She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
When Susana Mendoza sees barriers, she’s driven to shatter them.
It started when the Chicago-born Mexican-American was a child athlete, often the only girl playing on all-boys soccer teams. But as an adult, when her interests shifted from sports to politics, that appetite to smash barricades stayed with her. After losing her first bid for state representative in 1998, she kept fighting, winning a seat in 2001, which she held onto for six terms. In 2011, she became the first woman ever elected as Chicago City Clerk. In 2016, when she was elected Illinois comptroller, she became the first Latinx person independently elected to statewide office in Illinois. Now, Mendoza is vying to be Chicago’s first-ever Latina mayor.
“We’ve never had a Latina mayor here. We’ve never had a Latina mayor in a major city. And this is important considering we have a madman in the White House who hates Mexicans, Hispanics and anyone who doesn’t look like him,” Mendoza, 46, told FIERCE.
The candidate, among one of the top fundraisers in the mayoral contest, feels confident about making history, too. If she does, she has a plan to tackle the biggest issues in her city, namely violent crime, high property taxes and improving schools, that she believes will not only better the lives of Chicagoans today but the next generation as well.
We spoke with Mendoza about her vision for Chicago, how she intends on bringing it to life, fighting back against the Trump administration and more.
Chicago’s mayoral election will be held on February 26.
FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for Chicago Mayor?
Mendoza: I’m running for Chicago mayor because our city is at stake, and I’m concerned about the next four years and the next generation. I was born in the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village and had to leave because of gang violence. My family had the privilege of starting over somewhere else, but unfortunately many people can’t leave because of economic situations and have to live with this. And I don’t believe families should have to leave their homes because of violence. It wasn’t my choice to leave after there was a murder on my block, but it was my choice to come back to the neighborhood that I felt I was run out of. Little Village is beautiful and has lots of Mexican immigrants, but there are still so many issues there and across Chicago. That’s why I’m running.
FIERCE: I know that among your priorities are public safety and police accountability, strong public education for all, reducing city corruption and job creation. Why are these issues currently crucial to your city?
Mendoza: People of Chicago are facing a lot — violent crimes, underutilized schools, high property taxes that are suffocating people — and these things are impacting everyone, including myself. That’s what’s exciting to me. I’m someone who understands neighborhoods because I’m from them, and as mayor I would put our neighborhoods first. I’m also the mother of a 6-year-old boy named David who just started kindergarten in the Chicago public school system. In the last 13 years, we haven’t had a mayor with a child in a public school. I want families to feel confident that I’m fighting for the future of our children, theirs and mine, because they are all affected.
FIERCE: Chicago is one of the deadliest cities in the country with one of the highest rates of gun-related homicides, with many experts and researchers believing this violence is fueled by racial segregation, wealth inequality, gangs and an inability of law enforcement to solve crimes. In one of your campaign ads, you note, “we can reduce gun violence and we will.” How do you intend on doing that as mayor?
Mendoza: My No. 1 priority is to attack the root causes of violence. The reason why children decide to pick up a gun is because they don’t have economic structures that allow for a choice. In some neighborhoods, it’s easier to have access to a gun than a book. I have a plan. If you look at what is happening in New York, they have three times our population but a third of the crime. There, they have a Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence. Here, we have an office with five employees tackling this problem. We are incredibly understaffed. I want to create a Mayor’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention and coordinate with violence interrupters, social service providers, city agencies coordinating efforts to attack those things and touch economics in different neighborhoods. We have to double down and invest in low-income neighborhoods, create more opportunities and provide more housing. We also need to strengthen communication and trust with police and communities and better resource and train our officers. Many, all essentially, only get training in the academy and then little to no training afterwards. We can’t put them in dangerous neighborhoods with little to no training and expect good outcomes. They should receive crisis intervention training and have these experts on call to go with police officers to help with mental health concerns. We need more detectives, plain and simple. We have to promote up a class of detectives. I propose 100. We have the worst clearance rates. When you have one crime go unsolved, it turns into three, five and 10. We also need to go straight to the heart of the problem and attack the root cause of violence. There’s a lack of investment in neighborhoods and this breeds a sense of hopelessness, which is sadly contagious. I’m moving forward with an initiative. Instead of closing 50 schools, we will invest in 50 underutilized and under-enrolled schools in Chicago. In Chicago’s west and south sides, we have schools with 100 kids that are supposed to hold 2,000. Rather than close them and give up on neighborhoods — we won’t give up on them — we will utilize that vacant space and partner with social service providers who are passionate about their mission to create spaces that serve students and their parents. There are parents who are trying to better themselves but don’t have the time to go to different places they need to after work and still pick up their kids from school. We want to help parents get back on their feet and allow them to do multiple things, like get job training, find job placement opportunities, receive counseling — all in the same place where they will pick up their children from school. This could be life-changing. It could also keep kids in school for a longer time through after-school activities that will provide them with mentors and supper. I’m the state representative that passed free school breakfast, and now we can mirror that with a school supper program. This will allow a parent to have a full workday, because many parents aren’t able to pick up their kid at 3 p.m., and then get them. This is how we build opportunities. This is how we close the achievement gap. This is how we get to the root of the violence.
FIERCE: In this position, you’d also have more power to fight back against the policy and rhetoric coming out of the White House. I know you recently sent a letter to congressional leaders on how you feel money can be used to better confront the Trump administration. Can you talk about that?
Mendoza: As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, it would be my greatest honor to take on Trump every day. I recently sent a letter to the congressional delegation to hold firm and not support any funding for the border wall. It would be ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money. The letter outlines how we can use this money for better causes. In the letter, I stipulated the better ways to utilize these dollars so that they strengthen our neighborhoods. The three things I noted were: Making universal full-day pre-kindergarten permanent. We need around $175 million to do this, but this investment would be one of the best down payments we can make to close the achievement gap. The second thing is expanding public transportation to remedy inequities and connect Chicago. I want to expand the red line, make all L stops handicap accessible and expand bus service in the south and west sides of the city. In Chicago, there are only four miles of dedicated bus lanes. We are woefully behind. Finally, I suggested investing in job training and summer jobs. We know that job training and summer jobs can fundamentally alter the trajectory of students that come from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Summer jobs programs have been proven to reduce violence, give youth skills and connections for the future and improve their life outcomes. So all of these are three obvious ways to better utilize the money. This grown man should care more about positive outcomes than this ridiculous wall. I’m going to enjoy taking him on as a mayor, a Mexican, a woman and a Latina.
FIERCE: As a woman and as a Mexican-American, you have already broken barriers in Illinois and Chicago politics. What do you think these identities can bring to the mayoral seat that we haven’t seen before?
Mendoza: In Chicago, we’ve only had one female mayor. We are long overdo to have another woman at the helm. As a Latina, it brings me extra pride. We’ve never had a Latina mayor here. We’ve never had a Latina mayor in a major city. And this is important considering we have a madman in the White House who hates Mexicans, Hispanics and anyone who doesn’t look like him. The timing of being the first Latina Chicago mayor is critical and would also be this amazing milestone. This is why people say I broke barriers. I played on an all-boy soccer team as a little girl. I’ve played and thrived in male-dominated environments. Also, what it means for the next generation of kids who are going to see themselves reflected in city leadership. A lot of times, you have to see something to believe you can be something. I want the next generation of minority kids to think this is possible. “Mendoza did it, so why can’t I?” I don’t shy away from this responsibility. That’s why I leave every job I take better than it was before I was there.
FIERCE: Of course, you are much more than your gender, culture and ethnicity. You’re a six-term state representative, in 2011 you become the first female city clerk, and since 2016, you have been the first Latinx comptroller of Illinois. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for this office?
Mendoza: I think everything I’ve learned to this date has prepared me for this moment in history. As comptroller, I’ve successfully navigated the state through its worst fiscal crisis. I really stepped up in a difficult and toxic environment and led the way through, and it gave me financial background of the city. Also, the fact I was state legislator for 10 years. No other candidate has the relationships I have with the people and know how to manage a budget that helps the city of Chicago. That is a sweet spot of mine. And as Chicago city clerk, running the second-largest office in the city, I helped improve government efficiency. I came in under budget every year and created more than $50 million in new revenue without asking taxpayers to pay more. I really respect taxpayer dollars, and that’s why people support me, because of my greater transparency. People want to know where their money is going, and they should know. If they don’t, cynicism arises, and that makes sense. I’m not running for mayor because I want to be something. I’m running for mayor because I want to do something.
FIERCE: On a more personal note, what would leading and representing your city, Chicago, mean to you? I know you were raised in the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of Little Village and were personally impacted by many of the issues you hope to address and find solutions for as mayor, so what does that prospect feel like for you?
Mendoza: Never in my wildest imagination would I think I’d have the opportunity to be a mayor, and I do. I’m a frontrunner, and it’s very possible, so I will not squander that for anything in the world. Every minute there has to be put for the best possible use. The fact that I was born here and had to leave unwillingly, but I did, it gave me this tale of two lives, one in Chicago where I couldn’t play outside of my house ever for 7 years and one in the suburbs where I learned what it was like to play outside. When we first arrived there, I actually still wasn’t allowed to go in front of our house because my mom was carrying that trauma of living in a violent neighborhood. After a year, she let me go, and I learned how to be a normal kid. I got to play until the street lights went on. I got to ride my bike around the neighborhood. Every week, we would still come back to our old neighborhood. There were no Mexicans where we were living, so there were no frijoles. So we’d have to come back when we needed to go food shopping or get a haircut, but afterwards we’d go back to our safe neighborhood. I’m lucky I had this opportunity. My parents are Mexican immigrants who worked multiple jobs to keep a roof over our heads and sacrifice for their kids, as so many immigrants do. If they hadn’t, my life would be different. So I’m back in Chicago, knowing what access to a great public school looks like, and that’s why I’m here. I want to help this city. You can help in all levels of government, but as mayor, that’s where the magic happens, and I want to make magic for the people of Chicago.
FIERCE: Finally, as a barrier-breaking, veteran politician, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?
Mendoza: Pa’rriba y pa’lante, go for it! I want to see so many Latinas step up and throw their hat in the ring. There’s nothing we can’t do. Don’t let anyone stop you. If it’s in your heart to lead and serve, do it. When people tell you “no,” take that as motivation to prove them wrong. I’ve said this before, but when people tell me I can’t do something, it motivates me to do it more. Take that negative energy and thrive. That’s why I’m where I am today. Sometimes you might be discouraged by people who love you, not because they don’t want you to succeed, but because they are worried about you. They don’t want you to get hurt. But if you know in your heart what what you want to do, do it. We need more women in public office. A lot of our rules are made by men for men, they didn’t take us into account, and we have to reclaim our country, cities and our lives. Latina power!