Yes, readers, I know: I might be overly fond of rhetorical questions in headlines. But Betteridge’s Law of Headlines says
Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.
so maybe I’m actually signaling some optimism here.
Here’s the scoop:
I’ve written on my Forbes platform about Chicago’s pension funding woes (with links in a single Jane the Actuary post), and in particular on the prospects of any of the mayoral candidates having a solution to the problem. Separately, I wrote an article at this site observing that, had Paul Vallas won the 2002 primary instead of Blago, Illinois might have had a very different history indeed – one fewer governor in prison, in any case.
So I wanted to share with you some of the things I learned from a conversation I had with Paul Vallas, on such topics as ethics, government reform, and the election itself. I will caveat this by saying that I am not an expert in Chicago politics, but I will remind readers that I grew up in the Detroit area in the era of Coleman Young and Robocop. I understand that cities can be deeply troubled. But — well, here’s an experiment to try: go to your favorite search engine and type in Chicago machine, then Detroit machine. The latter brings up machine tool companies; the former, links about machine politics (as well as links to Chicago Machine, an ultimate Frisbee club). Google “pay to play” and attach Detroit or Chicago to the search terms; for the former, you’ll get articles about ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s conviction in 2012; for the latter, you’ll get hits pointing to far more instances of pay to play accusations or convictions, up to the present day. Perhaps Chicagoans can be Chicago-y about it and say, “woo-hoo, our corruption is so much more organized than elsewhere!”
Oh, and let’s not forget that the University of Illinois at Chicago’s political science department issued a report (Anti-Corruption Report #11 at the link, a download) deeming Chicago the most corrupt city, as measured by judicial districts (in this case Northern Illinois) with the most federal public corruption convictions from 1976 to 2016; on a per-capita basis, Illinois as a state ranks third after Louisiana and the District of Columbia, out of 94 total such districts — and that’s not even including the expected future convictions for Burke and unknown others.
So, to begin with, I asked Vallas how to make sense of the election with its double-digit number of candidates, 14 in total. (For the benefit of non-Chicagoans: the election takes place on February 26th, but will almost certainly require a runoff election on April 2nd.) In his view (and perhaps this is common knowledge among those better-versed in Chicago politics), this is a result, at least in part, of the interplay between machine politics and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s late decision, on September 4th of last year, not to run for re-election after all. The first dynamic was that it was a given that Emanuel would not have the support of the black community due to his administration’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting, so the multiple black outsider candidates who announced their candidacy before Emanuel’s surprise announcement (I looked it up on wikipedia: Willie Wilson, Lori Lightfoot, Neal Sales-Griffin, Amara Enyia, as well as later-disqualified Dorothy Brown) were welcomed by the Machine because they’d split the vote, instead of a single consensus candidate emerging and posing a risk to Emanuel. At the same time, the candidates who are now leading the polls hung back, waiting for “their turn,” but when Emanuel made his announcement, there was no “default” candidate and each of them — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley, Gery Chico — decided that it was indeed their turn.
Then, since he is running as that candidate, above all others, willing to reform city government, I asked him how he would repair Chicago and undo its history of corruption and what he called its “for-profit political system” that drains the city’s finances. After all, at the candidates’ forums I watched via livestream, candidates generally professed their desire to do away with aldermanic privilege, that is, the ability of the alderman to control what can and can’t be built in his/her ward. But how much can a mayor, however reformist, persuade aldermen to vote to undo a system which profits them?
Here was his answer:
First, he was optimistic about the new aldermen coming in, even if simply due to retirements. The new faces will be a boost for ethics reform.
Second, Ald. Ed Burke will be gone.
Third, aldermanic privilege is not, as I had thought, the result of any city ordinance. It’s just an established practice that they approve or reject projects in their wards. A mayor could simply choose to overrule an alderman’s action without needing any sort of enabling legislation and, Vallas said, “banning that will take an important component of pay-to-play out of the equation.”
Fourth, while aldermen’s service as such cannot be restricted by term limits, the duration of their control of committees can be.
Fifth, to prevent conflicts of interest, individuals appointed to the various boards can be prohibited from representing anyone as a client who receives contracts from the city or other agencies.
And finally, there is so much corruption in the system simply because the process to appeal property taxes, zoning, signage, etc., is so onerous that people have to hire a middleman. If these processes were simplified so that people could do this on their own, it would “take the profit out of it.”
Beyond these issues of corruption, I’ve also heard repeated promises by candidates to return to an elected school board, rather than one in which the mayor appoints members, as has been the case since 1995. So I asked Vallas what he’d do. He first provided a few words of context, that in the days of elected school boards, the public schools were in a state of “financial crisis” and “academic failure,” though, at the same time, the mayoral appointed school boards have been a mix of good and bad. The key, though, is for the mayor to have “skin in the game,” and have some control over the management of the schools in order to be held accountable for their success, rather than being able to duck education issues while using the schools as a source of influence and a means of enriching cronies through contracts.
At the same time, though, there should be “civilian representation” to ensure transparency and accountability, to avoid a repeat of prior apparent conflicts of interest. Vallas’s proposal is a hybrid system, in which half the school board would be mayoral appointees and half community elected. What’s more, the elected members would come from a pool of candidates made up of members of local school councils, and should be selected by those local school councils, so that they have a stake in the system. Likewise, each advisory board, such as the police board or the McCormick Place board, should be a mix of experts and civilians, to maximize both expertise and accountability/transparency. Further, he proposes new boards, such as one for the environment, and one for people with disabilities.
So what’s Vallas’s pitch to voters, when it comes down to it? It’s three-fold, he told me.
First, he’s got a track record of going into challenging situations and solving problems — during his tenure at Chicago Public Schools, in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and in Haiti. There is, he says, “no one better equipped to get a handle on the city’s finances.”
Second, he says, beyond merely stabilizing the city financially, his “whole approach to government has been to take the resources available and develop long-term plans that are investment vehicles to create conditions for growth and prosperity,” for instance, by being smarter about TIFs and opportunity zones, deploying, for example, the $2.5 billion that was intended as incentives for Amazon to locate in Chicago.
And, third, he says, “no one has demonstrated more independence of the play to play culture than me.”
Longtime readers on my various platforms will not be surprised that I like Vallas’s combination of ethics and policy expertise. It’s simply not enough, for a city with problems as complex as those of Chicago, to profess you’re the best candidate because you care the most or have the most longstanding ties to the city.
At the same time, I simply don’t know how to make sense of the dynamics at play with so many candidates statistically tied. After all, in a more normal race, you’d be asking yourself not just who the best candidate is, but, of those candidates who have a chance of winning, who is the least-bad, even if not your favorite. Can you do that, in this case? (Was that, in fact, the Chicago Tribune‘s reason for endorsing Bill Daley?) I don’t know whether the election outcome will in the end bear any resemblance to the polling results which themselves are so variable. Will it all come down to turnout and the GOTV efforts of campaigns?
And, as a final reminder, I am not a Chicagoan and by no means an expert on Chicago politics. But even though, again, I grew up in the Detroit suburbs and so am accustomed to the idea that a metro area can do well economically even as the city core goes to pot, Chicago’s success or failure still matters, not just to city residents but to Chicagoland and to the state of Illinois.
Image: from the Vallas campaign Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/vallasforallchicago/?hl=en.
One thought on “Is “reformist Chicago mayor” an oxymoron? A conversation with Paul Vallas.”
This was one of, if not THE most honest and quickly understandable, explanations of ANY of the candidates. I hope @PaulVallas is pro-choice