BRIAN FELDT, BOLINGBROOK PATCH | LINK TO ARTICLE
Susana Mendoza was in grade school when her family left Chicago for the Bolingbrook-area. More than 30 years later, she's back in the city fighting the violence that once forced her family out.
It’s funny how life can sometimes can come around full-circle.
In 1979, the Mendoza family moved from their Pillsen inner-city Chicago neighborhood to the city’s suburbs in efforts to avoid gang violence and the devastating results that compromise the families involved.
Now, more than 30 years later, the young daughter of that family—Susana Mendoza, a Bolingbrook High School graduate and now Chicago City Clerk—has moved back to the city and leading a charge against the same violence that drove her family away three decades ago.
A Solid Foundation
"Its a common story," Mendoza said. "There was a fear that my two older brothers would be recruited (by gangs) and they got us out overnight. My parents were amazing."
Mendoza was 7 years old when her family settled into a rental property in Woodridge—just a year before she fell in love with soccer. A self-proclaimed "total tomboy,”
It was soccer that would give her the ability to build character that would not only help her succeed on the field, but in life.
Over the course of the next three years the family settled into a comfortable life, saving steadily towards the purchase a modest home in Bolingbrook.
Eye of the Tiger
"I’ve been led by example,” Mendoza said. “I started 7th grade at Jane Addams (Middle School) when we moved to (Bolingbrook) … what a great place to grow up!"
Bolingbrook would prove to play a pivotal role in the determination of the woman she would become. Here, she was exposed to a wide range of adults who continually modeled positive behaviors.
Mendoza’s competitive spirit emerged and became interwoven into other areas of her life—the energy displayed on the field was channeled directly into the classroom, which translated into excellent grades.
Persistence Pays Off
"My parents told me I can achieve anything I wanted," she said. "I’ve always had a can-do attitude, whatever it is I do my best."
Mendoza entered her freshman year at Bolingbrook High School, which did not have a girls team, and landed a spot on the boys team.
Throughout her high school career, she campaigned for a girls squad, an effort which was rewarded her sophomore year with the birth of the first Lady Raiders soccer team.
Along the way she earned the respect and admiration of adults and peers alike.
"There is nothing phony about Susana. She is one of my all time favorites," says Larry Bernard, a retired Bolingbrook athletic director. "How she was in high school is how she is now. Her coach, Jim Paskiewicz, passed away but I know if he was alive, he would say that same things.
"When I see her on occasion, she still has that energy, that spark. She is this person who wants to help people and make it better. Truth be told, if we could clone her and put them in charge of government all our problems would go away."
Mendoza would go on to capture varsity soccer all-state and all-midwest honors. She also earned bragging rights as the first female and tenth person in BHS history to earn a coveted spot on the athletic wall of fame.
"Winning the election (for Chicago City Clerk) hasn’t come as a surprise to anyone who really knew her," said Jeanette Ginocchio, a former secretary at the high school. "Susana was an aide in our office all four years and her work ethic, even as a young girl was just great."
The accolades continued to roll in as Mendoza attended Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) on a soccer and academic scholarship, where she again snagged some hardware—this time all-Midwest honors in soccer.
Mendoza graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and upon leaving college, packed up her belongings and headed back home with intentions to make a positive impact in the city her family fled years before—Chicago.
Back to Where She Started
"I felt I was run out of the neighborhood and when I was old enough, I came back wanting to make a difference," Mendoza said. "Leading by example is really important. I had a choice and my choice was to try and make things right."
Mendoza landed a job with Marriott in the hopes of building a portfolio that would help her to make a giant leap into a public relations position for a major advertising firm.
Within weeks, Mendoza volunteered her communication services on a political campaign.
"My parents grew up in Mexico and there was this apathy because nobody trusted politicians there," Mendoza said. "That all changed when Alderman William Frias and Alderman Ed Burke took me under their wing."
A Political Career Launched
"At 25, (Frias) approached me to run for elected office. I was just happy helping out and I’d never even remotely considered wanting to run for public office," Mendoza said. "He said… and it has stuck with me, ‘You love it so much and you would be awesome at it.’"
Unhappy with the job her state representative were doing, Mendoza decided to delve into public service to champion long-term solutions.
Mendoza’s first run for public office ended in a 30-point loss.
Down but not out, Mendoza pragmatically accessed her campaign strategy. Committed to run again, she announced her candidacy the next day.
"I credit the discipline I learned playing soccer," she said. "In every loss there is a lesson to be learned. When I ran again for the state rep’s office two years later I won."
In 2000, at the age of 28, Mendoza was elected as the youngest member of the 92nd Illinois General Assembly.
Compiling a Record of Service
"While serving in the Illinois House, Susana and I worked together with a common goal of improving public safety," said Emily McAsey, state represenitive for Bolingbrook. "As a former criminal prosecutor, I was impressed at her determined effort to strengthen laws that require DNA collection from sex offenders. Thanks in large part to her work, Illinois law enforcement is now better equipped to catch and prosecute sex offenders."
An unintentional maverick, Mendoza now understands the power of her presence.
"I look back and realize I had the strongest record of any state representative in taking on gangs and violent felons and fighting crime,” she said. “I’m super proud about that."
Turbulence to Smooth Sailing
In 2008, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich blamed Mendoza, along with nine other Chicago democrats, for lawmakers rejecting his capital bill.
Not one to back down from a fight Mendoza responded.
Other lawmakers came to her aid as well.
"I’ve known Susana for 10 years. She has always stood for what was right," comments State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVilla, Aurora. “Susana is phenomenal, relentless in protecting her constituency. It’s not about having her name known or getting to a higher office."
Time and public record would prove Mendoza’s assessment of Blagojevich correct. She was a leading sponsor of HR 1650, which created the panel to impeach former Governor Blagojevich and served as an active alternate member of the impeachment committee.
Regardless, Mendoza kept her nose to the grindstone, continuing to do the job she was elected for. As an Illinois state representative, Mendoza has been publicly recognized for her leadership and legislation on social services, education, law enforcement and job creation.
Most recently, Mendoza was highlighted in Crain’s May 2011 issue as a "Woman to Watch."
Blazing a Trail Into the Future
When Mayor Daley announced his retirement, Mendoza was embarking on her sixth term as a state lawmaker. Almost immediately Miguel Delvalle, who at the time was Chicago City Clerk, entered the mayoral race. Because he could not run for both seats, the city clerk position became open.
Rising to the occasion, Mendoza and a host of volunteer supporters collected nearly 30,000 signatures. She later staged an effective campaign and won the election.
On February 22 of this year, Mendoza was inaugurated as the first female City Clerk of Chicago.
"Obviously it is night and day difference,” she said. “I thought I was busy as a state rep… there is no comparison. I manage this large office and oversee about 100 employees. My job is to determine how we will create the greatest efficiencies, save money and be technologically savvy. It’s about streamlining and bringing the office into the modern age and taking it into the future."
No one knows what the future holds for certain, but Mendoza’s choices continue to lead her in a direction famously encapsulated in a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
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