Little more than a week after handily winning reelection as the state’s chief financial officer, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced her campaign for Chicago mayor.
That long-anticipated announcement was met with a flurry of attacks from potential opponents in the mayoral race, including former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. He criticized Mendoza for touting her opposition to a vehicle sticker price increase in 2011 during her time as Chicago’s city clerk as part of her campaign launch.
"Susana Mendoza’s assertion that she fought Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to drastically raise city sticker prices is absurd," Vallas said in a statement sent out by his campaign. "As news stories earlier this year by WBEZ and ProPublica painfully show, Mendoza pushed a draconian city sticker penalty program that led to the financial ruin of thousands of Chicago’s neediest families."
His press release linked to a July story from ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ in which Mendoza expressed regret for backing an increase in the cost of city sticker violations, a policy that ProPublica and WBEZ revealed had exacted a painful financial toll on thousands of Chicago's poorest residents, in particular African-Americans.
But just as clearly documented is Mendoza’s outspoken opposition to the sticker price increase Emanuel proposed in his first budget as mayor.
It sounded like Vallas was conflating these two pieces of the sticker policy puzzle. So we asked for clarification.
"I think it’s a pretty clear statement," Vallas said in a phone interview. "I define what I meant and what I meant was, these draconian fines are bankrupting families. … I gave the specific example of what Mendoza did that was so egregious and what the impact was."
A Vallas spokesman followed up several hours later to explain the statement his candidate had characterized as "pretty clear" needed some clarification.
"There was inadvertently a word change," spokesman John Holden said, explaining the original draft had called absurd Mendoza’s assertion that she fought Emanuel over sticker policy rather than sticker prices specifically.
That was not, however, a distinction Vallas attempted to draw when he discussed the matter with PolitiFact. Holden, while acknowledging a lack of clarity in the initial statement put out in Vallas’ name, said the campaign did not plan to issue a correction.
Still, it’s worth noting that while Vallas’ public statement attempts to cherry-pick the part of Mendoza’s city sticker record that casts her in the worst light, Mendoza did some cherry-picking of her own when referencing the sticker issue in her campaign launch announcement.
Back in 2011, Emanuel prevailed in hiking sticker prices, although he reworked his plan in response to Mendoza’s criticism, opting to spread out a lower increase among all drivers rather than dramatically hiking rates on larger passenger vehicles alone. The city also adopted the kind of increased ticket penalties for sticker scofflaws that Mendoza had pitched as an alternative to an increase in sticker prices. Citations for failing to have a required vehicle sticker jumped from $120 to $200.
In the announcement that Vallas ridiculed, Mendoza highlighted only her opposition to higher sticker prices while not mentioning the corresponding increase in violation penalties she backed.
ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ found that debt from sticker tickets soared, compounded by late penalties and collection fees, with drivers collectively racking up $275 million in dollars owed to the city for tickets issued since 2012.
We reached out to Mendoza’s campaign to hear how she reconciled her actions on city sticker policy. Spokeswoman Rebecca Evans sent us a response that included a statement from the candidate.
"I said long before I announced my candidacy that the city should revisit these penalties and how they are enforced, which overburdens our city’s low-income residents," Mendoza said. "As mayor I plan to do so."
Evans elaborated by calling the comparison between the two issues a "false equivalency," writing that Mendoza’s efforts to halt the sticker price increase and how the city’s Department of Revenue has enforced sticker penalties are separate issues.
Vallas said, "Mendoza’s assertion that she fought Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to drastically raise city sticker prices is absurd … Mendoza pushed a draconian city sticker penalty program."
Vallas is correct that Mendoza backed hiking tickets for violating city sticker requirements during her time as city clerk, a policy that has financially burdened thousands of low-income Chicagoans.
But he’s off base in calling into question Mendoza’s well-documented opposition to Emanuel’s sticker price increase.
We rate his partially accurate statement Half True.