won by 884,296 votes (with 57.6 percent of the total cast). In the 2014 Rauner-Pat Quinn race, state turnout was 3,626,504, down more than 1.5 million from 2012, and Rauner won by 142,284 votes (with 50.3 percent of the total). The Romney-to-Rauner vote decline was 311,589, while the Obama-to-Quinn vote decline was 1,338,164. If even half of those 2014 pro-Obama absentees show up in 2016, Team Rauner will be buried.

The fragility of Rauner’s political base was further demonstrated by Topinka’s tepid 2014 victory over Democrat Sheila Simon, then the lieutenant governor. In 2010, riding a wave of voter remorse concerning her nasty 2006 loss to Rod Blagojevich for governor, Topinka beat an underfunded black state representative by 429,876 votes. She got 557,284 more votes in 2010 than in 2006. Going into 2014, she had $1.2 million in campaign cash and near-universal name identification. Simon talked about "transparency," promised to be a "fiscal watchdog" and to "cut out clout" — the same old, same old. However, then she went negative on Topinka personally, ripping her for 30 years in Springfield, for voting for pension perks, for missing every meeting of the Pension Investment Board over 12 years, for giving her staff raises, for not posting "exempt" employee salaries on her Web site, for not suing local governments that failed to file annual financial audits, and for trying to get Quinn to give her son a job. "It’s the definition of clout," Simon charged.

Suddenly, Topinka looked like every other politician, and she only lamely retaliated. Other than paying bills on time, it is difficult for an incumbent to boast of any accomplishments. She claimed to have blocked $4 billion in new borrowing, cut office staff and put daily receipts, expenditures, balances and salaries online. That got a big yawn. Her big promise was "to work to consolidate" some of Illinois’ 8,400 units of government and the 260 accounting systems of state agencies. That got another yawn.

Simon, of Carbondale, got a higher-than-expected Downstate vote, while Topinka was rescued by running about 10 to 20 percent ahead of Rauner in Chicago and Cook County. She beat Simon 1,775,983-1,636,593 (with 49.6 percent of the vote), hardly a rousing endorsement for a woman who was on the statewide ballot six times since 1994.

Mendoza was elected to the Illinois House in 2000 from a Southwest Side predominantly Mexican-American district, not far from Madigan’s 13th Ward. She distinguished herself in Springfield by being indistinguishable from Madigan’s other robots, voting as instructed, thereby meriting future promotion. When incumbent clerk Miguel del Valle, a North Side Puerto Rican, ran for mayor in 2011, Madigan backed her for clerk, and she beat a black candidate with 59.8 percent of the vote, getting a huge Hispanic vote and almost two-thirds of the white vote, with white committeemen pushing an Emanuel-Mendoza ticket. Mendoza was unopposed in 2015. Not deemed to be mayoral material, Mendoza had been looking statewide to a 2018 race for lieutenant governor, treasurer or comptroller, but fate and Madigan intervened. The speaker cleared Evanston state Senator Dan Biss out of the primary, and Mendoza is headed back to Springfield.

Unlike Mendoza, who has won eight elections, albeit all in Chicago, Munger has won none, but she was presentable and articulate in a losing 2014 Illinois House race. Rauner preferred a woman for the post over 2014 losing state treasurer nominee Tom Cross, and the options were limited.

Munger’s 2016 dilemma, other than voter turnout, is that she can’t use the playbook honed by past comptrollers, which was to use the "Chicken Little" strategy — the sky is falling, fiscal doom and gloom are endemic and epidemic, and the governor is to blame.

That approach was tried by Mike Bakalis (1976-78), Dawn Clark Netsch (1990-94) and Dan Hynes (1998-2010), as preludes to their campaigns for governor. They got headlines but little voter traction. Schoolmarm types don’t get elected governor, and each lost. Munger can’t fret about doom and gloom, because it’s already here. Her theme is that she can manage it, while Mendoza, as Madigan’s puppet, would only exacerbate it.

Is the barely known Munger electable? Rauner’s strategists must decide quickly. Is she worthy of $10 million? The answers are no and no.

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

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