by Lisa Donovan
Before they were sworn in to their respective offices last year, newly elected Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza showed up with gifts to a meeting with Rahm Emanuel, prompting the empty-handed mayor-elect to say, ‘I feel like such an a--hole I didn’t get you anything; I feel terrible.’”
The way Mendoza remembers it, she told him not to worry about it as he opened the packages. First, a paperweight in the shape of the United States with a star etched over Chicago. Then 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 f------ tampon out and tell me what you have to say.”
Emanuel grinned widely, Mendoza says, as she told him: “In case you start cramping or need to use this, please keep this handy. I got you a whole bottle.”
Talk to those who have worked with and admire the 39-year-old Mendoza, who after a decade as a state representative was elected in 2011 as Chicago’s first female city clerk, and they’ll talk about how her sense of humor — and respect — balances her unyielding candor.
The one-time star soccer player — whose Bolingbrook High School coach once called her the Michael Jordan of the team in a Chicago Sun-Times piece — has been equally nimble in her political career. She calls fellow Democrats Ed Burke, a Chicago alderman, and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan political mentors while drawing support from the likes of U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a conservative Republican from Peoria who struck up a friendship with Mendoza when the two served in the Statehouse.
“She stood out as someone who had friends on both sides of the aisle,” Schock said. “When she ran for [clerk], she had a dozen or more Republicans actually contribute to her city election,” including $10,000 from Schock. “That doesn’t happen a lot in politics,” he says.
She’s definitely not go-along, get-along, says Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown. He acknowledges that although Madigan is her mentor, the speaker has been irritated with her political maneuvers from time to time. Brown declined to elaborate.
But others say her public support for Schock’s congressional bid “rattled some cages” of downstate Democrats. And she has drawn eye rolls from the Hispanic caucus for not playing ball, including party operative who called her a “snob.”
That includes her backing then-boyfriend Proco “Joe” Moreno over incumbent state Sen. William Delgado, a Chicago Democrat, in the run-up to the 2008 primary election. “That was a no-brainer,” Mendoza says. “We were dating, but even if we hadn’t been, he was — by leaps and bounds — a better elected official than Willie Delgado.”
Delgado did not return a message for comment.
Critics have accused Mendoza of being a double-dipper, since she held a post in the City of Chicago's planning department while serving in the legislature. She told Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin last year that she wasn't paid by the city on the days she was working in the legislature.
“My paperwork is clear on that,” Mendoza told Marin.
Mendoza, along with state Rep. Antonia “Toni” Berrios, a Chicago Democrat, and Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, all Latina, referred to themselves as the “Bonita caucus.”
“I don't know who dubbed it, but it was kind of fun because we were always together,” Berrios says, adding that Mendoza was a sight to see as she worked the legislative floor on issues she cared about, including a new registry to purchase corrosive acid cleaner, prompted by a vicious attack with the chemical that left a woman in her district disfigured. “She was such a hard worker, you’d see her running around the House floor — because if she just sat in her chair, she knew she wasn't going to get anything done.”
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Mendoza was born and spent her early years growing up in a house that straddled the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods — communities that have drawn Mexican migrants since World War II.
But gang violence and, ultimately, a shooting death next door, pushed her father, Joaquin, and her mother, also named Susana, to pack up their three young children and worldly possessions and move to the suburbs, first Woodridge, then Bolingbrook.
“After that shooting, my dad rented a truck and literally, we moved out the next day,” says Mendoza, who was 7 at the time. “I felt like we were run out, and I couldn’t figure it out — I mean, why do we have to leave? We’re not the bad guys.”
But the tug of the city was so strong that the family returned each weekend to pick up the Mexican grocery staples difficult to find in suburbia circa 1979.
“We were like the only Mexican family in Woodridge back then — we couldn’t get tortillas or jalapenos or beans,” Mendoza says. She hasn’t lost touch with many of the shopkeepers over the years, she adds.
The pull was ultimately so strong, though, that by 1994, newly minted college graduate Mendoza and her parents were back living in Little Village, sharing the second floor of a two-flat and enjoying the convenience of living close to their city jobs — Mendoza at a downtown Marriott and her father as a superintendent at the now-closed Brach’s candy factory.
That’s not to say she wasn’t molded by 1980s suburbia, where she went to elementary school and high school. And that’s where she traded in her dresses, tutus and her big dreams of becoming a ballerina for her “first love”: soccer.
She would play in boys’ leagues before she organized the girls’ Bolingbrook High School soccer team and played as offensive center midfielder. Top grades along with her soccer skills would underwrite her schooling at Northeast Missouri State University, now Truman State University.
After college, Mendoza set her sights on an advertising job in Chicago. At Marriott, she was able to do various jobs, from working the reception desk to helping with marketing, offering a chance to build a professional advertising portfolio.
“I knew it was just a matter of time before I got into an ad firm,” Mendoza says.
A young and driven Mendoza recalls the night in 1995 when her father picked her up at work, an evening that would prove pivotal. As they were heading home, he stopped off at a Jewel-Osco for some groceries and handed her the pile of mail to read through so she wouldn’t be bored while he ran in.
There, she opened up a political mailer for a candidate running in the city’s 12th Ward — representing stretches of Pilsen, Little Village and other heavily Hispanic neighborhoods on Chicago’s southwest side. She couldn’t believe what a mess it was.
“It was a big one — like six pages long. I look at it, and it’s all misspelled in Spanish. I would have gotten an F in my class if I would have turned that in,” Mendoza says. “It was like spelling ‘what’ without a W. There were 11 mistakes in Spanish. The English was fine; the Spanish was all jacked up.”
She makes no bones about it: She didn’t know what an alderman was, what they did. She didn’t know much about politics. But she knew something about communications.
“I’m thinking, ‘Look, I don’t know who these people are, but if this guy can’t take five minutes to proofread his work, and he’s coming out to me, and he’s asking me for my vote now, and he’s not even in office — what can I expect from him afterward, especially from a professional standpoint?’”
When her dad returned to the car, she showed him. He suggested his daughter call the candidate’s competition — a state representative named Rafael “Ray” Frias, who was the target of the criticism in the literature.
When she declared the idea “brilliant” her father said, ‘Honey, I was just kidding with you’ — concerned that some Chicago politician wouldn’t take the call of a 22-year-old college graduate.
When they arrived home, she dialed 411 and asked for Frias’ state representative office in Chicago. It was 9 p.m. A staffer picked up the phone. Mendoza identified herself as a concerned citizen who would like to talk with Frias. To her surprise, she got him on the phone, and she began going over his competition’s campaign literature.
“He got defensive, said none of it was true,” she recalls with a laugh. “And I said: ‘I wasn’t calling to beat you up. I actually was calling because I think I can help.’”
She offered to write a rebuttal piece, and if he used it, he could provide a reference for her — hoping she would have something high-profile to put in her portfolio.
Frias asked to meet her the next day. She pulled an all-nighter, preparing the rebuttal, putting it together at Kinko’s and even driving with her father past Frias’ district office so they knew where it was and could be prompt for the appointment.
Father and daughter showed up for the interview. Frias sat down with them, telling her he was ahead in the polls and wouldn’t need her help but that her enthusiasm impressed him and he had to meet her. He had some connections to an ad firm and would be glad to make some calls.
She wouldn’t get the call for another three weeks, but by then, her world had been turned upside down. Her father suffered a fatal heart attack. In the haze of grief, she initially turned down the offer from Hernandez & Garcia LLC advertising firm — feeling that she should stay with Marriott, since the company was good enough to hire her older brother after their father died and finances were tight.
She would eventually take the advertising job and by the fall of 1995, Frias hired her as his political career was about to take a hit.
“I became his press secretary a week before the feds walked into his office,” she says.
She was referring to Frias getting caught up in the federal investigation known as Operation Silver Shovel, in which a federal mole paid more than $200,000 in bribes to various officials to set up illegal dumping grounds.
Frias was indicted in 1997. A jury later acquitted him of accepting a bribe and lying to the FBI.
“When Ray got in trouble — I didn’t even hesitate to help immediately because I just felt he’s a really good man [and] I don’t believe anything they say about him,” she says, explaining that in the days and weeks after her father died, Frias volunteered to help her brother apply for a legislative scholarship so he wouldn’t have to drop out of college. “This was going to test my loyalties and my thankfulness and all the core values my dad taught me. And sometimes, the government gets it wrong. My gut instinct about him was right.”
At the same time, she learned an early lesson about keeping her nose clean and steering clear of even the appearance of impropriety — a feat in the world of Chicago politics where backroom dealing with special interests is an art form.
“Knowing what I would never ever want to do myself, to allow myself to be in a position where people could criticize me or think that I did something bad — those were all life lessons I learned through that experience.”
When Mendoza was 25 years old, Frias encouraged her to run for his old First District state House seat representing the southwest side of Chicago and Cicero. Her first reaction was “no,” because she figured voters wouldn’t take someone so young seriously.”
She recalls Frias saying, “Well, I would vote for you, and so would Ed Burke.” That was tantamount to an anointing, since the district included the ward of Burke, the powerful alderman who heads the Chicago City Council’s finance committee.
But it wasn’t enough. Mendoza would lose by 30 votes, but she was hooked on the “thousands of people who voted for a 25-year- old.” The next time around, she won.
She was still living with her mother, and now her brother Joaquin — a Chicago police officer who went on to become a homicide detective — in the same second-story flat she had moved to after college. But when Mendoza started talking loudly about pushing out the gangs and drugs that plagued her district, the threats started pouring in.
Mendoza and her brothers decided it was best and safest for their mother to move in to a 55-and-older community in the southwest suburbs, where she remains today.
Mendoza is proud of her accomplishments, including her election as one of the youngest members ever in the state House.
So it’s puzzling why she moved from the Statehouse to an office best known for issuing dog licenses and 1.3 million city stickers that Chicago residents are required to purchase each year.
“As a state rep, you’re building alliances of 100,000 in a district; now she’ll have the chance to build a citywide constituency,” says Brown, echoing Mendoza’s sentiments.
If the clerk’s job is a stepping stone to a more high-profile office in politics, Mendoza and her pals aren’t talking about it, though many speculate she’s eyeing a bid for Congress or even Chicago mayor.
Right now, her plate is full. She not only ran an election and started her new job as clerk, but in December, she married marketing and communications firm owner David Szostak, an old high school friend who turned out to be “Mr. Right.” The latter meant a move to the north side of Chicago — specifically the Ravenswood neighborhood that is also home to the mayor.
“I’m still a [White] Sox fan, can’t lose that,” says a usually smiling Mendoza, whose loud, scratchy voice and mile-a-minute cadence help make her a big presence, despite her slight 5’3, 120-pound stature.
In between, she’s been out talking up the clerk’s office and seems to recognize that some might see it as a yawner, even if it is the most visited city office. At a recent City Club of Chicago luncheon, she volunteered, “This office is anything but a sleepy office.”
In fact, it’s the official record keeper of the Chicago City Council meetings, including legislation that is introduced and passed. Her predecessor, Miguel Del Valle, brought the office into the 21st century — and arguably to a larger audience — by streaming City Council meetings live on the Web and creating an online system for the public to keep an eye on the status of legislation. Now, she’s trying to upgrade the system to make it easier to navigate.
“That legislation impacts every single one of us in this room, whether it’s the legislation that privatized Chicago meters … or the recent ban on talking or texting on cell phones while riding a bike,” she told the City Club, pointing to the controversial deal to privatize Chicago’s parking meters that critics say former Mayor Richard M. Daley shoved through and provided little time for aldermen to review.
She’s a politician for the tech age, using the clerk’s website and social media to share — almost instantaneously — developments in the governmental and political landscape. That includes putting proposals for remapping the city’s wards online immediately.
With the mayor’s and clerk’s offices intimately linked, insiders are watching how the two get along.
When then-mayoral candidate Emanuel announced on the campaign trail that the city could generate money by putting advertisements on the city stickers, Mendoza — who had already floated something similar — quickly put out a press release: “I was pleased to read ... that Rahm Emanuel is backing my plan to put ads on the back of city stickers.”
And when Emanuel delivered his first spending plan as mayor, Mendoza balked, knowing full well she’d have to wear the jacket for his proposal to steeply hike city sticker fees. When it was over, the hikes were in place, though they were more modest than originally planned.
And like every modern-day politician, she’ll take to Facebook and Twitter to talk about everything from her recent wedding to complaining about cockroaches in the clerk’s basement offices at City Hall, which turned into a national news story.
The mayor vowed to fix the problem — by moving clerk’s staff out of the City Hall basement – but it’s still a work in progress.
“The mayor said he’s going to do it, and I believe him,” Mendoza said in January. “Otherwise I’ll remind him.”
Lisa Donovan covers county government for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Illinois Issues, February 2012