Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza calls it as she sees it

Susana Mendoza is the City Clerk of Chicago and currently one of only two women in a city-wide post (City Treasurer Stephanie Neely being the other). Previously, Mendoza served 12 years in the State legislature, being first elected at the age of 28. Known for her outspokenness and willingness to tell-it-as-she sees it, the 42-year-old City Clerk sat down with The Chicago Ambassador at her City Hall office recently to discuss her first term; including her controversial decision about the 2012 vehicle sticker design contest; her propensity to introduce legislation as a clerk, which while allowed, is rare; her relationship with the mayor, whether she may one day run for mayor; and much more.

Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.

CA) When you’re getting ready for work, do you ever look in the mirror and mouth the words “Mayor Mendoza” ? 

MENDOZA) No, not at all. Usually it’s ‘oh my God, I look horrible.’

CA) I know you’re gearing up for re-election, but where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10?

MENDOZA) I really don’t know. I’d be lying if I said I see a clear path to this or that. I’ve been really focused since I took office as City Clerk and I’ve had that question since I was in the state legislature — people would always ask, where are you going next? and the last place I would have thought was the Clerk’s Office. The thing about politics is that you really have to be open to opportunities as they arise. There are Clerk’s who might set their sights on specific things long term and try to work towards that, but I’ve come to realize that doing that is easier said than done. If someone said ‘I’m going to be U.S. Senator by this date” so many variables play into that . Who is the senator, how long do they plan on being there, are they super popular, are they not well-liked, what if someone has a heart attack and dies in office – are you prepared to make the move at that time, so nothing ever really goes as planned and as long as you’re open to opportunities that make sense for you, that you can be passionate about and that you are willing to look at, it’s important to have some flexibility with what your plans are. For me, my plan is to be a public servant for as long as I can wake up in the morning and be passionate about it and that people feel they can trust me.  So, when I made the switch from State Rep. to City Clerk, it allowed me to hone my skills in areas that I really didn’t get to do that in the legislature. Now, this job is much more managerial, administrative if you want to look at it that way, I don’t get to legislate as much but I’m probably the first clerk in history that has actually done legislative work as a clerk. You get to do a little bit of everything but I’ve become a much better manager than I had the opportunity as a legislator.

CA) Talk about your first term — What has surprised you?

MENDOZA) There are always things, every day I’m surprised by something, but probably the scope of the amount of work that needed to be done. It’s not an office that a lot of people have thought about or talked about. Unfortunately, two of the last three Clerks have gone to jail. When I ran I had ideas on how to make things better from a constituents perspective and everyone thinks there’s an easier, immediate way of doing things, even when you’re running for that office but the reality is when you get into the position you realize that oh my Lord, there are so many things that fundamentally need to change from the absolute lowest tier to the top. It could be very overwhelming but for me, when I was in the legislature, I never liked to sit still and thank God because coming into this office, we had a ton of things to sink our teeth into and every day there’s more. I feel like we have gotten a lot of stuff done that’s really good for taxpayers in just 3 years, but that only means that I can focus my energy on a million other things so that people can look at the Clerk’s office and say ‘wow, that’s a really well run office’ and that all the other agencies should be run like the Clerk’s office. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.

CA) When you ran you promised to sponsor legislation, which City Clerk’s weren’t well known for — You sponsored the Puppy Mill legislation that was recently passed — what are your feelings on that? Was it tougher than expected to get passed? (Initially Alderman Joe Moreno said it could take some “heavy lifting” to get it passed, although it was passed 49-1 with Brendan Reilly 42nd opposing).

MENDOZA)  This issue has gone on for a long, long time. It was in the state house and went nowhere in the past. It was an issue that I was approached with really early on after I got elected and an issue that I understood would be really difficult to pass. The lobby, the pro-puppy mill lobby is very rich because there is a lot of money to be made in a popular industry – selling dogs at pet stores. My 11-years in the legislature gave me a front row view of that, how really intense the pro-puppy mill, and I’ll call it that, how powerful the pro-puppy mill lobby is. Knowing that, when I was approached as Clerk about taking the issue on, I thought, ‘ok, I’m very interested in the issue, I worked on animal advocacy issues as a legislator, but I also knew that as soon as anyone from the industry per se found out that Chicago was working on this, they would rally their resources and kill it before it even got started. I was in a unique position because none of the former Clerk’s had ever used this office as an advocacy office, so nobody expected me to take on this issue. When I was approached by the animal rights groups who knew my work in Springfield, I said this is a great idea, I think we can pull it off, but it needs to be done under my terms and that means we are not going to talk about this publicly at all, I’m not interested in the press on this, I want it actually getting done and if I hear from anyone that someone says ‘hey I hear the Clerk’s office is working on this pro-puppy legislation I’m going to get off it because that means that someone leaked it and then we’re giving the opposition time to kill the bill.

CA) There were articles about it before it passed

MENDOZA) Yes, but literally two weeks before. There was not a single article, no one knew anything until I introduced the bill and I think I got like 47 alderman to sign on to the legislation that day. I worked the ordinance very much like I would have worked a bill in Springfield. In Springfield I would have been working it weeks before but I didn’t want it to get out there. We had done all the research on it, we laid the foundation with some key members of the City Council, we kept it secret. I called it our Seal Team 6 project. It was basically a 2-year effort because you had to find the right time to introduce it. I wasn’t going to introduce the bill when their was a huge spike in violence, people would say why are you talking about this when there are these other issues. We picked the right time and it ended up getting a ton of publicity and we beat the opposition to the punch. Capitalizing on my experience and having a couple years hear gave me the opportunity to see how the City Council operates and to strategically approach this in a way that it would result in a successful bill.  Alderman Moreno, one of my original co-sponsors of it that no one knew about, he has worked with the Council for awhile and knew they had to be educated about this issued before they’d get on. We did that and although the vote made it look easy (49-1) people may say that was easier than we thought but the proof is in the pudding. We passed it, it got great national attention and riding the wave of momentum that we had, the county then passed it within a few days, but then it came to a screeching halt in Springfield because the industry knew about it and had time to work to kill it. Usually you can’t keep a secret in this town, but we managed to keep it and that’s why we were successful.

CA) another ordinance that you have been behind is to crack down on people and business who live in the city and register their vehicles somewhere else (tougher fine than if you just forgot to buy your sticker) — and an ordinance against tow companies that “stage cars” –what’s going on with that? 

MENDOZA) It passed. We also went after the tow truck companies and said ‘hey, you need to get in compliance with the wheel tax.’ Our cars can be towed for not having a city sticker by a truck that doesn’t have a city sticker and making money off city contracts. We’ve been looking at all ends of it.

CA) You’ve said that your office brought in an addition $4.4 million last year on City sticker sales despite cutting the number of workers and the amount of overtime since you were elected in 2011. How did you do that?

MENDOZA) Just by creating greater efficiencies, looking at how the operations run and frankly it was run very inefficiently in the past and no changes had been made. I really think if you sink your teeth into the details, you’ll quickly find that there’s a better way to do things. We are looking at every single job and asking if it’s necessary to have it.  We certainly don’t want to reduce payroll but in the same way, if having the ability to create greater efficiencies with less people — you’re saving money on personnel, your saving money over time and you’re actually providing better service and increasing revenues for the city without having to ask people to pay more out of their pocket. We have provided better customer service and been able to reduce our payroll in a way that doesn’t reduce the service we provide and at the same time we have been able to increase revenues for the City of Chicago significantly without having people pay more. It’s absolutely micro-managing every aspect.

CA) Speaking of city stickers – What happened in 2012 with the contest? 

MENDOZA) It was very unfortunate.

[Editor’s note: In 2012, as in several previous years, a competition was conducted at Chicago Public Schools to design a logo for the city vehicle sticker. That year, theme was to honor city firefighters, paramedics and police officers. The winning design was selected from a 15-year-old student at the Lawrence Hall School and was days away from going to print, when allegations that the design incorporated gang symbolism were brought to Mendoza’s attention. After investigating, Mendoza ultimately made the decision to scrap the design.]

CA) Looking back, were you too quick to scrap the 15-year-old boy’s design? Do you think you should have talked to him before making the decision? 

MENDOZA) We did try to talk to him before we made the decision. At that point, so a couple things, We don’t have phone numbers for any of those kids directly because they are all high school kids and minors. The point of contact we have is with the schools. So when all of this is happening and when we saw his Facebook page, we immediately contacted the number we had to try and get this kid’s Facebook page down because I know the more people see that, the worse it’s going to be for the kid. So everything my office did was to protect this young man’s reputation.  Then we were in communication with them and tried to talk this thing through and we really didn’t get anywhere he pretty quickly, as soon as he heard this was potentially was going to happen, he got a lawyer and the lawyer did not want to talk to us. So it’s easy to say nobody contacted us or tried to reach us but that’s just not true.

CA) Do you think you rushed the decision?

MENDOZA) I do not think we rushed, we actually had to delay the print on the stickers. And we were on a very strict timeline to come up with 3 million stickers in a one month period. This had already been out there, we already congratulated the kid, he had won the contest, the Sun-Times put it on their front page. No one that we know of on earth had even remotely insinuated there may be issues with this sticker. The whole concept that I should have known is ludicrous because no one knew. Even when I got the first call I thought there is no way, no way this is even related at all. It’s terrible that they are making this up about this kid. But frankly, I’m privy to information that the general population is not and again you’re talking about a minor so I can’t share the information that I’m privy to so I had to make a decision, do we go to print and print $250,000 worth of stickers that I’ll probably have to recall. I made the right decision, it was just no matter how I went about that decision a child’s feelings were really going to be hurt. And that’s a terrible position for anyone to be in. I’m a mom, you think I want to see a little kid crying because we had to do this? But the reality of it that the perception of it at that time is that this was an MLD (Maniac Latin Disciples) sticker and whether it was or wasn’t was no longer even the question. This was done done in the year meant to honor police, fire and first responders and the police were the ones that brought up this issue, that they were absolutely, 100 percent convinced that this had gang symbolism in it. The irony of that, you can’t be wrong.

CA)The Chicago Tribune Editorial wrote that it was “a rookie mistake” and that “Mendoza choked.”  Do you think they were harsh?

MENDOZA) Absolutely, 100 percent  and I have told them that because I was never contacted directly to ask me my reasoning. Here’s the thing. I had to make the decision and nobody wants to make a decision that you know is going to be unpopular because it was absolutely unpopular for me to see this kid go on TV and cry his eyes out, nobody wants to see that, yet, I had to take quick, decisive action based on the facts and that’s exactly what I did. Now, I think the Tribune, before they wrote that editorial, should have contacted me and asked me why I made that decision. I think part of being a leader is making the tough decisions and standing by them. I looked at all the facts, I spoke to all the people that I needed to speak with, and tried to contact the boy.

CA) He got his scholarship?

MENDOZA) Yes, I paid for it.

CA) Is the contest still happening?

MENDOZA) No, because even before I was elected  I talked about moving to a year round sales program. As soon as I came in, we started surveying people on what they thought about moving to a year round sales program, so I’ve always had that vision. The city sticker contest was fun and it made sense when we didn’t have the year round system because all the stickers look the same because they are all printed at the same time. Now that we are are a year-round staggered system, the only way that that will work is by having a clearly visible date that expires and from an enforcement perspective there is no room for art.

CA) During your first campaign, you talked about getting revenue from selling ads on the backs of the stickers — what’s going on with that idea?

MENDOZA) We did look into that, but it was found to be unconstitutional by the attorneys who looked into it for us. It’s looked at as forcing speech upon people who may not want that. Let’s say as an example that Walmart is a sponsor and you just absolutely hate Walmart, I’m making you pay for a city sticker yet forcing a message that you may not want. Clearly, it wouldn’t have made sense for us to go in that direction and then have to recall stickers and potentially, not potentially, for sure get sued and most likely lose in court. I think it was a great idea but you can’t do things that will ultimately end up in court. I think it’s something you can do on a license plate where you would have a choice, i.e. Coca-Cola will cover some of your license fee to have their plates. Those things would be constitutional because you’re making a conscious choice.

CA) What about having different sponsors and having people choose for the stickers?

MENDOZA) We can’t because of the mass production of the sticker itself. We’re not in position were we could do that. You go and by your sticker and it’s not printed that day, it’s already been printed and we’d have no way of knowing how many people would want one sticker or another.

CA) You’ve made efforts to crackdown on people who don’t buy dog tags for their pets — it’s estimated that only around 10 percent of 500,000 dogs in the city have tags  — is this something you’re still working on or has it been pushed to the back burner? 

MENDOZA) It’s a low percentage. The key to that is to have a strong enforcement mechanism and right now there really isn’t a huge enforcement mechanism.  Until there is a unit that cracks down on people who don’t register dogs, –actually the county issues most of those fines and also Animal Care & Control but they are such a small unit and they are focused on the day to day issues like abandoned animals and dogs that bite people so the bandwidth they have isn’t huge. It’s an issue we have to revisit. Maybe licensing is better as a one-stop shop with the county? these are conversations we’ll be having in the future. Just because we had programs in the past doesn’t mean we have to continue to have them. From my perspective, I want to do whatever we can do to make the customers experience easier. I don’t think the customer who owns a dog that it’s easier to get my dog vaccinated one place at the vet, and then register it at City Hall, and if I want to go to a dog park I have to go to a different place to get that permit. Anything that is related to dogs in my opinion should be handled in one place. So, if the county doesn’t want to do it anymore and wants us to do it, that’s a conversation we can have. Same with the park district.  For the sake of convenience of the customer, it should be handled by one agency and once we do that, you’re going to see compliance rise up because nothing would be falling through the cracks.

CA) What are you currently working on — besides starting up your re-election efforts? — with no opponent yet and likely a long-shot against you, how much of your focus has to be on your re-election campaign?

MENDOZA) I have not focused on it one bit until just recently. I was 100 percent focused on the job, not to mention that I got married and had a baby.  It’s literally taken all my time and focus and now, the next thing that I know, oh my God, the election is right around the corner so I will have to focus on it. Election time comes around for every elected official and you have to prioritize your time. It’s going to be tough and I’m the type of person who would never take anything for granted and even though technically there is no formal opponent yet, I’m making the assumption that I’m going to have a super strong opponent and that’s how I will run my campaign until the election.

CA) During the first campaign you talked about being independent from the mayor’s office. Can you cite anything specific that you differ with Mayor Emanuel on? 

MENDOZA) Right after I was sworn in, I had my first test of that when he moved to raise the city sticker fees by $60. It was ultimately raised by $10 which was much more reasonable than a $60 increase and that was a major fight that I took on. The alderman passed the budget 50 votes to nothing and every single one of them went along with the price increase. I’m the only one that spoke out for people and said ‘in my opinion it was unnecessary, we should have a greater focus on going after scofflaws before we ask that a taxpayer who is in compliance with their city sticker should pay more'”  I was super vocal about that and people still get upset and say ‘you were going to reduce the price of  the city sticker and I said I tried but that was going nowhere. The first thing the mayor did in that budget was to increase the sticker by a huge amount so I took on that fight and it wasn’t easy. I think the mayor and I have a great deal of respect for each other but that first year was very tough.

CA) How would you describe your relationship with him?

MENDOZA) I think it’s a good relationship. It’s a working relationship. He knows that I have transformed this office. There’s still a long way to go and even when I’m no longer clerk, whoever the next clerk is, I’m not going to to able to say “oh, they will have an easy ride because we’ve done everything that needed to be done, which is what other clerk’s have said. That’s just insane. No matter how hard I work, no matter how many accomplishments we have in this office, there will always be more work for the next clerk. But I do think you have to look at our performance. In only three years we are the only agency who has been able to walk into the mayor’s office and say here’s and extra $4.5 million you weren’t expecting — at a time when we were making a significant investment in change. If anything, people should have expected our office to be losing money. We regained our initial investment in technology in the first year and then ended up $4.5 million on top.

CA) The site was hacked once-

MENDOZA) Yes and that’s a good question. The site is completely informational. They hacked into information about where to buy stickers, but there was zero risk to the public.

CA) how long was it effected?

MENDOZA) It was like 40 minutes, it wasn’t anything at all. We of course did our data analysis and all that, but we don’t have any confidential information on the site. It was good too because it shows vulnerabilities and it was probably good timing because I put the need for greater security protocols in our budget.

CA) Is the City getting a bad reputation because of the number of murders and shootings the last couple years? How much is Mayor Emanuel and Supt. McCarthy responsible for the current atmosphere?  Any approaches that haven’t been tried that you’d like to see? 

MENDOZA) I think those guys are working as hard as they can right now given the bandwidth and the resources they have.  The mayor is really hands on. He goes into the neighborhoods. He talks to the superintendent on a daily basis.  The facts don’t correlate to the story that you’re hearing. If you live in one of those neighborhoods and you’re a victim of a crime, it’s so incredibly real to you. For folks that are lucky enough that don’t have to live in those neighborhoods — the problem is really real.

You’re right, the statistics are better than they were years ago. The homicides are less. But if you’re a victim, statistics mean nothing. If you don’t feel safe in your home, it doesn’t matter what happened ten years ago. It is a crisis and I think the mayor and superintendent are doing the best that they can.

CA) Your brother is a police officer, correct?

MENDOZA) He used to be a homicide detective. He recently made sergeant and he works — you can tell that I’ve never used clout when it comes to my brother — he is working in the 3rd District, which is the worst part of Englewood, not during the day – he is working midnights and he chose to do that so that he could make a difference out there.

CA) One of the beefs the Fraternal Order of Police have with the mayor is that there are not enough police –

MENDOZA) That’s always going to be the case. Nobody loves police more than I do because I have a brother who is in the thick of it and every day I worry about him not coming home. However, every union group is going to say we need more employees, it’s the nature of the beast. But the statistics are – there are times when we had a lot more police and the homicide numbers were higher. So I wouldn’t say we don’t need more police but we need to better use the resources we have. It’s kinda like what we’re doing here [in the clerk’s office]. You really do need to micro-manage and figure out the best way to use employees. Definitely use approaches that aren’t the typical Chicago way of doing things. It’s easier said than done. It is an issue of prioritizing. I think every body could say that it would be great to have more police but you also don’t have unlimited funds that just grow on trees, so you do what you can.

CA) What are your feelings about being called a “female- politician”? 

MENDOZA) It doesn’t really matter to me, I’ve been called worse. I don’t even think about about really.

CA) Eric Zorn called you “spunky” and wrote about your hair at the time — comparing the flip to Mary Tyler Moore — what did you think about that? Perhaps only former Gov. Blagojevich is the only office holder with attention on their hair. 

MENDOZA) All those things are true (spunky). It’s a little unfortunate but you can’t control what others are going to write about you. You’d think there are more important things to write about like what I’m doing with the office rather than my hair but that’s ok, as long as they spell my name right.

CA) Two of the last three City Clerks ended up in prison. Chicago is a place where many alderman and other office holders have been convicted of corruption over the years –so much so that a lot of the public basically shrugs their shoulders — how important is it to you to make sure you are aligned with above the board people and employees?  Do you think it’s any more important because you’re a role model for women in an area where female role models are lacking?

MENDOZA) People are desensitized, they’ve seen it so much. There aren’t very many of us – women… I think politicians in general should hold themselves to a higher standard and not behave in ways that tarnishes the public service as a whole. I really love what I do and take it very seriously. I think too many people run for office that should not. I know politicians that would say ‘I’d never discourage anyone from running for office’ but unfortunately, I have served with too many people that have no business being in public office because they do look at it like feeding at the through. That’s the last thing on earth public service should be about. My mom told me when I first ran for office, my dad had already passed away. she said ‘don’t do this honey, you’re too nice. You’re going to be in a pit with vipers.’ That’s literally what she said in Spanish but that’s the translation. I remember thinking and telling her ‘mom, you have that perception because only vipers enter this game. If you want to change it and you want to truly change the perception that politics is full of vipers and snakes, then good people have to get into this. So I really believe that no matter what bad people are around, I will rise above that because my values are what you instilled in me and no one is going to change that. And my dad always told me ‘you could only compromise your integrity once. The first time you do it, you can never take it back. You can never take it back. I’ve been in situations that are scary situations to be in, you’re having conversations where you’re like ‘this is not a conversation that I can be having’ and I stood up to that. One of them involved Governor Blagojevich. I was a big believer, I thought he was a good guy, and then it was made very clear to me that he was not, and I immediately put my foot down and became a complete adversary to Governor Blagojevich and was very public about it. It was a life lesson for me, you really can’t trust everything that people say, there are some bad people in public service and we need to do what we can to get rid of them. So, I don’t encourage everybody to run for office because unless your intentions are 100 percent heart-felt and you love to help people and if you know that rarely if ever will you ever get a thank you in return, then don’t do it. Because it is a thankless job and that’s okay because the job is to make other’s lives better and sometimes people don’t have time to say thank you. You know when you’ve made a difference in people’s lives and it feels great, there’s nothing that feels better.

I like knowing I’ve made a difference in someone’s life. Just knowing that is an adrenaline rush, I don’t need a thank you. This subject of women in politics, because we’re so few, do we have a special obligation to be a role model?

I embrace it, because whether I want to or not, I’m going to be a role model. I do have to set an example for other girls. They know I’m the first female city Clerk and every little girl should grow up thinking anything is possible for them.  I do want people to say when I’m gone, she did a great job and she was always clean. She was surrounded by vipers but she never compromised her integrity.

Sometimes I wonder how is it that some people have not been busted but I think when someone loses the moral high ground and compromises their integrity, the next time it becomes easier, and the next time it becomes even easier. and then you’re like ‘whoa, I’m not getting caught’ and then you develop an air of invincibility that you’re never going to get caught, but the good thing about this country is that people usually get caught.

CA) What do you think about those who have been caught and eventually come back to office? 

MENDOZA) I think it’s a disgrace, it’s a total shame. Derrick Smith, that should have never happened and as a Democrat I’m embarrassed that our party for one second worked to get that guy re-elected.  Let the Republican guy win, at least he’s not a criminal. And then, work to get that Republican replaced with a Democrat. They should have taken a loss than to be a party hack which is basically what happened in that case and that’s what tarnishes everybody else that are trying to work hard and provide a good name for public servants.

CA) The thing that also struck me about you is your accessibility to the public — How important is that for you? and is it tougher now that you’re married and have a son? 

MENDOZA) I’d say it’s a little harder now, but I have a very supportive husband. My son is almost two and I want him to grow up and know what mommy does and I don’t want to be one of these people who have ten levels of people to go through to get to me. It shouldn’t be that way, I love people and I think the best ideas come from talking to people. I think that’s a problem with some people who get elected. They lose their footing and think they are above everyone else. We are public servants which mean we work for the people and not the other way around.

It’s been a lot of fun the last three years and I still think there’s a lot to be done, so if you’re asking me if I’m running for mayor, the answer is no. I’m running for re-election.

CA) But the door’s not shut to it in the future? A lot of people probably would like to see that. 

MENDOZA) The door’s not shut to anything. I may end up in the private sector, who knows. As long as you’re open to opportunities in your life that make sense to you where you can contribute, there’s a lot of ways to be in public service. For me so far it’s been in elected office but I’m going to be open to anything.

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