Is “reformist Chicago mayor” an oxymoron? A conversation with Paul Vallas.

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

Paul Vallas and roads not taken

Paul Vallas is, for readers outside Chicagoland, one of the 14 candidates for mayor in the election that’s coming up in a couple weeks.

I don’t really have much of a sense of the outcome of that election, what with frontrunner Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle tainted by connections to Burke, and unwilling to pledge the abolition of aldermanic privilege as the others have, but nonetheless advantaged by name recognition, deep union support and, along with BIll Daley, a substantial pot of money for TV commercials. (See the most recent Chicago Tribune article.) I would like to believe that Chicagoans would be dissuaded by her Machine connections, but I don’t know that it matters enough to enough people, especially when the large number of candidates, and of viable candidates with significant resumes, means that the final results can be a bit unpredictable.

Separately, in my last article at Forbes, I wrote that Paul Vallas was the candidate who appeared to be taking the pension funding crisis most seriously (though, to be sure, I also give Bill Daley a ton of credit for being willing to put pension reform on the table). Do I have a comprehensive understanding of how he compares to the others on other issues important to city residents, such as education, crime/police conduct, economy development in struggling neighborhoods, etc.? No, not really — and in particular I can’t claim to really be able to put myself in the shoes of a Chicagoan.

But if I were a Chicagoan, Vallas would have my vote. Partly that’s a matter of looking at his resume, for example, as detailed at Wikipedia. He was not a traditional politician, climbing the ranks, building clout, doing favors for others and getting favors in return, but instead built a track record as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, then moving on to Philadelphia and the Recovery School District of Louisiana. I don’t know if he would use the phrase, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” but you don’t build that resume without having a solid understanding of, well, facts. Besides which, of course, his website is chock-a-block full of policy proposals that go well beyond a few bullet points and assertions of care and concern and professions of social justice and hometown pride.

But here’s something from — well, long enough ago that it predates not only my blog, but blogging in general. Seems to me that at the time we still had a dial-up internet connection — not that I had much time for the internet, anyway, with a toddler already and a second baby on the way. Yup, I’m talking about the 2002 gubernatorial election, when Paul Vallas fell short by a mere two percentage points in the three-way Democratic primary, which Rod Blagojevich won and where Roland Burris had a strong third-place showing. (Again, see Wikipedia for a recap.)

On the Republican side, Attorney General Jim Ryan swamped his opponents in the primary, but Blago won the general election by 7 percentage points. Did Ryan really stand a chance? Checking Wikipedia again to aid my memory, the bribery indictment occurred after the election, but it seems to me that it was already widely understood that outgoing governor George Ryan was a crook, and let’s face it, it’s a tough sell to ask the people of Illinois to elect a man from the same party, with the same last name, as the outgoing crook-governor. (How many voters thought he was that man? How many intellectually knew otherwise but still couldn’t get past it? Should party leaders have taken Jim Ryan aside and said, “look, man, you either have to change your name or accept that as a stroke of bad luck, you simply can’t run because you won’t make it in the general election?” Maybe it only became more apparent after the primary how crooked George Ryan was.)

So instead Illinois got its next crook-governor.

Why did Democratic voters choose Blago over Vallas? (Remember it was 36.5% vs. 34.5%, not exactly overwhelming margins.) Again, my memory fails me. A Google link tells me that one factor, at least, was that Vallas simply failed to campaign downstate to nearly the same degree as Blago, which makes sense, or at any rate, I can picture Blago excelling at the retail politics aspect of the whole thing.

And, of course, we know what followed. A pension obligation bond. Blago playing Savior of the Elderly by demanding that Chicagoland mass transit give all over-65s not just reduced-priced but free rides as a precondition for a dedicated sales tax. Blago expanding state-paid kids’ health insurance to middle-class families, without regard for the state budget and, in fact, using all manner of gimmicks to nominally balance the budget when in fact he brought the state further into debt without even an excuse of a poor economy. Accusations of pay-to-play that were never quite proven. And then, of course, the “f***ing golden” attempted sale of a Senate seat that made Illinois the laughingstock of the nation.

All of which means that, yes, near as I can tell, Paul Vallas is the best candidate in the election. But here’s where I also admit to some sentimentality: for him to win the election would be some bit of redemption for the path the state took instead in 2002.

Image:; public domain