Illinois comptroller race in spotlight with budget fight

  • FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2016, file photo, Illinois state Comptroller Leslie Munger speaks to supporters at a rally in Springfield, Ill. Munger faces Democrat Susana Mendoza, Libertarian Claire Ball, and the Green Party's Tim Curtin in the general election.

    FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2016, file photo, Illinois state Comptroller Leslie Munger speaks to supporters at a rally in Springfield, Ill. Munger faces Democrat Susana Mendoza, Libertarian Claire Ball, and the Green Party's Tim Curtin in the general election. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2016, file photo, Susan Mendoza, the Democratic candidate for Illinois state comptroller, participates in a political rally in Springfield, Ill. Mendoza faces Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, Libertarian Claire Ball and the Green Party's Tim Curtin in the general election.

    FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2016, file photo, Susan Mendoza, the Democratic candidate for Illinois state comptroller, participates in a political rally in Springfield, Ill. Mendoza faces Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, Libertarian Claire Ball and the Green Party's Tim Curtin in the general election. Associated Press

  • In this Aug. 25, 2016 photo, Illinois Comptroller Green Party candidate Timothy Curtin answer questions from the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Curtin faces fellow candidates Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, Democrat, Susana Mendoza, and Libertarian Claire Ball in the general election. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune via AP)

    In this Aug. 25, 2016 photo, Illinois Comptroller Green Party candidate Timothy Curtin answer questions from the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Curtin faces fellow candidates Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, Democrat, Susana Mendoza, and Libertarian Claire Ball in the general election. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune via AP) Associated Press

  • This undated photo provided by Claire Ball for IL Comptroller shows, Libertarian candidate for Illinois Comptroller Claire Ball. Ball faces fellow candidates Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, Democrat, Susana Mendoza, and Green Party candidate Timothy Curtin in the general election. (John Merkle,Claire Ball for IL Comptroller via AP)

    This undated photo provided by Claire Ball for IL Comptroller shows, Libertarian candidate for Illinois Comptroller Claire Ball. Ball faces fellow candidates Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, Democrat, Susana Mendoza, and Green Party candidate Timothy Curtin in the general election. (John Merkle,Claire Ball for IL Comptroller via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 11/1/2016 4:25 PM

CHICAGO -- The race for comptroller, usually a low-profile contest coinciding with Illinois' gubernatorial campaigns, is in the spotlight during a presidential year with a big money special election offering Democrats an unusual chance to oust Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's hand-picked candidate.

The office that controls Illinois' checkbook is open mid-term because incumbent Leslie Munger's appointment is expiring. Rauner named her after Republican Judy Baar Topinka died after her 2014 re-election and Democrats in charge pushed a law requiring a 2016 special election.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Munger is vying to keep the job against Democrat Susana Mendoza, Chicago's city clerk aligned with the influential speaker of the Illinois House, and Green Party and Libertarian candidates.

The Nov. 8 winner will finish out the last half of the term.

THE JOB

The comptroller post has been obscure, with perpetual talk of merging it with the treasurer's office, which oversees investments. But it's recently played a more prominent role with Illinois' unprecedented budget gridlock.

The office balances laws, court orders and lawmaker-authorized spending to prioritize who gets paid, from state workers to utility companies to social service providers. The office can also be used as a bully pulpit to urge change, something that could impact the administration in power.

Illinois' first GOP governor in over a decade remains deadlocked on a full spending plan with Democrats controlling the Legislature. They oppose Rauner's union-weakening, pro-business agenda as a condition to a budget with new taxes.

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The impasse has complicated the comptroller's job: Some social service providers have closed their doors because of the uncertainty, while others doing business with Illinois are still awaiting payment as the backlog of unpaid bills hovers around $9 billion.

THE CANDIDATES

Like several legislative races, the comptroller election has become a proxy war in the battle between Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan, who serves as the Democratic Party's leader.

Mendoza and Munger have cast themselves as independent from their party leaders, but they've also benefited from their backing.

Munger, who called herself Rauner's "budgetary wingman," supports his agenda and took millions in donations from the former venture capitalist and his allies. But she insists she's stood up to Rauner. She delayed paychecks for elected officials during the impasse, and defied his request to not pay public-employee unions the "fair share" dues her office deducts from state worker paychecks.

Mendoza, a former legislator, says she's also created waves within her party. She once challenged a Madigan-backed candidate and publicly disagreed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel as clerk when he pitched raising the price of parking permits. But she voted with House Democrats on spending plans and has publicly praised the speaker, include during a 2011 ceremony nominating him to the post he's held almost continuously since 1983.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

THE MONEY

The race has also featured extraordinary fundraising.

Munger has raised more than double what Mendoza has, mostly due to gigantic donations from wealthy businessmen supporting Rauner.

Since 2015's start, Munger collected nearly $9 million, with $1 million from Rauner, $2 million from businessman Richard Uihlein and $5 million from Citadel CEO Ken Griffin. Munger transferred $3 million to the Republican Party, which is pouring money into legislative battles to reduce Democratic supermajorities.

Mendoza raised about $3.5 million in the same time period. Roughly one-third comes from unions and a smaller sum from a Democratic Party fund controlled by Madigan.

THE CAMPAIGN

The two faced off in one televised debate where both interrupted each other often as they defended their records.

Munger claimed her opponent voted "in lockstep" with Madigan and her campaign donations come from special interests. She defended her own campaign fund as support from people who want to improve Illinois.

"The governor has not bought me," she said on Chicago's WTTW.

But Mendoza said the contributions make Munger a "wholly-owned subsidiary" of Rauner. She defended her budget votes as preserving funding for people in need.

"I feel like I'm running against Governor Rauner right now," Mendoza said afterward. "The minute he bought the office, it became a proxy between him and myself."

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Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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