Teaching the 2016 Election: A Proxy Battle for Illinois Comptroller

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In addition to the Tier One Senate race in Illinois, we also have a competitive statewide contest for Comptroller. Without doubt, many Illinois residents have no clue what this constitutional officer does, and some may be surprised that it’s on the ballot in a presidential election year. This post seeks to clarify matters, and we begin by turning to the Illinois Constitution.

Per Article V, Section 2, constitutional officers in Illinois are elected every four years during midterm cycles. However, the incumbent, Judy Baar Topinka, died shortly after being re-elected in 2014. Her longtime assistant Nancy Kimme served in the interim period prior to Governor Rauner’s inauguration, and he proceeded to appoint Leslie Munger to fill the vacancy until a special election could be scheduled (Article V, Section 7).

Munger is a former business executive who lost a Lake County state representative race in 2014. She is seeking to serve the balance of the four-year term, and is opposed by Chicago Clerk Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat with a prior decade-long stint in the Illinois General Assembly. Just as Munger is tied to Rauner, Mendoza is close to House Speaker Michael Madigan, so this race is seen by many as a proxy war between the lead combatants in the so-called “Springfield Stalemate.”

Unlike most states, the duties of Comptroller and Treasurer are divided. While the former “…maintain(s) the State’s central fiscal accounts, and order(s) payments into and out of the funds held by the Treasurer” (Article V, Section 17), the latter is “…responsible for the safekeeping of monies and securities deposited with him (or her), and for their disbursement upon order of the Comptroller” (Article V, Section 18).

Given that Illinois is in its second year without a full budget, and in the midst of its first temporary budget (expires January 1; K-12 education excepted which has a 12 month budget), Munger has been quite visible in demanding a resolution to the Stalemate and engaging in creative accounting in deciding how to disburse limited dollars to a plethora of potential recipients, Illinois lawmakers included. Also at issue is the staggering sum of unpaid bills currently projected to reach a record $14 billion by next summer.

The race has mostly centered on the pair’s Rauner-Madigan ties, each one individually claiming independence from these increasingly unpopular figures. Yet more than $1.7 million has already been raised by the two candidates, the bulk of it by Mendoza ($1.39 million) from labor union sources that fuel the Illinois Democratic Party more generally. Munger boasts her own independent wealth and may leverage it in the closing weeks of the campaign, and if other Republican races provide any clues, look for Governor Rauner to come to the rescue, too.

In the end, this is a presidential election year, and Illinois is a dark hue of blue, so Mendoza is the prohibitive favorite. But don’t count out Munger just yet as Rauner and the Republicans seek parity as a means of enacting their “Turnaround Agenda” in the Land of Lincoln.

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