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Woman on Fire

The Illinois budget debacle has left both sides bruised, but state comptroller Susana Mendoza has emerged from the fight more powerful than ever.

Above: Mendoza during a visit to El Valor, a nonprofit in Pilsen serving people with developmental disabilities.

Talk to legislators who used to work with Susana Mendoza. Talk to her soccer coaches from grade school or college. Talk to her political opponents. Or talk to Rahm Emanuel, who tussled with Mendoza when she was city clerk. They’ll tell you she’s tough. They’ll tell you she wears you down—or wins you over—with argument, with cheer, with legwork. The petite 45-year-old Democrat is a packet of athletic energy. She walks fast. She talks fast. Robin Williams fast. If, that is, Robin Williams had tenaciously stayed on message.

After 20 years in politics, and now in her first statewide office, Illinois’s new comptroller has emerged as arguably the most forceful combatant in the trench warfare over the state’s dire finances and mounting billions in debt. Her outsize role took shape as the spring 2017 budget battle in Springfield was coming to a dramatic head. As the political rhetoric heated up, Mendoza, more than any other political figure with skin in the game, brought to the fore in a vivid way the toll the budget crisis has taken on Illinois residents. Though she sometimes took Democrats to task, she laid the bulk of the crisis squarely at the feet of Governor Bruce Rauner. The fight she waged with him frequently grew personal. Rauner complained that Mendoza was “on a mission to create a crisis.” Mendoza labeled Rauner “unhinged” and Illinois’s “worst governor.” Ugly as it got, the dueling turned the comptroller into one of the state’s rising political stars.

And sometimes it got to her.

Early on day two of a three-day swing in April through central and southern Illinois to connect with constituents beyond her base in Chicago, Mendoza climbed into the passenger seat of her office’s newly bought but used 2016 black Ford Explorer. Mendoza’s Republican opponents had made an issue of the $32,000 purchase. GOP functionaries, Mendoza said, had been “stalking” her as she used it, ostentatiously taking pictures as she entered and exited the SUV. The chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, Tim Schneider, called buying it “outrageous” in light of the state’s budget woes. But its six occupants, each with multiple phones and laptops, and now deep into the southern Illinois tour, might have wished it were roomier.

After leaving the home of a woman in one of the leafy old towns just east of St. Louis—the stop Mendoza had been looking forward to more than any other—the comptroller plugged her phone into the dash and began scrolling through her messages. But she couldn’t focus. She excitedly began to recap for her staff the visit with the woman. “That was amazing,” Mendoza said, turning to face them. “She is just so incredible. I knew she was smart, but clearly she’s brilliant.” Then her voice caught. She turned back around. She pulled her arms in front of her face and started crying into her sweater sleeves. Her head fell to her knees. Her shoulders were heaving now, her sobs growing louder. Mendoza apologized, saying she’d be OK. But her sobbing filled the car. The staffers were quiet, grim, nonplussed. The man behind her set his laptop aside and put a hand on Mendoza’s shoulder. She sat up. “It’s wrong,” she said. “It’s just wrong. I did not expect this when I took the job.”

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In public, Mendoza has insisted on maintaining the anonymity of the woman, whom she calls Mary, though that’s not her real name. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 4, Mary has lost virtually all voluntary use of her body and is at risk of losing a critical part of her state-sponsored insurance. Mendoza first spoke of her publicly at a March 20 speech at the City Club of Chicago. It was a tough-edged talk meant to highlight the cruel consequences of Illinois’s nearly two-year-long failure to produce a state budget. Her diatribe was, as usual, infused with an underlying sprightliness and delivered with a nice-mean squinty smile. Yet when Mendoza came to Mary’s story, her engine flooded. She paused, unable to get the words out without crying.

Mendoza, who lives in Portage Park with her husband, David Szostak, and their 4-year-old son, learned about Mary’s plight in one of the first constituent emails she received. It arrived in December 2016, on the day she took office after defeating Republican Leslie Munger, and had been typed with a special mouse that allows paralyzed users to select characters with slight movements of the head. Mary explained that because the state was behind in paying the insurance agency that provided for her 24-hour in-home care, she was about to lose assistance. “If my nursing care is cut off,” she wrote, “it would be catastrophic for my health with potentially fatal consequences.” She added that her mother was dying of cancer, and if Mary were moved to a hospital, she would likely never see her mother again.

Mendoza worked the bureaucracy to ensure money for Mary’s care, which comes to Mary through her father’s benefits. He worked for the state for 40 years and was in a class of employees who could rely on their insurance plan to fund lifelong comprehensive health care for any severely disabled children they had. It is not Medicare or Medicaid, but a plan Mary’s father paid into over decades.

Because Illinois’s lawmakers and governor had not yet passed and signed a budget, there had been no funds authorized for a variety of social services. In normal times, this money would have come either directly from the state agencies or through providers, such as the insurer that pays for Mary’s care, that rely on the state to pay them back. In normal times, individual hardship cases would have not come through the comptroller’s office.

The comptroller’s job ought to be like a bookkeeper’s. The office is charged with writing checks from state accounts to cover what the state spends. But even while operating without a budget, the state continued to collect and spend billions of dollars, of course. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability calculates that for fiscal year 2016 the state brought in around $30.4 billion for the general fund (the big pot from which most costs are covered). But that’s $9.4 billion short of what the state was committed to pay out. Without appropriations to set spending, the comptroller had to perform the job of triage nurse, deciding which payees got their money sooner and which had to wait. (Passing a budget will hardly make the state’s problems disappear: As of late May, Illinois had a $14.5 billion backlog of unpaid bills that will take years to pay.) Mendoza says that when she campaigned she knew she’d be wading into a budget mess but did not expect to rule on matters of life and death.

The much-anticipated stop at Mary’s house seemed to exemplify for the comptroller what was at stake in her new job. The visit took place in a room off the kitchen, where Mary sat in a wheelchair before an array of computer screens, her body atrophied and bent, pencil-thin legs folded under a skeletal torso, a ventilator keeping her airways clear. Mendoza approached her. “I want to thank you, Mary,” she said. “Your letter really let me know what my job is. I think of you every day, and it helps me do what I do. We’re going to make sure you get the care you need.” Mendoza was crying now, and Mary nodded forcefully. Soon Mendoza’s expression turned angry. “It’s immoral,” she said.

Mendoza and Mary’s brother, a large man who’d greeted the comptroller at the door, talked for a while. He mentioned that Prairie Farms, the Carlinville dairy cooperative 45 minutes southwest of Springfield and one of the largest in the country, had nearly decamped to Missouri because of Illinois’s dysfunction. Before leaving Mary’s house, Mendoza, who is a devout Catholic, removed a small woven-reed box from her purse. She opened it and pulled out a tiny wooden cross on a string. She draped it over Mary’s arm and said she’d bought it just for her on a recent trip to Jerusalem. She also said she’d written a prayer for Mary on a slip of paper and placed it in a hole in the Western Wall. Then the comptroller smiled wryly. “Actually, I wrote five prayers, on my business cards, including one that said I hoped Illinois gets a budget.”

Mendoza with her husband, David Szostak, and their son, also named David
Mendoza with her husband, David Szostak, and their son, also named David.
 

Mendoza’s religious devotion and, arguably, her bare-knuckle politicking can be traced to her roots in Little Village, a Chicago neighborhood that has long been host to a high concentration of families of first- and second-generation Mexican Americans. Family legend holds that after being sent to seminary in Mexico, her father, Joaquin, rejected the priesthood because he saw too much corruption in the church. After immigrating to Chicago, he worked as a pipe fitter, and later a plant superintendent, for Brach’s, the candy maker.

When Mendoza was 7, a gang killing left a teenager dead on the doorstep of her family’s home. She and her two older brothers had all faced pressure to join Little Village’s increasingly violent gangs, recalls her oldest brother, also named Joaquin. “Someone tried to beat one of us up almost every day,” he says. He found a pair of boxing gloves in the trash and taught his sister how to defend herself. “They were giant Popeye-size gloves,” he remembers, “and I had to use duct tape to keep them on her hands. But Susie’s a tough girl. She has a good uppercut.”

The day after the gang killing, her parents moved the family to west suburban Woodridge. “We were a good family, and we got run out of our neighborhood,” Mendoza says. “My mom was freaking out, and my dad, who had a friend near Woodridge, got us out of there.” Soon afterward, the family moved to Bolingbrook, one town over. They continued to return to Little Village to shop and get haircuts.

Mendoza at age 10
The budding soccer star at age 10.

When Mendoza was 7 or 8, while still in Woodridge, she told her parents she wanted to play soccer, like her brothers did. Back then there were no girls’ teams in town, so Mendoza’s dad persuaded Michael Lowery, the coach of a local boys’ team, to take her on. Her brother Joaquin remembers that when people on the sidelines first saw his sister in uniform, they laughed. Not only was she a girl, but she was much smaller than the other players. “They laughed again when they saw how good she was and when she knocked down bigger boys.” Says Lowery: “I remember her charging up the field. My son talked about her forever, how aggressive and tenacious she was. She once said she expected to get kicked by the boys and that she kicked them back harder.”

As a teenager, Mendoza helped lobby to start a girls’ soccer program at Bolingbrook High School. Her coach there described her to the Sun-Times as the team’s Michael Jordan. Mendoza earned all-state honors and a scholarship to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State). Her college coach, Stephanie Gabbert, remembers Mendoza as “a kind of soul and inspiration for the team who kept things fun and interesting.” Gabbert says she encouraged her to take leadership roles—Mendoza became captain—and “turned to her to help deal with difficult situations with teammates.”

Gabbert remembers Mendoza asking her what it would take to make a career in politics. “We talked about resilience, and I told her she had a great capacity to be resilient and successful in the political world.”

In 1994, having earned her bachelor’s in business administration, Mendoza landed a front-desk job at the Marriott on Michigan Avenue. She wanted to live in the city and chose to return to Little Village. Her first political act came the following spring, after she happened to see a bilingual campaign brochure attacking Democratic state representative Ray Frias. Mendoza didn’t know anything about the race but was offended by the brochure’s sloppy argument and botched Spanish. She called Frias’s office. “It was a week before the election, and one of my volunteers said there was someone on the line with a complaint,” recalls Frias, who went on to become a Chicago alderman. When he picked up, he was surprised to learn that the caller wasn’t an angry constituent but someone volunteering to write a rebuttal to the brochure. “I thought, I have to meet her. The next day, she came with her father and a mockup of a brochure to answer the piece. I asked her what she wanted. I was used to everyone wanting something. She said, ‘Nothing’—she was looking for a job in advertising, not politics. She was a ball of fire, and I asked her if she wanted an interview with the ad firm I worked with. I knew if they interviewed her, they’d hire her.”

They did, and partway into her three-year stint there, Mendoza volunteered to work for Frias’s 1995 campaign. Eventually, she signed on as his press secretary—just one week before federal agents issued an indictment alleging that her new boss had taken a bribe from a waste hauler. Mendoza managed the press all the way through Frias’s court proceedings and ultimate acquittal. “It was trial by fire,” remembers Frias. “When you’re dealing with an issue of that magnitude, it’s like fighting a tsunami. We were front-page news for weeks and news for a year, getting ripped by every media outlet. She never faulted or flinched. The level of intensity she had defending me every day was incredible.”

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In 1997, Frias, who’d left the statehouse to serve on the Chicago City Council, urged the 25-year-old Mendoza to run for his old seat in the next year’s Democratic primary. During her campaign, Mendoza walked the neighborhoods “more than I ever did,” Frias says. “I had other volunteers following her around, and they asked me to get more because they couldn’t keep up with her. They were exhausted.”

Mendoza ended up running against a candidate backed by Michael Madigan, the powerful House speaker. Mendoza lost by just 55 votes—her only election defeat to date. Frias remembers her crying inconsolably afterward. “She was devastated. She said she’d never do anything like that again. But then, later in the day, she was already planning her next campaign.”

Mendoza ran against Madigan’s candidate again two years later and won. “She called me just after the victory to thank me,” recalls Gabbert. “She said, ‘You are the one who made me think I could do this.’ ”

SOURCES: Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability at the Civic Federation; Responsible Budget Coalition; Illinois Policy Institute; Illinois comptroller’s office; Crain’s Chicago Business

Once in office, Mendoza—at 28 the youngest member of the General Assembly—moved fast. She introduced bills in her first session, including one that expanded the use of the death penalty (a position she has since reversed). She crossed the aisle frequently and almost always had at least two Democrats and two Republicans as cosponsors of her bills. “It can take some legislators years to figure out how the process works,” says Frias, “but Susana never lost a bill she took to the floor.”

In 2011, after six terms in the General Assembly, Mendoza was elected as city clerk of Chicago. The first woman to hold the post, she won in a competitive election for an office that had previously gone all but gone uncontested to a mayor’s anointed candidate. She ran on a promise to speed service at the often overcrowded clerk’s office and to lower the prices on city vehicle stickers. She accomplished the first goal in part by staggering the expiration dates of the stickers.

Keeping fees down proved harder. Early in Mendoza’s tenure, Mayor Emanuel surprised her with an attempt to boost city revenues by slapping higher fees on stickers for certain kinds of vehicles. “I hated him,” she recalls. “He was an arrogant jerk.” Mendoza says that one night during the October budget season, she received a call from a Tribune reporter asking her to comment on the mayor’s plan to raise most sticker prices by $60. It was the first she’d heard about it. “I blasted [the mayor], saying he was going after soccer moms and Ford Taurus owners struggling to make ends meet. … We battled it out in the press. It didn’t get personal, but I reminded him that I was voted in and that I didn’t work for him.”

In the end, she and Emanuel found a compromise. Mendoza successfully argued that fee hikes could be minimized by stricter enforcement and higher fines. Sticker prices rose by $10 for cars, $15 for SUVs, and more for various trucks, with additional hikes tied to inflation every other year. The new revenue was earmarked to keep Chicago libraries open. “I’d say I beat the mayor in that fight and people noticed,” Mendoza says. When she and Emanuel met after the compromise, Emanuel told her he knew the bad things she’d said about him. Mendoza replied that she knew he’d talked about her behind her back, and she asked that he say things to her face. Mendoza says the mayor broke into a smile. “ ‘OK, OK,’ he told me, and then he said we should focus on the future.”

Asked whether his recollection of the events matched Mendoza’s, Emanuel was eager to comment: “Susana and I are friends. We’re honest with each other. We had something we needed to work out, and she had an innovation she wanted to try [the more modest sticker price increase that diverted revenue to city libraries], and I wanted to help her. It was a great innovation.” In 2015, Mendoza served as cochair of Emanuel’s reelection campaign.

When a special election was held in late 2016 after the death of Judy Baar Topinka, the popular Republican state comptroller, Mendoza seized the opportunity to seek statewide office. She took just six of Illinois’s 102 counties but scored big in populous Cook County, trouncing her only viable rival, Leslie Munger, who had assumed office following Topinka’s death and had Bruce Rauner’s support. (The governor personally contributed $2 million to Munger’s campaign.) The election was widely seen as a proxy fight between Madigan and Rauner. Munger ran ads that called Mendoza Madigan’s “sidekick.” Mendoza labeled Munger the governor’s “lap dog.” Mendoza’s campaign raised more than $2 million; Munger’s raised $9 million, some of which she spread to other Republican candidates. It was the state’s most expensive race of 2016.

Lunch at El Valor
Lunch at El Valor, one of the many social service organizations imperiled by the state’s backlog of unpaid bills.
 

As of mid-2017, after nearly two years without a budget, debt interest payments, court orders, continuing appropriations, and consent decrees constituted around 90 percent of state spending. In other words, only about one out of every 10 dollars the state was spending demanded a decision by an elected official. Courts and the state’s lenders were ruling nearly all of Illinois’s expenditures.

That squeeze left the comptroller with unusual power. When the state’s executive agencies—through the governor’s office—submitted requests (which the state calls vouchers) that state money be paid to the vendors, social service providers, and other entities the state owes, the comptroller was able to dictate the order in which the bills were to be paid.

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By late May, the lack of a budget had created a backlog of $14.5 billion in vouchers. During the first half of 2017, as the budget battle became superheated, Mendoza hammered away at how fearsome that beast of a backlog would grow unless the state got its act together. She also gave politicians a lesson on the dangers hidden in the arcana of state finance. Perhaps the scariest was an older piece of legislation designed to prod the state into paying its bills on time but which was now making Illinois’s debts even more onerous: By law, many bills over 90 days late must be paid back with interest, which accrues at 1 percent a month.

Illinois owes vast sums to a broad range of vendors: health care providers, drug treatment facilities, hospice centers, construction firms, and many others. In the dogfight between Mendoza and Rauner, each often accused the other of withholding funds to vulnerable organizations. But Mendoza pointed out that the comptroller’s office could release money only when it received vouchers from the state agencies. Absent a budget, or any appropriations to steer spending, agencies frequently delayed submitting vouchers.

For her part, Mendoza put the kibosh on vouchers for some of the governor’s hallmark initiatives—and championed her decision to do so as a victory against an unfeeling administration and in favor of the state’s most vulnerable populations. Such was the case when she withheld $27 million from a $250 million state program to modernize the computer systems that track, among other things, state finances. Comptrollers before Mendoza had lacked that power. In this instance, the governor’s office was emphatic that the tech upgrade was crucial both as a guard against cyberattacks and as a tool to save the state money. Mendoza argued that deep-pocketed companies like the ones the Rauner administration hired to consult on large projects—such as the tech upgrade—could wait for their money.

Crain’s Chicago Business estimates that by spring 2017 more than a million people in Illinois were being directly affected by the lack of a state budget. “At some point, someone’s going to die,” Mendoza routinely said, “if someone hasn’t died already.” Before she kicked off her downstate tour, the comptroller held a press conference at West Point Plaza, an affordable-housing development at Damen and Van Buren, and invited home health care workers and service agency owners who had gone unpaid, asking them to share their stories. The tearful owner of a small agency that places caregivers said she was about to lose her business. Many of her workers had stayed on, going months without paychecks. One caregiver said she was close to losing her home. Then Mendoza told the story of an 83-year-old man whose caregiver had found him face-down, bloodied, dehydrated, and lying in his own waste in his bathtub. He had fallen four days before. The arrival of the caregiver—who, according to Mendoza, had been working without pay—likely saved the man from death.

Such stories notwithstanding, the governor’s office claimed that Mendoza was being selective with the cases she was moving toward the front of the payment line in order to make the governor look bad. In February, the Rauner-appointed director of the Illinois Department on Aging, Jean Bohnhoff, wrote Mendoza’s office to urge the release of $20 million in hardship money for services to the elderly. Mendoza’s office called Bonhoff’s letter a political move, stating that the comptroller had already released said funds and had prioritized payments for elderly-services agencies in the most equitable possible way, given the absence of appropriations to set spending.

That was not good enough for Rauner’s camp. Former comptroller Leslie Munger, now a deputy governor hired by Rauner, told Chicago: “In the short time that Comptroller Mendoza has been in office, we’ve seen a lot of the work that was previously done to balance the needs of state agencies and assist human service organizations fall apart.”

Traditionally, the comptroller’s other big job, in addition to processing vouchers, has been to serve as watchdog over the state’s finances, advocating for sound practices and the efficient and transparent flow of money to those the state is obliged to pay. In this respect, the fiscal chaos surrounding the budget infused Mendoza with an evangelical zeal—most notably when it came to the interest payments on the giant backlog. The interest meter is running on about half of the state’s outstanding bills—to the tune of $800 million this year alone, according to the comptroller’s office. For Mendoza, the only thing more galling than the willingness to let the interest-accruing backlog grow was the fact that Rauner’s proposed budgets were conspicuously short on details about both spending and revenue and that—according to the nonpartisan Civic Federation, among others—they did not meet the constitutional requirement to be in balance.

What’s more, she pointed out, the governor insisted that he would not compromise on a budget with Democrats unless the legislature also agreed to several of his administration’s top agenda items: pension reform, a freeze on property taxes, term limits for legislators, and rules that would weaken labor unions. Rauner argued that his reforms were needed to attract and retain businesses and to undo decades of overspending, corruption, and legal but sleazy double-dealing.

But Mendoza turned that argument against him. One reason she was traveling beyond her comfort districts was to convince voters—business-friendly Republicans in particular—that nothing could be worse for attracting and retaining private enterprise than the state’s budget chaos. “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” she said at nearly every stop on her downstate trip, contending that it was wrong to hold citizens hostage, fiscally speaking, in exchange for political reforms not directly germane to the budget.

The pressure Mendoza brought to bear on Rauner may well have pushed him to compromise. In the final days of the General Assembly’s official calendar, the governor signaled that he would go to the mat only for his property-tax-freeze proposal and was willing to postpone the fight over the other big items on his list.

The cycle of attack and counterattack intensified as the state’s fiscal situation grew more dire. Frequently, it reached beyond the particulars of the budget. In March, the Associated Press reported that Munger earned a $138,000 salary drawn in part from a pool of state health insurance premiums. Following the report, the Rauner administration said the mistake was a “clerical error” and blamed Mendoza’s office for leaking the information.

Mendoza and Rauner

A Fight Gets Personal

Rauner and Mendoza force smiles during a chance encounter—captured by a photographer for a Polish-language newspaper—at Chicago’s Polish Constitution Day Parade in May. After Mendoza took office, she and the governor engaged in an escalating cycle of attack and counterattack over the lack of a state budget. Rauner accused Mendoza of being “on a mission to create a crisis.” Mendoza called Rauner “the worst governor” in Illinois history. Photo: Andrew Mikolajczy

On March 29, Governor Rauner appeared on the radio show of WGN morning host Steve Cochran. When Rauner—who had been running ads featuring duct tape as a prop to disparage Democrats’ patchwork budget measures—complained about Mendoza, Cochran suggested jokingly that Rauner seal Mendoza’s mouth with some of the tape he brandished on TV. The governor didn’t object. Mendoza’s people said he even laughed. At a hurriedly assembled press conference two days later, Mendoza, flanked by clergy and activists, demanded that Rauner and Cochran apologize for their insensitivity concerning the culture of violence against women. Cochran issued a written apology but later argued that Mendoza had exploited the joke for political reasons. Rauner’s camp said the governor didn’t laugh at Cochran’s crack, he coughed. Listening to a recording of the show, it is hard to tell. Regardless, the incident served to raise even further Mendoza’s profile as a fighter.

“She’s a total pit bull,” says Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, the Democratic majority leader in the Illinois House. “She doesn’t let go.” It’s a role that has energized many of Mendoza’s supporters but risks alienating some who might otherwise be inclined to get behind her. Representative Bob Pritchard, a Republican who serves the district encompassing Northern Illinois University, worked closely with Mendoza in the statehouse. “She was a good legislator and worked energetically,” he says, adding that he shares some of Mendoza’s top concerns. “I live in a university community, and the uncertainty of funding has been more serious than losing faculty or student grants. Declining enrollment hits our housing market. My district also has a hundred nonprofits that have gone without money and have had to lay off staff.” But Pritchard is frustrated by the acrimony in the current debate and says he wishes Mendoza would return to the more cooperative role he witnessed in the House. “What’s atypical is how political her comments have become. I hope she moves back and gets more reasonable.”

Throughout the spring budget battles, the governor’s office was eager to stick the “partisan” label on Mendoza. “The comptroller has historically been one of the most bipartisan offices in our state,” says Munger, “so it has been disappointing to see Comptroller Mendoza consistently engage in partisan attacks. Instead of working with the governor’s office, she has severed ties and attacked the administration at every turn.”

Mendoza with El Valor’s president, Rey Gonzales
Mendoza with El Valor’s president, Rey Gonzales.
 

Another stop on Mendoza’s downstate tour was the quiet campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The school is one of the few public universities in the state with a growing student body. Its sister university in Carbondale has 24 percent fewer freshmen than it did just a few years ago. Because of the budget crisis, state funding for higher education in Illinois has dropped a heart-stopping 63 percent in the last year. Virtually no other state comes close to that kind of decrease. In fact, outside of Illinois, state spending on higher education was, on average, up about 5 percent last year. In Illinois, schools have had to cut classes and personnel. State grants to middle- and low-income students have been delayed. Central and southern Illinois schools serve large populations of Chicago students, and cuts there resonate strongly in Mendoza’s political strongholds. The crunch is also pushing Illinois’s high school grads to leave. Over the past three years, the state has seen a net outflow of 35,000 students.

Even at SIUE, the crisis has pinched. Mendoza visited the school’s Small Business Development Center. Its role is to kick-start new businesses in the region. Over the past 10 years, it has helped start or expand nearly 5,000 businesses. In the wake of the budget crisis, however, funding shortfalls have reduced staff and limited the center’s reach. Seven similar centers around the state have closed in recent years.

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In a conference room, Mendoza met a group that included the dean of the business school, a local tech entrepreneur, a couple who started a plumbing business with the university’s help, and the director of the center. The comptroller, sitting next to the dean, introduced herself. “We were rivals,” she said, grinning. “I played soccer at Northeast Missouri State against …” She gave a friendly grimace. All morning she’d been struggling not to confuse SIUE with SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, which has been one of her big labor supporters. “… SIUE, and now we’re on the same team.”

Mendoza launched into her pitch. It was more or less the same one she’d been making in many of her recent public appearances, and the same one she’d be offering during the rest of the trip as she visited newspaper editorial boards, radio stations, union offices, and social service organizations. She made her case for how the governor had neglected his constitutional responsibility and how dearly it was costing the state. Those in the room nodded in agreement. The dean invited discussion on how the crisis was hurting local firms and thwarting business startups. He noted that neighboring states were attracting Illinois companies looking for certainty.

SIUE’s chancellor, Randy Pembrook, arrived late to the meeting, charging right to his seat, making no effort at a smile. When he spoke, his tone was ornery. “You’d think that losing students and firms might have moved the government to act on the budget,” he said, “but it didn’t.” He recounted the saga of an SIUE employee whose daughter had suffered severe head trauma in a car accident. Though the girl was fully insured, her mother had struggled to get a hospital to treat her. Because of the state’s poor record on paying medical providers, the girl was refused care until the family could pay for a big piece of it up front.

Mendoza listened, perhaps especially for what the chancellor did not say. She wanted Pembrook to take on the governor. When he had finished, she spoke: “I appreciate your passion. Often in these meetings, people are guarded. I often feel I am the only person in the state pummeling the governor about introducing a balanced budget.”

Pembrook replied that there was blame to be shared on all sides.

Mendoza rejected that. “To blame everything on the legislature is wrong,” she said, arguing that Rauner was the one who had “tanked” a recent compromise and had the constitutional duty to submit a balanced budget. “People critique me for being overly partisan,” she added, “but I am not. I just want a budget. We haven’t had one in two years.” She looked directly at Pembrook. “I feel like Don Quixote, and I shouldn’t be the only person out there fighting this battle. I need some allies.”

Back in the SUV, Mendoza was cross. “The state’s universities are going to crumble, and sooner or later you hope these guys will take a stand before it’s too late.” She noted that the university chancellors were appointed by the governor and were among the state’s highest-paid employees. She also suggested that they grow some essential parts of the male reproductive anatomy.

Mendoza’s pitch grew increasingly barbed, more articulate, and better evidenced at every stop. When she visited a Carbondale shelter for battered women and their children, she learned that its board had recently met to consider what to do if it were forced to close. The nearest shelter is 120 miles away, she was told, and women just won’t go that far. One board member said she feared the closing could result in someone’s death. That gave Mendoza a way to tie deaths to the budget crisis, and she wrapped that scenario into her remarks at the next stops. News of a drug treatment center’s closing and of a tenured SIUE faculty member who had left the state for an adjunct’s job because he couldn’t get health care were eventually worked into her pitch, too.

On the road the next day, near the southern tip of the state, Mendoza could not seem to get Mary out of her head. “It’s just wrong,” she said again. “What kind of person would cut off someone like Mary? Who does that?”

The group stopped for breakfast at the Country Cupboard, a cheery restaurant in Carterville. The special that day: three eggs, three biscuits, and three sausages for $3.50. A group of regulars occupied three tables pushed together in the center of the room. One was a jowly retired coal miner in overalls. Two others were fit-looking men in their 40s who worked for a local trucking firm.

Mendoza saw the big table, stuck out her hand, and introduced herself. The diners offered an anemic “Hi” back. The miner cast a wary gaze in her direction. “Did you vote for Trump?” he asked. She said she hadn’t. The man waved a hand dismissively.

“I’m sure there are some things we can agree on,” she said, smiling. The miner shook his head. “Come on,” she urged, “there’s got to be something. How about if we agree to disagree?”

He said no to that, so Mendoza turned to the other men. She delivered her pitch, and they sat stonefaced for the few minutes it took her to get through it. She talked even faster than usual, trying to get everything in, hitting the lack of payments to health care providers, the reluctance of hospitals to accept state-insured patients, the dependency of southern Illinois, where prisons, colleges, and hospitals are big employers, on government money, and so on. The men tried to speak a few times, but she motored past them until, at last, one successfully interrupted her. It turned out they knew the issues well and could cite the state’s shortfalls and some of the services that had been curtailed. One of the men was married to a teacher, another to a nurse. They were unwilling to put most of the blame on the governor, pointing out that Democrats in the General Assembly were culprits, too.

In a tilt from her more pointed tone at SIUE, Mendoza said she agreed, adding that everyone needed to be pushed. Heads started nodding. She talked about how she had found a way to get the caregivers paid when Mary’s care had been on the verge of being cut off. One of the men piped up. “Everyone down here would say that someone like Mary needs the help.”

She collected the men’s names and, from two of them, business cards.

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Mendoza convoked impromptu meetings wherever she stopped. At a Kroger grocery store in Du Quoin, she bought a bag of gummy bears and a bag of dill-pickle-flavored potato chips. The smiley cashier, who looked barely past voting age, noticed the suit coats Mendoza’s aides were wearing. “Are you all visiting?” she asked. Mendoza did not skip a beat. “I’m Susana Mendoza,” she said, “your state comptroller. We’re taking a trip throughout this part of the state to talk about the lack of a budget and to hear from people about how it affects them.” Then she gave the cashier a version of her pitch and asked the young woman to remember her at election time.

Back on the road, Mendoza noted that Rauner-backed political campaigns, including Munger’s, had spent tens of millions of dollars to create a narrative about the budget crisis that had come to define how people south of I-80 thought about the comptroller. “They think and say terrible things about me, but when they meet me in person, that usually stops.”

Before heading back to Chicago, Mendoza and her staff stopped for a late lunch at a bar in Mattoon called Spanky’s. The place smelled like beer and popcorn. Mendoza crossed the room, passing by a group of 10 or so men and women in office clothes seated around a big table. A woman in a white knit dress jumped up. “It’s Susana Mendoza!” she yelled. The woman’s companions started clapping and also stood. Mendoza, stunned, took a step back.

“We’re UAW Local 2384,” the woman said, adding that members had just finished a successful contract negotiation. She hugged Mendoza and told her that after-school programs in their area were cut when funds didn’t come through. “We love what you’re doing,” said the woman. “Lord, we know this is a Republican part of the state and it’s not easy, so we really appreciate you coming through.”

A large man with a beer in his hand chimed in. “Give Rauner hell!”

 

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If Mendoza’s three-day downstate swing revealed anything, it’s that she’s an adept tactician, turning up the partisan fervor when the occasion seems to call for it and turning it down when it might not serve her needs. Whether she’ll be able to cool the partisan flames enough to ever find common ground with Rauner remains to be seen.

A few weeks after the trip, Mendoza attended Chicago’s Polish Constitution Day Parade in Grant Park. She knew the drill. Sporting a bright red dress and a snow-white sweater to mirror the colors of the Polish flag, and full of her usual manic energy, she upstaged the phalanx of other Democratic big shots, most of whom had dressed in dark suits or grim overcoats. As she made her way to her seat, she caught the attention of the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Paul W. Jones, and went over to greet him.

A sharp-eyed journalist for one of the city’s Polish dailies noticed the governor approaching—in a white shirt and red tie, as it happens—and ushered him toward Jones and Mendoza for a photo op, creating an uncomfortable moment. At first, Rauner looked like a tenant behind in the rent suddenly face-to-face with his landlord. The photographer pushed the governor and the comptroller together for a picture with the ambassador. He snapped a shot, but the smiles were forced. He gently muscled Rauner and Mendoza together again and got the grins he needed. The photographer looked delighted.

For now, even forced amity was a win.

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