Overcoming Barriers: City Clerk Susana Mendoza Breaks the Glass-Ceiling

Thursday, September 08, 2011


What can be said about City Clerk Susana Mendoza that has not been said already? On May 17, Mendoza made history by becoming Chicago’s first Latina city clerk and within her first two months in office, Clerk Mendoza was the first to tour all 50 wards. “On my forty-fourth day as the forty-fourth city clerk of Chicago I visited all 50 wards,” said Clerk Mendoza. “That was quite challenging, but definitely something special. I truly enjoyed every minute of it.”

Susana Mendoza graduated from Bolingbrook High School where she earned All-State and All-Midwest honors in varsity soccer. As the youngest of three, growing up on Chicago’s southwest side, Clerk Mendoza always demonstrated an aggressive form of living life to the fullest. “I was cut from a rare cloth,” said Clerk Mendoza. “I gained the confidence from my parents, who told me I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted in the context of reaching a dream or goal.” Clerk Mendoza, who often shares the anecdote of wanting to join the NFL at a young age, never gave politics an iota of a thought. “I was raised believing that all politicians were corrupted. My parents were empathetic towards politics and politicians,” said Clerk Mendoza. However, that quickly changed and in 2001 Susana Mendoza was elected as the youngest member of the 92nd General Assembly. Through her ten years in public office, Clerk Mendoza has proven to be a leader with her efforts to improve education, public health, public safety and living conditions for the people of Illinois. “Nothing makes me happier than helping my community,” said Clerk Mendoza. In her notoriously, personable demeanor Clerk Mendoza has lived a well-traveled life.

The U.S. Department of State selected Clerk Mendoza as part of its Professional Speaker’s Program in an effort to have her promote democracy and leadership in the countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Chile. She has traveled to China, El Salvador, Turkey, and Ireland as legislator and/or the Chairman of the International Trade and Commerce Committee. Clerk Mendoza was also selected by Robin Read, the president and CEO of the National Foundation for Women Legislators, as one of only seven women nationally to travel to Iraq where she helped monitor the Iraqi elections on March 7, 2010. “I encourage people to take advantage of their time on Earth. Visualize what you would like for yourself and just take action,” said Clerk Mendoza.
We spoke to Clerk Mendoza who shared her passion for helping others, the importance of working from fear, her adoration for youth, and how her political life all started from a Coke can.

First Four Months
Well, it has been very exciting. I can tell you I anticipated the job being a busy one, but nothing I even imagined came close to the level of intensity that these first four months have been. Especially, the first two months. You may or may not know the day after I took office was the first day that we started selling city stickers online. And we made a massive push to increase our online sales, which was great news that we did do that this year. But also it means there was no rest for the weary, right. It was from day one, a 110 percent effort. So once July 15 came around, which was the last day to sell city stickers, on the 16 my team could finally at least take a deep breath.

Surprise Element
I found the intensity most surprising because a lot of people don’t know much of anything about the city clerk’s office; they kind of view it as a sleepy office. But when I came in it was anything but sleepy. It by far was the busiest time for me. So it was trial by fire, you know. I came in to a situation where we wanted to have better numbers than before and I didn’t have much of a learning curve, or a time, I should say to have a learning curve. It was either do or die. And that was surprising to me because usually there is some sort of a transition that you are able to benefit from and I didn’t have much of a transition at all. I would say I spent a good week or two prior to taking office, coming into the office and try to do some initial background on it. But there is nothing like being the boss at that day. So once you are here, all the responsibility lies on you once it’s official, so there was no chance to do anything other than being fully focused on the job at hand and to execute accordingly. And I think we had a very successful city sticker season this year, but the level of intensity that goes with being the clerk during that time was definitely a surprise. But also what was surprising, to me, which maybe a lot of folks don’t know, is that there really are very many opportunities to improve the way we actually do our processes here, which is very exciting to me.

Catalyst for Public Service
I was 25 years-old and I was working in an advertisement firm. And I used to work with the Coca-Cola account and I remembered thinking, because I had already started working with politicians at the time from a press secretary perspective, not from ever thinking that I wanted to be in politics…but I remembered thinking, ‘wow, public service is nothing like what I thought it was.’ When I was a kid growing up my entire family was empathic towards politicians and politics. My parents thought that only corrupt people were politicians and that was kind of how I was raised. That was my belief, but when I started working with people who were public servants, I saw that it is such an amazing power that you have to influence someone’s life in a positive way, if you really cared to do so. That for somebody who was a 25 year-old idealistic kid was very inspiring. And I remembered one day at the ad firm, I was working on a Coca-Cola campaign and I just thought to myself, as much as I love Coca-Cola, which I do, the look of the new Coke can really didn’t seem to matter to me as much as what you can do to help people when you are in a position of authority and trust. And I remember thinking, ‘gosh, I do not love this anymore the way I used to.’ I began to realize I spent all my free time and energy thinking about public service and how much fun and enriching it would be. But even back then I didn’t see myself doing it as a politician, I just loved being involved and working with other elected officials to help the community. But I remember that first time when I actually thought about feeling inspired by public service, was looking at the Coke can.

Embrace Fear
While I understand fear is an important feeling, I advise people to use that fear as a motivator to spur action. The truth of the matter is people say that they can see a dream or visualize a dream or they can see themselves being someplace. I like to tell people that vision without action is just a hallucination. It does not exist. So you can dream all you want, but if you do not go for it and execute an action with that thought then you are just not going to reach your potential. I believe the difference between people who are successful and those who are not, is that those people who are successful were scared too, but they went for it.

Admiration for Youth
I love seeing that glimmer in a young person’s eye that has yet to get started on their path. When they are young they may think they know what they want, but are not sure yet. And that is the excitement of being young and trying to figure yourself out. And I love the fact that young people for the most part are idealistic. I believe that a young person without idealism is the biggest shame in the world. What do we have, if we don’t have idealism? So I get excited when I meet young people and it kind of reminds me of me back then where I know that, maybe I did not have all the knowledge in the world or the experience in the world, but I definitely had the spark behind me in wanting to actually make a difference in the world. When all the people around you tell you that one person cannot change the world, I just think that an idealistic, young person says, ‘oh, phewy on you. I am not going to believe that. I am just going to keep going.’ And that is something that as you get older, people tend to lose that…that spark; that belief that anything is possible. So when I connect with young people I still totally see that. It gets me reenergized.

Being of Mexican descent is something that I am very proud of and I have represented for the last ten years as a legislator a largely Mexican constituency. From a first-generation here in Chicago, I am incredibly connected to my heritage and my roots. So it is always a source of pride for me. I think we have a very vibrant community and being the first Mexican-American woman to hold a seat, is really a source of pride for me and for the community. I recognize that I have a very large responsibility to ensure that I carry my community’s name very highly and respectively.

Message to Readers
Never give up on hope and dreams. It is a reality of life that no matter how difficult things are, and they are difficult for everybody…everybody on Earth has their own story that is very emotionally charged, good things, bad things, but at the end of the day we want the same things. And if we all put our part in trying to work hard, to educate yourself and God willing if you have good health, then you should really take advantage of your time on Earth to do the best that you can and enjoy your life in the process.







Paid for by Friends for Susana Mendoza. A copy of our report filed with the State Board of Elections and the County Clerk is (or will be) available for purchase from the State Board of Elections,
Springfield, IL and from the County Clerk (Chicago), IL