Illinois comptroller race in spotlight with budget fight

CHICAGO (AP) -- The race for comptroller, usually a low-profile contest coinciding with Illinois' gubernatorial campaigns, is in the spotlight during a presidential year with a big money special election offering Democrats an unusual chance to oust Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's hand-picked candidate.

The office that controls Illinois' checkbook is open mid-term because incumbent Leslie Munger's appointment is expiring. Rauner named her after Republican Judy Baar Topinka died after her 2014 re-election and Democrats in charge pushed a law requiring a 2016 special election. 

Munger is vying to keep the job against Democrat Susana Mendoza, Chicago's city clerk aligned with the influential speaker of the Illinois House, and Green Party and Libertarian candidates.

The Nov. 8 winner will finish out the last half of the term.

THE JOB

The comptroller post has been obscure, with perpetual talk of merging it with the treasurer's office, which oversees investments. But it's recently played a more prominent role with Illinois' unprecedented budget gridlock.

The office balances laws, court orders and lawmaker-authorized spending to prioritize who gets paid, from state workers to utility companies to social service providers. The office can also be used as a bully pulpit to urge change, something that could impact the administration in power. 

Illinois' first GOP governor in over a decade remains deadlocked on a full spending plan with Democrats controlling the Legislature. They oppose Rauner's union-weakening, pro-business agenda as a condition to a budget with new taxes.

The impasse has complicated the comptroller's job: Some social service providers have closed their doors because of the uncertainty, while others doing business with Illinois are still awaiting payment as the backlog of unpaid bills hovers around $9 billion.

THE CANDIDATES

Like several legislative races, the comptroller election has become a proxy war in the battle between Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan, who serves as the Democratic Party's leader.

Mendoza and Munger have cast themselves as independent from their party leaders, but they've also benefited from their backing.

Munger, who called herself Rauner's "budgetary wingman," supports his agenda and took millions in donations from the former venture capitalist and his allies. But she insists she's stood up to Rauner. She delayed paychecks for elected officials during the impasse, and defied his request to not pay public-employee unions the "fair share" dues her office deducts from state worker paychecks.

Mendoza, a former legislator, says she's also created waves within her party. She once challenged a Madigan-backed candidate and publicly disagreed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel as clerk when he pitched raising the price of parking permits. But she voted with House Democrats on spending plans and has publicly praised the speaker, include during a 2011 ceremony nominating him to the post he's held almost continuously since 1983.

Here's a closer look at the candidates:

REPUBLICAN:

Leslie Geissler Munger, 60, Lincolnshire

Family: Married, two sons

Education: University of Illinois, B.A.; Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, M.B.A.

Occupation and experience: After making an unsuccessful bid for the Illinois House in 2014, she was appointed Illinois comptroller, her first public office. Worked as a brand management executive with Unilever Helene Curtis, for Procter and Gamble and McKinsey and Company Inc.

Illinois' top issues: Debt, growing pension and Medicaid costs, and outdated technology.

On prioritizing bills: "As a rule of thumb: Those suffering the greatest hardship, and our most vulnerable, should always take precedence."

On term limits: "Term limits and redistricting reform are essential for ensuring more accountable government in Springfield."

On the budget gridlock: "We can't just cut our way to a balanced budget -- we also need new revenue. I believe that can best be achieved through expanding our tax base by making Illinois a place where employers want to locate, expand and create new jobs."

DEMOCRAT:

Susana Mendoza, 44, Chicago

Family: Married, one son

Education: Truman State University, B.A.

Occupation and experience: Elected Chicago's city clerk in 2011. Served as Illinois state representative from 2001 to 2011. Worked as an advertising account executive and in Chicago's planning department.

Illinois' top issues: Lack of a budget, erosion of middle class and increased poverty, and gun violence.

On prioritizing bills: "I will continually serve and protect the most vulnerable populations of this state and not allow myself to be party to a political agenda that, for all intent and purposes, holds payments to the most vulnerable in our state hostage."

On term limits: "Term limits already exist in the form of elections where voters get to choose who they want to represent them."

On the budget gridlock: "It is imperative that all legislative and statewide leadership put partisan politics aside to examine the most comprehensive and effective fiscal strategies to bring about a financial recovery across the state."

LIBERTARIAN:

Claire Ball, 34, Addison

Family: Married

Education: DeVry University B.A.; Keller Graduate School of Management, M.A.

Occupation and experience: Works as an accountant at U.S. Cellular. First time seeking public office.

Illinois' top issues: Partisan politics, unfunded pension liabilities and transparency.

On prioritizing bills: "I will publish a table of categories that details the payment priority order. The top of that list will be mandatory and court-ordered payments followed by service providers, such as mental health facilities, veteran services and elderly care."

On term limits: "Term limits are necessary and I support them and would commit to a term limit."

On the budget gridlock: "The politics being played on both sides has caused severe damage to Illinois, and further stop gap budgets will only prolong it."

GREEN PARTY:

Tim Curtin, 67, Hillside

Family: Married, two children

Education: Attended University of Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Occupation and experience: Union organizer with United Electrical Workers. Served as a union trustee, Oak Park committeeman and chairman of a Green Party committee.

Illinois' top issues: A balanced budget, restoring social service funding and raising revenue, like taxing financial transactions at exchanges and boards of trade.

On prioritizing bills: "I would pay for education and social services first, since they are a necessity for the well-being of the people of Illinois."

On term limits: "We do not need term limits. What is needed is an informed public. If the public understood the positions that these elected officials are taking, maybe they would settle and get something accomplished."

On the budget gridlock: "We need a balanced budget so we can stop borrowing heavily as a state."

THE MONEY

The race has also featured extraordinary fundraising.

Munger has raised more than double what Mendoza has, mostly due to gigantic donations from wealthy businessmen supporting Rauner. 

Since 2015's start, Munger collected roughly $9 million, with $1 million from Rauner, $2 million from businessman Richard Uihlein and $5 million from Citadel CEO Ken Griffin. Munger transferred $3 million to the Republican Party, which is pouring money into legislative battles to reduce Democratic supermajorities.

Mendoza raised about $3.5 million in the same time period, made up of a sizeable portion of union donations and $650,000 from a Democratic Party fund controlled by Madigan.

THE CAMPAIGN

The two faced off in one televised debate where both interrupted each other often as they defended their records.

Munger claimed her opponent voted "in lockstep" with Madigan and her campaign donations come from special interests. She defended her own campaign fund as support from people who want to improve Illinois.

"The governor has not bought me," she said on Chicago's WTTW.

But Mendoza said the contributions make Munger a "wholly-owned subsidiary" of Rauner. She defended her budget votes as preserving funding for people in need.

"I feel like I'm running against Governor Rauner right now," Mendoza said afterward. "The minute he bought the office, it became a proxy between him and myself."

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