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 In the wake of Chicago’s city sticker controversy—in which a 15-year-old boy’s winning design was revoked by Mendoza after some law enforcement officials and local police bloggers said it contained gang signs—I have been reminded of the strained relationship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