Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger is locked in one of the state’s tightest races with Democratic challenger and Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, as well as a pair of third party candidates. The matchup is being billed as a proxy battle for Gov. Bruce Rauner, who appointed Munger comptroller in 2015, and House Speaker Mike Madigan, who Mendoza has called a mentor.
In an exclusive interview with Ward Room, the comptroller touched on her relationship with Rauner, the campaign and her vision for the future of the state.
Munger, an Illinois native who previously served as a corporate executive for Chicago-based Helene Curtis Industries, said she looks to be a “loud voice for fiscal responsibility.” She currently serves as the primary financial officer for a state with a nearly $9 billion bill backlog that’s over $220 billion in debt.
"It doesn’t help to promise funding to anyone when we don’t have the money in the bank account to write the check and that actually has just been a practice that has gone on within our state for decades,” Munger said Tuesday morning.
The comptroller was appointed following the death of former state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. She originally submitted her resume to the state in 2014 hoping to get a job as a trustee at her alma mater, the University of Illinois, but was ultimately tapped for the comptroller job. This came after she unsuccessfully ran for the 59th District Illinois House seat in 2014.
Munger said she met Rauner at candidate endorsement sessions in the lead-up to that election and was supportive of his gubernatorial bid.
“My husband and I were supportive of him as a candidate because we thought we needed people in our state who understood that we can’t keep going down this path of spending money we don’t have or being taxed out of our state will make it very hard on our businesses,” she said.
However, Munger claimed she is not beholden to Rauner, or any other state official. Nevertheless, she does agree with the governor on certain policy issues based on her business background.
“Certainly I agree with some of the things the governor has sought,” Munger said. “It’s because I had to turn around businesses that have been going the wrong direction in my career, in particular Helene Curtis.”
The comptroller, who last year referred to herself as Rauner's budgetary "wingman," explained that she specifically supports the governor’s push for workers' compensation reform because it reduces costs for schools, human services, municipalities and manufacturing organizations that provide skilled labor jobs.
“The governor and I did not create this mess,” the comptroller said. “My opponent continues to try and say, 'Rauner and Munger created this.' I don’t have a vote at all. I don’t report to the governor, I’m a separate Constitutional officer."
"I can’t tell anyone what to do," she added. "I can only manage my own office.”
Last month, Munger received a $260,000 donation from her husband, exceeding the $250,000 self-funding threshold and removing fundraising limits for the race, which is now primed to be the state’s most expensive this campaign season.
Munger has since received $5 million from major Republican donors who have supported Rauner in the past, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Richard Uihlein, the owner of the Uline shipping supply firm, donated $2 million. His company has held contracts with the state in the past, according to the State Journal-Register. Additionally, billionaire investor Ken Griffin chipped in $2 million.
“There’s a big war, and that’s, I guess, the proxy war that everybody keeps referencing,” Munger said. "The people who’ve donated to me, I do not have any state contracts with. They do nothing with my office. They are business leaders who want good government to come back to Illinois.”
Munger noted that her opponent has gotten substantial donations from unions and special interests. Additionally, the comptroller claimed Mendoza has received contributions from companies that she gave contracts to during her time as Chicago city clerk.
“She is getting donations and funding from organizations who she owes or does business with to benefit them,” Munger said. “So there’s definitely a pay-to play, quid pro quo-thing going on there.”
The Mendoza responded to the claims Tuesday afternoon, placing the onus on Munger for shattering the race’s fundraising limits.
“Susana has been in full legal compliance with both city and state limits,” Mendoza campaign manager Lauren Peters said in a statement. “It was Comptroller Munger who broke the cap so she could receive unlimited funds, including just receiving $5 million from two billionaire donors who are close friends of Governor Rauner, one of which has a contract with the state. The only quid pro quo here is that if Munger is re-elected, the comptroller’s office will continue to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor’s office, not the independent fiscal watchdog Illinois taxpayers need."
Nevertheless, Munger also faulted Mendoza for contributing to Illinois’ fiscal mess, claiming she “voted for every single unbalanced budget” during her ten years in the Illinois House of Representatives. The comptroller also chastised the Democrat for voting in favor of pension holidays and tax increases.
“She thinks she’s the one who’s transparent, that's what she says, and she’s independent,” Munger said. “She’s up to her eyeballs in creating the problems that we have today.”
Munger claimed those problems are “decades in the making.” The comptroller noted that simply raising taxes won’t solve the state’s financial crisis and claimed increased taxes are already driving business owners out of state.
In her time as comptroller, Munger has consolidated her office, saving taxpayers $1 million, and implemented a series of key tech upgrades, including a new cloud-based computer system that centralizes financial systems for the state. A pilot program is currently underway.
Munger has perhaps been most visible for making state lawmakers wait in line to receive paychecks with other state vendors. She looks to expand on that plan with her proposed “No Budget, No Pay” bill that would require a balanced budget to be passed in order for state lawmakers to be paid.
The comptroller said the proposal “puts teeth” in lawmakers’ Constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget. According to Munger, if seats in the General Assembly shift in November, the measure has a good chance of being passed into law. If the seats don’t shift, she’s sure it won't even be voted on.
In which case, the comptroller will pursue the matter via petition and look to get it placed on a future ballot. She thinks taxpayers will like the proposal because they’re fed up with lawmakers "who think that they are in a special class.”