Vallas Well-Armed for Chicago Mayor’s Race with Ideas, Money, Experience
No one ever accused Paul Vallas of being short of ideas. What he was short of, when he ran for Chicago mayor in 2019, was money.
“I’ve become better at fundraising,” Vallas says. “You can’t be successful if you can’t raise the money. It costs a lot of money to go on TV and also protecting yourself when other candidates put out misinformation on you. This time, I’m well prepared. I'm up on TV. We will have the financial resources we need to win.”
Vallas has used some of that funding to hire a top-notch team of campaign advisers. Managing his campaign is Joe Trippi, a political veteran who’s worked on the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy, and Walter Mondale, and also advised former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Working with him is pollster Mark Mellman, whose clients have included former Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid and former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
In the first round of Chicago’s crowded, chaotic mayoral race of 2019, Vallas finished ninth among 14 candidates, with 30,236 votes or 5.43% of the total. This year’s race, with nine candidates on the ballot, will be no less competitive and contentious.
One important difference in racially-divided Chicago: In 2019 there were six white candidates on the ballot. This year, Vallas is the only one.
“This is the city I was born and raised in,” he says. “This is the city where my grandparents settled when they came from Greece. This is the city of three generations of Vallases, and the city we love is in a severe crisis. And I think my skills, my commitment, my determination, and certainly my experience, have prepared me well to deal with this crisis.”
After losing the first round of the 2019 mayoral race, Vallas endorsed the eventual winner, Lori Lightfoot. After she was elected, Vallas says he tried to help her with constructive advice but was constantly rebuffed.
“Chicago is definitely in worse shape than four years ago. And I’m not suggesting for a minute that all the problems the city is facing are products of bad leadership on the mayor’s part,” he says. “But I believe the mayor has made things considerably worse.”
Vallas says the three most critical issues facing the city are crime, deteriorating public schools, and skyrocketing taxes, which affects affordability. “On the public safety side, saddling us with an incompetent police superintendent and abandoning community policing, where there was a beat car on every beat and officers got to know the community, has been disastrous,” Vallas says. “And officers have been put on such abusive work schedules; we’ve seen a record increase on suicides and a record exodus of officers over the last two years.
“We’ve lost almost a thousand officers in each of the last two years to retirements or transfers to other departments, while literally tying the police department’s hands when it comes to arresting individuals that are clearly violating the law — damaging private property, trespassing on private property. The arrest rates on carjacking and vehicle thefts are abysmal, in the low single digits. Arrests are actually down 76% since 2019.”
On public education, Vallas accuses Lightfoot of “caving” to the Chicago Teachers Union three times, resulting in schools being closed 15 consecutive months during COVID. That, Vallas says, caused a devastating loss of instructional time and led to a record increase in violence against young people under age 17 — “the overwhelming vast majority who have been out of school.” Plus, during Mayor Lightfoot’s term, CPS enrollment has fallen 11%.
Regarding the budget, Vallas says city and school property taxes have risen almost $900 million during Lightfoot’s term, at the same time the federal government provided the schools and city $6 billion in COVID money.
“Yet the mayor’s office projects we could be facing a budget deficit next year of well over $500 million,” he adds. “So, what do we have to show for that unprecedented infusion of federal dollars, or for that matter, an unprecedented increase in school and city property taxes? Not safer streets. Not better schools. Not more investment in communities that have been most neglected.”
Vallas, 69, grew up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood but spent his teen years in Palos Heights. He entered the public spotlight as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s budget director, balancing three budgets without borrowing or deferring public obligations like pensions. In 1995, Daley tapped Vallas as CEO of Chicago’s Public Schools, where he closed a $1.2 billion projected five-year deficit and produced six straight balanced budgets. He also funded construction of 78 school buildings and 1,900 school renovation projects. Vallas later ran school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conneticut.
Vallas is known as a policy wonk, who delights in diving deep into the details of problems and issues. He’s also known for repeating those details to anyone who will listen, which has given rise to a reputation, which he acknowledges with good humor, “of never giving a short answer when a long one will do.”
For all his success as a problem-solving urban manager, Vallas has never won an election despite numerous attempts. In 2002, he narrowly lost the Democratic primary for Illinois governor to Rod Blagojevich.
In 2014, Gov. Pat Quinn chose Vallas as his running mate for lieutenant governor in his losing re-election campaign. And there was the loss in the 2019 Chicago Mayoral campaign. But Vallas believes his experience has uniquely prepared him to meet the moment in the 2023 mayoral race.“
When I became Daley’s budget director, the year before, we had 947 murders, significantly higher than the murder rate now. So clearly, there was a violent crime pandemic,” Vallas says. To tackle the problem, Daley installed Terry Hillard, a police superintendent who had the respect of rank-and-file cops.
“The second thing we did was to adopt a community policing strategy that pushed officers down to the beats so every single beat has a patrol car, and so that ‘911’ calls are being responded to promptly,” he says. “Last year, over 400,000 ‘911’ calls were not responded to in a timely manner, including 32,000 assault and batteries in progress.”
Vallas adds that the city also needs to have a witness and victim’s protection program because police can’t close cases without witnesses, and witnesses won’t come forward if they don’t feel safe.
Regarding safety on public transit, Vallas says, “I would take the $100 million the CTA is spending on private security and hire another 300 Chicago police officers at the CTA as part of a revived Chicago Transit Authority police unit. They already have 200 officers and that would bring the number to around 500. I believe you could cover the stations, the platforms, and have officers strategically riding certain lines both in uniforms and undercover.” He also believes the city must offer incentives for Chicago police to stay on the job and for those who retired early to return.
As for CPS, Vallas wants to open schools at the dinner hour, on weekends, on holidays, and during the summer vacation “so we have a safe, secure place for young people to be,” he says, “because the murder rate spikes after 3:30 p.m., on the weekend, during the summer, and during school holidays.” He also wants to create work-study programs using city agencies and relationships the city has with “unions, contractors, and businesses — so we can not only incentivize them to stay in school but also put them in working environments where they’re introduced to the work world and surrounded by working men and women, who are always the best role models.”
Vallas acknowledges that more CPS schools will have to be closed after the moratorium on school closings ends in 2025, because continued declining enrollment has produced too many near-empty school buildings. “Manley High School, for example, has 67 kids and 25 teachers. A school can’t attract students when it’s at five to ten percent capacity. And it’s dangerous and unhealthy to keep a building open with that few kids,” he says.
On a positive note, Vallas envisions new roles for many shuttered schools. Perhaps moving charter schools that are in old or overcrowded buildings into former CPS buildings, although that would surely rile the teachers’ union. He also advocates greatly expanding the network of alternative schools for those who dropped out or aged out of traditional high schools.
“You could also re-program these buildings with adult education occupational training programs for individuals returning from incarceration,” he adds. “That would go a long way toward repurposing these buildings to serve an educational function.”
As for the budget and taxes, Vallas would scrap Mayor Lightfoot’s automatic inflation-driven property tax increases. “The City Council needs to vote on property tax increases, not just jump on an automatic escalator,” he says.
Vallas would closely examine not only the city budget but all budgets the mayor controls, including the CTA, CHA, public schools, community colleges, park districts, airports, and more: “The mayor actually controls $28 Billion of spending. If you can't find efficiencies through streamlining bureaucracy, renegotiating contracts, consolidating services, you’re not trying. Only 60% of the money that goes to Chicago Public Schools actually finds its way to the classroom.”
Vallas also wants to institute a cap on property tax increases. “Both the city and the schools operate under a property tax levy cap. But having the levy cap does not help individual property tax payers who are living in or have businesses in areas that are being gentrified, or are going through the reassessment cycle. That’s why you’re seeing huge increases in property taxes throughout the city this year, particularly in gentrifying Latino communities,” he says.
Vallas says he’d work with the City Council and the County Assessor to find out how to enact a property tax cap that benefits individual taxpayers as well as businesses.
“Businesses that just barely survived COVID are seeing their property taxes go up by 40, 50, and 60%. They’re getting crushed,” he says. “You need to use some of that federal COVID money to create a FEMA-type program for those businesses still surviving from the riots and COVID. There are businesses that are teetering and some additional relief would be in order.”
Vallas also has plans for reinvesting in impoverished areas of the city’s south and west sides: “The city has to go into these communities and make capital available for economic development projects. I’ve talked about creating a Community Investment Fund that would have dedicated resources — casino money, cannabis money, and sports betting money. And I would put a percentage of TIF dollars into an investment fund that would invest exclusively on the south and west side.”
In addition, Vallas envisions an Independent Economic Development Authority, “free of politics, free of aldermanic privilege that would become a player in stimulating economic investment by accessing the Community Capital Investment Fund to provide gap funding for projects.”
Finally, Vallas wants to issue Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenue bonds, bonds that would be paid for with TIF district revenues when the districts expire. That money could be used to buy up abandoned property and turned over to local developers to be put back on the tax rolls.
“Plus, I’d empower that Community Economic Development Corporation to award ten-year property tax abatements on this property they’re trying to restore,” he adds. “That would be heaven for developers. And with that you’d bring real, serious economic development to the South and West Sides.”
While Vallas has no shortage of ideas, he says he wouldn’t be a one man show. “It’s not about me coming in alone. It’s about building a coalition led by me, with a diversified group of experienced and competent leaders to get the city back on track. I guarantee I will make this city safer. I will make these schools better and give people a reason to return to the schools and stay in the schools. And I will lay out a long-term financial plan, turning the budget into an investment vehicle that will hold the line on taxes.”
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