Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm Leaves Susana Mendoza Twisting in the Wind on City Sticker Controversy

When I interviewed City Clerk Susana Mendoza last November, I sensed that there was tension between her and Rahm Emanuel. In the wake of Chicago’s city sticker controversy, I have been reminded of the strained relationship between the mayor and the clerk.

Susana Mendoza, left, and Rahm Emanuel

When I interviewed City Clerk Susana Mendoza last November, I sensed that there was tension between her and Rahm Emanuel. In the wake of Chicago’s city sticker controversy—in which a 15-year-old boy’s winning design was revoked by Mendoza after some law enforcement officials and local police bloggers said it contained gang signs—I have been reminded of the strained relationship between the mayor and the clerk.

Last fall, after I wrote about Rahm’s efforts to increase the number of Chicagoans who buy licenses for their dogs, Mendoza’s media relations aide, Kristine Williams, emailed me and said, “I’m a little bummed, as …Clerk Mendoza is actually the one pushing to educate and then start enforcement. I can say that the mayor has not even talked to the clerk about increasing dog registration—this is entirely spearheaded by Clerk Mendoza, in partnership with Animal Care & Control.”

One month earlier, Mendoza had denounced Emanuel’s proposed increase in sticker fees, especially the part that would have stuck minivan users with a $60 increase. She told me that she had heard “rumors” of the hike the night before the mayor gave his budget address, but waited for confirmation that morning. “The minute he made his announcement,” she told me, “I came out and I stood strong, and I said, I completely disagree with this….” She put it more colorfully to reporters: “I’m going to get stuck wearing the jacket on this, but I want to be very clear to people that I’m not for this…” Emanuel eventually met with Mendoza and took, she said, “every single one of my revenue generating ideas”—then scaling back but not eliminating the fee hike. “We had a very pleasant conversation, we agreed to disagree.”

The pushback was not the first clash between the two. Earlier in 2011, when candidate Emanuel suggested raising revenue by putting ads on city stickers, candidate Mendoza, according to Sun-Times reporter Lisa Donovan, who profiled Mendoza for Illinois Issues, issued a press release: “I was pleased to read… that Rahm Emanuel is backing my plan to put ads on the back of city stickers.”

A politically savvy 10-year-plus veteran of the Illinois House—she refrained from endorsing a candidate during the mayoral race—Mendoza counts Ed Burke and Mike Madigan as supporters and mentors. She calls Burke “a dear friend”—one of the people who came to her and suggested she run for the clerk’s job. The Illinois Issues profile also noted that before their swearing-in ceremonies, Mendoza visited Emanuel to give him two gifts—a paperweight and a bottle of Midol—“a not-so-subtle reference to his days as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and reports that he once told a male staffer: `Take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say.’” Would Emanuel have seen the Midol as presumptuous and disrespectful? He was, after all, trying to show a different face to Chicagoans.

Furthermore, I came away from my November interview with Mendoza convinced that the 39-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants, the first woman to hold the Clerk’s position, saw herself moving up from clerk to mayor. She demurred. “Maybe someday I’d like to run for something else,” she said, “but I wouldn’t know what to tell you I’m running for. I’m really very, very committed to what I’m doing now.”

Then, three months later, came the city sticker fiasco—Mendoza’s wildly unpopular move to strip the winner of his $1,000 prize and the honor of having his drawing grace 1.3 million Chicago windshields. On a visceral level, the decision felt downright wrong. Both dailies editorialized against it—the Sun-Times writing of “the humiliation of a 15-year-old kid” and The Tribune editorial headline chiding, “In sticker shock, Mendoza choked: Her rush to judgment — and to political safety — cheated a 15-year-old boy.”

Mendoza even made Anderson Cooper’s “RidicuList,” the CNN segment featuring the artist, Herbie Pulgar, wearing a Bulls jersey and weeping and saying he “…had nothing to do with no gangs…. I’m 15 years old and I live with my mom.” John Kass lead his column last week with, “The city sticker controversy… has made Chicago a national laughingstock….” Deepening Mendoza’s wound was the news that the first runner-up, high school senior Caitlin Henehan, refused to accept the win and the thousand dollar prize. (Mendoza has pledged to give Herbie a $1,000 bond out of her own pocket.)

Asked by reporters to comment on the controversy, Rahm said he had nothing to do with it. He left her to clean up her own mess. A sympathetic press portrayed Herbie as a troubled boy, a student at Lawrence Hall Youth Services, which helps a population that includes “many… [who] have experienced significant traumas in their lives.” And Emanuel, a father of three, might have sympathized with the boy, whom the mayor met a few weeks before the design came under suspicion.

Still, had the mayor chosen to defend Mendoza, he could have pointed to news reports that Herbie “has photos of youths throwing the [gang] sign on his Facebook page and of himself in a red bandana—the Maniac Latin Disciples’ color.” But he didn’t. The Sun-Times’s Fran Spielman wrote, “Pressed on whether he agrees with the clerk’s decision to do so, the mayor did the political dance known as the side-step for the second straight day.” She added, “So far, [Jody] Weis is the only person who has stepped up to take the heat with the embattled clerk.”

Kristine Williams emailed me in response to my query about the current relationship between her boss and the mayor. “Clerk Mendoza and Mayor Emanuel maintain a good working relationship.” An email to Rahm Emanuel though his press secretary, Tarrah Cooper, was not answered by post time.

UPDATE (4:43 p.m.): Cooper emailed the following response after my post was published: “The mayor and city clerk have a productive working relationship. As the mayor has said, the appropriate authorities have dealt with the matter.”


Photograph: (Mendoza) Chicago Tribune; (Emanuel) Esther Kang


2 years ago
Posted by Julie E

Her move was "wildly unpopular" with whom, exactly? The media?

It's wonderful that you support a guy who is a self-identified member of a gang the CPD has a zero tolerance policy against. Six contact cards with his name in the past three months; gang tat on shoulder; numerous gang-affiliated posts and photos on his now-deleted facebook page; a father in the same gang (TOTAL COINCIDENCE) with equally damning posts and photos; and lest we forget -- forced attendance at a high school due to a gang arrest the previous year.

Remove yourself from the media vacuum and nobody had a problem with this move. Had our little lovable artist killed anyone this year, I'm sure some revisionist history would be in play.

2 years ago
Posted by mbmn

Sorry for asking a silly question regarding this controversy, but What the heck is this "city sticker"? Used for?

2 years ago
Posted by Cheryl1

The Maniac Latin Disciples' color is blue.

2 years ago
Posted by MrJM

@Julie - Your wild accusations could use some -- ANY -- substantiation.

If there is a public record backing your claims, please direct us to it. If you're getting non-public information from a dirty cop, please identify that officer.

-- MrJM

2 years ago
Posted by MrJM

I can confirm that page 115 of the 2012 edition of "The Gang Book" published by the Chicago Crime Commission says the Maniac Latin Disciples' gang colors are "Light Blue" and "Black."

Maybe next time Mr. Weis should read his own damn book before peeing his pants in response to a child's artwork.

-- MrJM

2 years ago
Posted by Carl Lambrecht

Symbols can have different meanings to different people.

2 years ago
Posted by Kristine Williams

Full disclosure, I am the spokesperson for the City Clerk's Office. I want to clarify a few points in this piece.
- Clerk Mendoza and the Mayor have a strong working relationship.
- Clerk Mendoza made the difficult decision to change the vehicle sticker design after consulting with the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Crime Commission and receiving their recommendations, not based on what police bloggers wrote. The decision was based off the TOTALITY of evidence the Police Department and Chicago Crime Commission had, not just the artwork.
- The second place winner actually did accept the chance to be on the City Sticker. However, after intense media and public attention, she declined, as our statement cleary said.

For all details and facts on the city sticker art contest, please review the statements posted at versus the editorials in the paper.

2 years ago
Posted by Orion

Can't everyone see what is happening here. Rahm, in his lust for power, is creating more public animus to rile up the public to eventually do away with the Clerk's and Treasurer's office as well as reduce the city council, so as not to have to corral so many people to do his bidding.

Leaving the clerk to twist on this issue, calling out the treasurer for her speaking out on the attempts to steal hardworking people's state tax refund, and the threat to reduce the city council during the re-map process are all the hallmarks of our Napoleonic Complexed mayor.

Having said that, the Clerk DID screw up royally on this. She spends too much time self promoting instead of sticking to the job at hand. Less time on the luncheon speaker circuit would serve her well.

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