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CHICAGO — Former CPS CEO Paul Vallas is no stranger to running for elected office in Illinois. He’s lost races for governor, lieutenant governor and mayor, most recently in 2019.
But Vallas has emerged as a strong contender in the 2023 mayoral election, finding himself at the top of polls and outpacing his competitors in fundraising.
“What’s going to make the difference this time is the city is in a leadership crisis,” Vallas told Block Club board President and Chicago Tribune columnist Laura Washington in a livestreamed interview Monday. “At the end of the day, the best remedy for bad leadership is good leadership. And particularly the type of leader that can bring people together and assemble the type of leadership team that can get the city moving again.”
The longtime politico known for wonkish education policy and a penchant for loquaciousness touted his decades of municipal public service, saying it made him uniquely qualified for the mayor’s office.
“My mother calls me a child before Ritalin,” Vallas said, referencing his energetic demeanor. “I’ve been a selfless, lifelong public servant. But I’ve also been a crisis manager.”
A familiar face in Chicago politics, Vallas — a Greek American and the only white candidate in the field — has centered his most recent campaign for mayor on making public safety his top talking point, running to the right of most of his opponents on issues like policing and school choice.
Vallas has been endorsed by the local Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s largest police union, and has been a staunch advocate for the creation of charter schools and school voucher programs — stances that have come under attack from his opponents as he has become a frontrunner.
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In characteristic fashion Monday, Vallas listed off a plethora of point-by-point plans to confront the city’s public safety issues when asked what he would do on day one in office, saying he would institute an in-house leadership team, fire the CTA’s private security and put officers on the trains, and incentivize the rehiring of retired officers. More broadly, he framed his public safety plan around improving “community policing.”
“You’ve got to push police officers down to the local police beats, officers who know the community and are known to the community,” Vallas said. “You’ve got to return to community policing so that there’s a police presence and people are not waiting two hours for a response.”
Vallas, who helped the Fraternal Order of Police negotiate its most recent contract, downplayed his endorsement and relationship with the controversial union’s leadership, saying he has refused all payment for his work and all political donations from the union.
Vallas said he will not become a puppet of the union, saying he had successfully negotiated three police contracts with three leaders.
“I have the support of the rank-and-file,” Vallas said. “I’m going to have to negotiate with them, and I will … because that’s what I do.”
Although public safety has taken center stage in the election, Vallas’ professional background is mostly in education. Along with his tenure as CPS CEO, Vallas has led the New Orleans, Bridgeport, Connecticut and Philadelphia school districts.
Vallas talked extensively Monday about his plans for CPS, which is facing plummeting enrollment, has dozens of severely under-enrolled schools and a teachers union that has had a contentious relationship with the past two mayoral administrations. He said he will implement a universal work-study program, support magnet and selective enrollment programs in neighborhood schools and reopen closed school campuses as “alternative schools” for older or underachieving students.
“I will decentralize the district and push money down to the local level,” Vallas said. “We will have community schools.”
Vallas also defended his tenure as CPS CEO, saying the district grew by about 40,000 students even as he opened 15 charter schools and pushed school choice vouchers, relabeling them as “scholarships.”
“I’m never going to oppose opportunities to provide additional educational choices to poor families,” Vallas said. “I think having quality school choices is a civil right. But my overwhelming focus is on traditional public schools, and in every school district that I’ve run, the enrollment has grown.”
Vallas proposed expanding marijuana revenues and gambling, including legalizing video poker, and offering 10-year property tax breaks to help fund a public land trust that would invest in the South and West sides.
Although Vallas has been critical of Mayor Lori Lightfoot after supporting her in the 2019 election, on Monday he said he supported her throughout what he called an “unnecessary” strike by the CTU and praised her leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic and her investments on the South and West sides.
“She has made an effort to prioritize the South and West sides. I just think that the execution has been disastrous,” Vallas said. “But the bottom line is, I believe that it’s organic to who she is.”
Vallas largely punted on a question about bicyclist safety, but he said he would hear out activists who have been pushing the issue.
“If I have one strength, it is knowing what I don’t know, and going out and finding somebody who knows what I don’t know, and then listening to them and bringing things to scale,” Vallas said.
Vallas has faced significant criticism as he has emerged as a formidable contender to make the expected mayoral runoff, including revelations that he lists a suburban Palos Heights home as his legal residence and that his son, a police officer, was involved in officers shooting a Black man in Texas.
Vallas said his son had been cleared in the shooting and shrugged off the residency concerns, saying he lives 100 percent of the time in a Bridgeport apartment where he became registered to vote just one year ago.
Since moving back from Philadelphia in the early 2000s, Vallas said he has lived separately from his wife, who resides in Palos Heights, where she is registered to vote, and takes care of the couple’s aging parents in the suburbs. He said he generally sees his wife once a week for “Sunday coffee.”
“Families make sacrifices,” Vallas said. “That’s why we’ve stayed married for almost four decades. She’s been willing to make sacrifices as I have pursued my public service, and I’ve been willing to sacrifice for her.”
Vallas described efforts to label him a Republican and anti-choice as “hogwash,” and he said he had been asked to run for office as a Republican in the past but declined in part because he felt like he was too far to the left on issues like abortion.
“I have been a lifelong Democrat, and I just felt that there were too many fundamental differences, particularly on a woman’s right to choose,” Vallas said. “I think I would have a problem.”
When it came to “dibs,” Chicago’s practice of reserving parking spots in the snow with furniture, Vallas was squarely on the fence.
“I say that I’m not for it, but there’s been times when I’ve brought the lawn chair out,” Vallas said.
The conversation was the eighth in a series of livestreamed, one-on-one interviews between Washington and all nine Chicago mayoral candidates.
The election is scheduled for Feb. 28. If no two candidates receive 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will head to a runoff on April 4.
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