Paul Vallas says he can save Chicago: 'Our house is on fire'

Paul Vallas, in suit and tie, emphasizes his point.
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CHICAGO —“Now I get to be wonky,” Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas joked on Tuesday afternoon as he concluded his speech at Maggiano's, a downtown Italian restaurant, and prepared to take questions from the well-heeled, diverse audience seated before him.

It was not the first time that Vallas had mentioned his love for policy during the luncheon, hosted by the City Club of Chicago, nor the last. “Paul Vallas, the wonk, is the public administrative version of a first responder,” said the 69-year-old former chief executive of the city’s schools, who also undertook education reform efforts in New Orleans and Philadelphia. “And right now, our house is on fire.”

Vallas was talking about crime, his campaign’s primary focus, and also the schools, which have lost nearly 100,000 students in the last decade. And Chicago's downtown business district, still reeling from the shift to remote work. In poorer neighborhoods where people of color live, the drinking water is full of lead.

“There is an unsettled feeling among the people in Chicago that government isn’t holding up its end of the bargain,” Vallas said, vowing to make his administration a “good partner” that would meet Chicagoans’ “basic needs” but otherwise stay out of the way.

Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson.
Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson talks to reporters after giving a speech to the City Club of Chicago at Maggiano's Banquets on March 27. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

His opponent in next week’s closely watched mayoral run-off, progressive Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson, 47, has labeled Vallas a Republican in disguise, a conservative posing as a moderate. In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, it would be difficult to imagine a label more toxic.

Recognizing the potency of the attack, Vallas has renounced a litany of controversial statements, including his relatively recent attacks on President Biden and former President Barack Obama, a Chicago quasi-native son. Instead, he has pitched himself as a managerial expert with moderate views.

“I think they wanted to run against, you know, a right-wing conservative,” he said of Johnson at Maggiano's, never mentioning him by name in his remarks. Instead, Vallas mused, “they found that they were running against” a candidate who, as he described himself, is “extremely competent, accomplished.”

Tall and avuncular, Vallas carries himself in a way that hints at a tightly coiled personality. People who have worked with him have described a temper, as well as a tendency to pontificate, a habit that doomed his previous campaigns for elected office.

“Paul Vallas has never been in a room where he wasn’t the smartest,” says Peter Giangreco, a prominent Democratic strategist in Chicago. “He thinks very highly of himself. And he will talk on, and on, and on and on.”

Paul Vallas stops to think onstage, surrounded by an audience, with a screen in the background showing images of him and Brandon Johnson.
Paul Vallas answers questions issues on the environment and property taxes in Chicago on March 27. (Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A native of Roseland, on Chicago’s southeast side, Vallas has attracted support from that part of the city and from older whites in northern neighborhoods. But he has also made some inroads with Black and Latino voters, in what could be an auspicious sign for his campaign.

In an unguarded moment on stage at Maggiano's, Vallas appeared to tear up as he discussed the significance of having been endorsed by former Rep. Bobby Rush, a founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.

“I grew up in that period, when we were hit with so many things,” he said, referencing the Vietnam War, as well as the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

The endorsement was a “vindication moment,” Vallas said.

Big-city politics frequently have national implications, and next week’s Chicago runoff is likely to ripple across the country as a potentially revealing referendum on the Democratic Party ahead of the 2024 presidential election and other consequential races, including for the U.S. Senate, battleground House seats and high-profile governorships.

“This is a microcosm of a larger battle for the soul of the nation,” the Chicago political consultant Delmarie Cobb told the New York Times earlier this month. How much does anxiety about crime matter to voters? How deep are lingering frustrations over pandemic school closures? How much pain does inflation continue to exact? And what, exactly, does it mean to be a Democrat in 2023?

Two candles are lit on the sidewalk next to some flowers behind a yellow crime tape.
Flowers are laid near the scene of a shooting at a Fourth of July parade on July 5, 2022, in Highland Park, Ill. (Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Those are just a few of the questions Chicagoans will answer as they head to the polls next Tuesday (early voting has been underway since last week).

In the first round of voting, Chicagoans plainly indicated they had grown tired of the combative incumbent Lori Lightfoot, who finished third in a field of nine candidates. On Tuesday, they have to decide between Vallas (the only white candidate in the original field) and Johnson, who has emerged out of obscurity to capture progressive imaginations across the country.

Whether he can capture sufficient votes from middle-class Black residents and moderate whites is another question. Polling tends to show a close race, with some polls showing Vallas slightly ahead.

Vallas has launched several previous attempts at elected office, none of which proved successful. In 2019’s mayoral race, he finished with 5% of the vote.

This time around, the consultant Giangreco says, Vallas has been “incredibly disciplined.” He also has high-profile backers like Ken Griffin, a hedge funder who also supports Florida’s divisive Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican.

The establishment has coalesced around Vallas. He is a “thoughtful leader,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; “Paul has credibility, and he has trust,” echoed Arne Duncan, the native Chicagoan and education secretary in the Obama administration, whom some had wanted to seek the famed office known here simply as “the fifth floor.”

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., seated with an ornate gilt mirror in the background.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., listens at a hearing on Capitol Hill on March 16. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

But neither experience nor credibility is exactly why Vallas prevailed in the first round of voting, emerging with 33% of the electorate. Johnson was second, with 22%, and since no candidate broke 50%, the top two candidates headed for a run-off. In its endorsement of Vallas, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board acknowledged the core promise of his campaign: “Vallas is the candidate best positioned to tackle the city’s existential problem of violent crime.”

Violent crime has been rising across the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As in other major cities, there was a slight reprieve in 2022, but killings and shootings in Chicago remain far above pre-pandemic levels. Property crime is on the rise, too, including in affluent North Shore neighborhoods.

In New York, a former police officer, Eric Adams, became mayor — and an informal spokesman for moderate Democrats unsure about how to address public safety — in 2021 by promising to make the city safe again. Earlier this year, Biden took the unlikely step of siding with Republicans to veto a local Washington, D.C., bill that would have lowered penalties for some crimes.

Ahead of the first round of voting, polls indicated that crime was Chicagoans’ top concern.

Like some other progressives, Johnson endorsed calls to “defund the police” in the summer of 2020. He has since renounced that plan, which few cities ever actually attempted. Still, he has maintained that policing alone cannot solve Chicago’s problems.

Young activists wearing masks march holding signs saying: Defund the Police.
Activists march through Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood calling for the defunding of police on July 24, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Which would you rather have, your crime solved or your crime prevented?” Johnson said at a debate Tuesday night at a downtown studio of the local CBS news affiliate. He has pointed out that he and his family live in Austin, a neighborhood where violent crime is all too common. He has vowed to hire hundreds of detectives, but also to fund mental health and youth services.

Vallas has continued to insist that Johnson should be held to account for his earlier support for the “defund” movement — even as he has dismissed concerns about his own record of controversial statements and conservative views.

“He’s talked about it, and he’s been on the record as talking about it,” Vallas told Yahoo News at a press conference following Tuesday evening’s debate, defending the attacks, which some have criticized as racially charged. Especially incendiary has been the rhetoric of the chief of Chicago's police union, John Catanzara, who warned of “blood in the streets” if Johnson were to win. (Vallas, who was endorsed by the union, called Catanzara’s comments “irresponsible.”)

Vallas wants to attract hundreds of retired cops to return to the Chicago Police Department, a plan some say is unrealistic. His public safety plan promises to “recalibrate” background checks to make it easier to hire cops; the city now has 1,600 vacancies in its police department, which Vallas says he will fill.

Those are arguably modest proposals, especially given the importance Vallas has placed on public safety.

Johnson, at the microphone onstage, points an accusing finger at Vallas, above a banner saying: Chicago Mayoral Runoff Forum and COAL, Coalition of African American Leaders.
Johnson, left, discusses Vallas's education policy history at a forum at Kenwood Academy on March 18, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Critics say that Vallas is exaggerating his record as a policy wonk, and that his record as a school administrator is rife with mismanagement and unrealized plans. One person who worked with Vallas during his time running Chicago’s schools described him as “all over the place” and “impulsive” in a recent interview with the local public radio station WBEZ.

“The problem with this pitch is that voters understand you can't be a wonk if you've wrecked every budget you've ever touched,” Johnson campaign strategist Karthik Ganapathy told Yahoo News, pointing to the cessation of pension payments to Chicago teachers under Vallas, as well as to a $73 million deficit that materialized in Philadelphia under his watch.

His reform efforts have tended to make it easier to open charter schools, which are open to the public but privately run and, for the most part, disliked by teachers’ unions. But in none of those cases did he achieve especially impressive student outcomes.

“Paul's record undermines his argument,” Ganapathy said. “And in trying to argue something that’s so easily disprovable, Paul's undermining his credibility with voters and coming across as a snake oil salesman instead.”

Vallas's campaign defended his tenure in a statement to Yahoo News. "Paul left the Chicago Public Schools with six straight years of improved academic performance" and improved fiscal health, Vallas spokesperson Philip Swibinski said. "Paul is proud of his record of turning around failing school districts and improving outcomes for students and the community, and any other characterization is absolutely false."

Vallas insists that the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, which has endorsed Johnson, has distorted his record. He also says that Johnson lacks the managerial experience to bring Chicago back from the brink.

“I have confidence, I have command of the issues,” Vallas said Tuesday.