CHICAGO, IL – Paul Vallas, a 65-year-old born and raised Chicagoan of Greek descent – all four of his grandparents hail from the Peloponnese – has served as that city’s Budget Director and head of its public schools. Now, he is running for mayor, hoping to extend his extensive track record of accomplishments to leading Chicago out of its economic doldrums and rampant crime rate.
The election is set for February 26, “when voter participation will be low,” Vallas told The National Herald, because they designed it in a way “to minimize participation.”
It is an open primary, in which anyone with enough signatures can run as a Democrat, Republican, independent, or anything else, and so less participation might favor better-known (establishment) candidates. February is “the worst month weather-wise, and there is no national election. Chicago could teach Putin a thing or two” about political strategy, Vallas said.
If there is no clear winner (a 51% majority is needed), then the top two candidates will have a runoff five weeks later, on April 2.
Though he doesn’t want to take anything for granted, Vallas is optimistic because polls, to this point, show him at or near the top. “If the election were held today, I would be in a runoff and likely win. I’ll try to win in the first round and I am confident I will be in the runoff, and that I will beat anyone in the runoff.” Vallas was the only candidate – there are over a dozen declared to this point – who beat incumbent Mayor Rahm Emmanuel one-on-one in neutral polls, he said, “and some have said that is one of the reasons Rahm got out.” Emmanuel, a former White House Chief of Staff to President Obama, declined to run for a third term.
CLEANING UP “CHIRAQ”
Vallas does not in any way attempt to downplay the severe problems plaguing Chicago right now, most evidently that America’s third-largest city as a hotbed of crime, particularly gun-related deaths, to the point that it has been nicknamed “Chiraq.”
Though Chicago is not the most violent city in America, Vallas acknowledges that “we have more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined, complicated by the fact that Chicago is not solving the vast majority of its shootings and murders”; only 5 and 15 percent, respectively.
He cites the root causes of this explosion in crime to only 20 percent of the city having real investment. “There are 50 wards. Five or six have robust growth, and maybe 10 have any growth at all. The remaining 40 have little or new business growth. These are depression-like conditions, much like third-world underdeveloped countries.”
Unemployment among African-Americans is over 16 percent, “and in some neighborhoods is 40, 50, 60 percent,” Vallas explained. “There is a massive exodus of the middle class, including middle class minorities and particularly African-Americans.” He describes Chicago’s quality-of-life gap as “a tale of two cities.
“These conditions nurture the violence,” Vallas believes, but the other problem is the erosion of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Their failure to fill vacancies, hire sergeants and detectives, and maintain neighborhood beat integrity, their dismantling of support units of high-crime hotspots, and their lack of developing policing strategies has led to a significantly diminished, tired, and frustrated police department.”
That’s the problem, and Vallas has a plan to fix it. “I’m going to rebuild the CPD’s numbers. Get it back to the levels of the 1990s, when I was Budget Director.” He believes in recruiting officers and dedicating them to specific districts, a practice known as “community policing.” Taking a page from Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s approach in New York City in the 1990s, Vallas wants to hire not only more officers, but more sergeants and detectives as well, and invite retired officers with great records to come in and work on some cases. “That will get violent criminals off the streets. No one is being arrested now. We need to have enough officers.”
Vallas also proposes building a “state-of-the-art police training academy,” and he sees a very promising recruiting source to be graduates of ROTC programs he established at the five military high schools he constructed while head of Chicago’s public schools.
There is a continuing and highly contentious national debate on immigration, and Sanctuary Cities is one of the most volatile issues. Astutely, Vallas does not say he is for or against Sanctuary Cities, but instead qualifies the question as follows: “it all depends on what ‘Sanctuary Cities’ means.” Vallas explains that he believes in following the law, but does not want cities in general and Chicago specifically to harass people.
“When I was in Chicago’s public schools, we supported children and families. We kind of took a Sanctuary City approach. But illegal aliens need to be arrested and deported.” Bottom line: if a convicted criminal serving time in a Chicago jail was a noncitizen and therefore deportable, would Vallas as mayor instruct the CPD to notify Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE)? “A known criminal? Yes. One who has committed a felony. We have to cooperate with the feds. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with embracing an open city policy not to be harassed.”
Vallas, like incumbent Mayor Emmanuel, is a Democrat. So with all the problems under the Emmanuel Administration, how would a fellow Democrat like Vallas make a difference? “The current mayor is a DC politician,” Vallas says.
“Everything about him is DC and they brought that approach to Chicago, that is, managing the message of the day, pay to play, fundraising, polls, postponing tough decisions until after the election. They make decisions based on politics rather than need. For example, Emmanuel was the biggest opponent of immigration reform during the (George W.) Bush Administration. He recruited anti-immigration candidates and stopped them from working with Bush. But when Obama became president, he thought cracking down on illegals was a winning issue. And then, when he became Mayor of Chicago, he needed political support mainly from the black community, and so he backed Sanctuary Cities.”
Drawing a clear distinction with Emmanuel, Vallas said I am the antithesis to this mayor in every way. I am a problem-solving manager. I’ve taken on toughest public service assignments and have tackled them, bringing my knowledge of public policy and effective budgeting and management to transform a number of major school districts in major cities. I put policy over politics. I place the needs of the community first.”
Given Chicago’s crime rate and economic problems, it is expected many of its citizens will want change; besides, the incumbent isn’t even running. But why might they choose Vallas instead of one of the other dozen-or-so candidates in the race?
“Except for one other candidate, I am the only one who has managed multibillion-dollar budgets, repeatedly. I’ve managed 17 of them. I’ve balanced budgets and improved government services, putting more cops on the street. Negotiating collective bargaining agreements, improving test scores. No one can match my record. I allocated city resources so that all 50 wards were recipients. I took politics out of awarding city resources. Same with schools. I built 78 buildings in six years. Over 80 percent were in poorest communities and all were state-of-the-art. To strengthen communities we needed to improve quality of schools physically and academically. (Mayor) Michael Bloomberg invited me to New York and (Schools Superintendent) Roy Romer to LA, to learn about what we did and how we did it.
CHICAGO “MARSHALL PLAN”
A revitalized police department is only the beginning. To bolster the economy, Vallas has promised a Chicago Marshall Plan. “My approach is an Opportunity Zone (OZ) program that is part of the 2017 Trump Tax bill, which provides enormous incentives in economically struggling areas. There are 8000 zones nationwide, 133 in Chicago alone. They say ‘look, if you want to avoid capital gains, with market exploding now, shelter them by investing in an OZ, keep it for 10 years and earn income. It is tax free. These are enormous incentives. I will open up the city by inviting investors to invest in Chicago’s poor communities. These communities are capital-deprived. Investments are risky, but to avoid taxes and capital gains, then more are willing to take a risk.”
In fact, to attract even more investors, Vallas would invest Chicago’s own money, $1 billion over three to five years, in such zones. He hopes that ultimately, $10 billion in total capital will be invested.
Given Vallas’ focus on law enforcement, entrepreneurial development strategy, and even his support of the Trump/Republican tax cuts, one might just as easily think he is a Republican as a Democrat. “I’m a fiscal conservative,” he says, “but a social liberal. I am pro-choice and I support LGBT rights. I do favor school choice, but I am also a strong believer in public schools. I have been endorsed by liberals and conservatives. When I ran the schools, we had LGBT clubs and Bible clubs.”
On today’s national political climate, Vallas points out that people don’t talk to each other. They shout at each other and talk past each other My approach has been to respect everyone. To be willing to listen and why someone may differ from me. The debate has become much less civil. There’s no nuance.” He says this results from today’s limitless media options. “Social media, blogs, radio podcasts,” you can now find a source that will reinforce your view. Back when there wasn’t so much, there was a melting pot. It was a way of separating fact from fiction.”
Vallas is also not a blind partisan, as evidenced by his strong criticism of Congressional Democrats for their treatment of Rep. Dan Lipinksy, a “blue-dog” conservative Democrat who represents part of Chicago. “They targeted him because he’s pro-life. I’m pro-choice myself, but is there no room in the Democratic Party for pro-life? It’s a big tent.”
“THEY’D BE PROUD”
Vallas’ family is still very Greek. He and his siblings speak Greek with their parents, who are in their nineties. “Too old to travel to Greece now,” he says. He and his wife, Sharon, have two sons, Paulie and Gus. A third, Mark, who was “my companion on my public service adventures” passed away in February.
Vallas’ affinity for the military and law enforcement is reflected in his family. Vallas himself served in the National Guard. Sharon is a retired policewoman. Paulie and Gus are both police officers, and served in the Navy and Marines, respectively. Vallas relayed to TNH the story of how his grandfather and great-uncle came to the United States, to Ellis Island, but the latter “had a club foot and they sent him back. They settled in Chicago. I’m sure they would swell with pride now if one of their grandchildren became mayor!”