When he announced his bid for Chicago mayor, Paul Vallas expected to run against Rahm Emanuel, who was widely expected to seek a third term.
Instead, Emanuel dropped out of the race right after Labor Day — and Vallas saw the field swell to 21 challengers, before ballot challenges whittled it down to the 14 candidates that voters will see on the ballot. He told The Daily Line’s Aldercast his playbook is unchanged.
“Instead of running against one Rahm Emanuel I’m running against four. You know? I mean, Mendoza, Chico, Daley, Preckwinkle, they’re all part of the pay-to-play culture,” said Vallas, who has twice appeared at City Hall with brooms promising to “sweep out” corruption.
To make his case to voters, Vallas is relying heavily on his record at Chicago Public Schools – turning the district’s $1 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus, and driving enrollment to 70,000 more students than it has today, claims Politifact rated as “Mostly True,” since demographics have changed and the district had more financial flexibility thanks to the state. That flexibility also allowed Vallas and then-colleague Gery Chico to launch a school construction and renovation boom, including Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Roseland, where Vallas was born and raised.
His work has spanned the bureaucracies of the state, the city, and several school districts. His career began with Phil Rock and Dawn Clark Netsch at the state’s economic and fiscal commission. Vallas moved on to become the city’s budget director under Richard M. Daley from 1990 until 1993, CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 until 2001, and traveled the country working at various school districts, including Philadelphia, New Orleans, Haiti, Chile and Bridgeport, Connecticut. He lost bids to become the Democratic nominee for governor to Rod Blagojevich in 2002 by three points and again in 2014 when he was Gov. Pat Quinn’s lieutenant governor running mate in 2014.
Vallas has taken up the mantle of the solutions candidate. Aside from the broom, he is known for press conferences featuring bullet-pointed poster boards and his specificity of his fixes for city problems, from affordable housing to pensions.
Five takeaways from our interview on Feb. 11:
- On boosting underinvested parts of the city – Looking back on Roseland, neighborhood he grew up in, Vallas remarks that it is one of many that has been in a “deep depression” for decades. “There’s only been growth in about 20 percent of the city, in fact, only 10 wards have seen any real investment in the past decades and half of that investment has occurred in two of the wards,” he said. “The city is in decline.” Part of the issue is the city’s pay to play culture, he says. “We have not used our economic development resources to stimulate development in areas that are in need of development. Rather, we’ve provided tremendous subsidies for them to invest in areas that are easy to develop, and in areas that don’t need massive subsidies in the first place.” He suggests the city tap federal opportunity zones on the South and West Sides, make equity investments in projects that use tax increment financing funds, and leverage all of the city’s spending (including its sister agencies) to incentivize companies and contractors that promise to hire and buy from Chicago.
- On why he’s opposed to a fully elected school board – Vallas is one of a handful of mayoral candidate who do not support a fully elected board to oversee Chicago Public Schools. He says elected boards have invited trouble in other districts. “One of the reasons you’ve seen a move in many states to have appointed boards is because of the failure of many school boards,” he said, including in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which defaulted to an elected school board and then saw an election with just seven percent turnout. “In [Los Angeles], the charters raised so much money, the charter school organizations were able to get control of the Los Angeles school board. So you run the risk that small special interests are going to dominate, because in school board elections sometimes you just have a fraction of the people show up.” He backs only sitting members of Chicago Local School Councils should sit on a nine-member board – five, including the board’s president, would be chosen by the mayor. The others would be promoted by other LSC members.
- On how having cops in the family informs his thinking on public safety – “My wife was a police officer too, my dad’s only sibling was a 36-year cop, and of course my boys are police officers” in Wheeling and San Antonio, Texas. “They certainly give me a grassroots view of what it’s like to be a police officer,” Vallas said. “It’s helped give me a sensitivity to what these police experience on a day-to-day basis.” He says his son in San Antonio received more and better redundant training, is resourced with Tasers and cameras, and has a better supervisor ratio. Vallas backs hiring more officers, including to work in Chicago Public Schools. Those officers would then be available in the summer to patrol parks, beaches and train stations near the schools they already work. “There’s 13,600 cops in the budget and I think there’s still about 1,000 short. So they haven’t filled those vacancies and they need to fill the vacancies.” He says hiring more full-time officers will cut down on overtime spending and improve police morale.
- On his reputation for talkativeness – “Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve always been able to connect with the public. I refuse to be condescending to people, you know? I mean, yeah, my answers are too long. Someone joked that every single time I open my mouth a white paper falls out. But you know what? I’ll go to a meeting, I’ll go to every forum, and I’ll be the last one to leave because I’ll answer every question,” he said, noting he “kicked ass” in Chicago when he ran in the Democratic primary against Roland Burris and Rod Blagojevich. “I can’t change who I am and I just refuse to be anything but substantive. One would hope that the majority of the taxpayers out there would appreciate that and would take away from my candidacy the belief and the notion that I know what I’m talking about and I can solve these complicated problems.”
- On his relationship with Gery Chico – Fellow mayoral candidate Gery Chico and Vallas time in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration overlapped in the mayor’s office and at Chicago Public Schools. He said the two had a fine working relationship over six years together, but “Gery had his own agenda. He wanted to be on boards and he wanted to make money. He’s a product of [Ald.] Ed Burke’s finance committee. I’ve joked that he’s abstained more from votes contracts probably more than Ed Burke has.” A 2000 Chicago Tribune investigation found Chico abstained on 359 votes at the board involving his firm’s clients, and many received “school board contracts–a total of about $577 million over four years for clients and related companies.” Vallas suggested Chico became a “made man” as a result of his service on the school board. “You want lobbying? You go to Gery Chico. You want property tax relief? You go to Burke or Madigan. You want zoning? You go to Daley George… there’s always these firms that feed off this system, this property tax system, this licensing system, this zoning system, this lobbying system. And many of these same entities are the big fundraisers…. It’s like you can’t separate the government from the political machine. They’re like conjoined twins sharing the same organ, and that organ is money.”