By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn announced an unexpected pick for his running mate today — former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas.
Vallas is known as an expert at turning around failing school districts, but along with his managerial choices has come controversy. His firings of teachers and support of charter schools and alternative teaching programs, such as Teach for America, could raise some eyebrows among Quinn’s union supporters. He was superintendent of New Orleans schools as the district tried to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and also served as the head of Philadelphia schools. Vallas made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2001, when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by now incarcerated former-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“I’ve known Paul Vallas for 30 years, and he’s never been shy about fighting for education, reform and opportunities for working people,” Quinn said in a news release officially announcing his choice for lieutenant governor. “We have made great progress these last few years, but serious challenges remain, and our mission is not yet accomplished. Paul is an independent problem solver with a proven record of reform. He will be a strong lieutenant governor for the common good.”
Quinn’s decision to tap Vallas as his running mate comes as a surprise, as many assumed the governor would appeal to his liberal base and might also pick a candidate who was a racial minority. Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul and Stephanie Neely, Chicago city treasurer, were both rumored to be on Quinn’s short list.
“It really doesn’t add anything to the ticket electorally. You can’t talk about him as [a draw for] downstate or Chicago or Hispanic voters or African-American voters or suburban voters,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. But Redfield said he remembers Vallas, a key budget staffer in the General Assembly in the 1970s, as “a serious person who cares about policy.” This is the first time that gubernatorial candidates have picked their lieutenant governor candidates under a new law. In the past, primary winners were paired up to run in the general election.
Redfield said while Vallas may not fit the demographic profile many were expecting, he does have a background that could be useful on the campaign trail. “I don’t view it as a negative. It doesn’t expand the electorate in terms of a particular group of voters. It doesn’t solidify the base in terms of a particular group of voters. But it’s certainly a qualified person,” he said.
Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, agreed that Vallas brings some leadership credentials to the ticket. “He’s got serious executive experience,” he said. “It shows that [Quinn] can get somebody on his ticket that’s got a little bit of heft.” Mooney said the pick may reveal more about which Republican candidate Quinn most thinks he will face. He pointed out that the governor might want to tout his running mate’s executive experience in contrast with a less-experienced candidate — such as Republican candidate Bruce Rauner’s choice, Evelyn Sanguinetti. Both Rauner and the Wheaton City Council member are working to cultivate the image of political outsiders. And Mooney notes that any issue union members might have with Vallas would likely be overshadowed by their concerns about Rauner, who was one of a group of deep-pocketed business leaders backing recent education reforms in the state. “The unions are not going to have a problem with Quinn when faced with Rauner.”
But whether Vallas’ experience would be put to use if he were elected is another matter. Quinn is known for keeping his inner circle tight and not seeking outside help on issues. “It’s a question of, will the governor use him and how does it mesh with Quinn’s governing style?” Redfield said. The lieutenant governor’s position has been infamous in Illinois history for being relatively powerless and at times boring. “That position has been a source of frustration for most people who have held it,” he said. “There’s certainly a question of, why did this make sense to Paul Vallas?” Given his record of trying to revive troubled school districts, perhaps he is drawn to a state with so many problems, Redfield said. “If you want a challenge, this is certainly that place to come.” He added that a win would allow Vallas to return to Illinois politics with an eye toward running for a different office down the road. Current Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is challenging Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.
“I am honored to join forces with the strongest reform governor in the country,” Vallas said in a news release. “Since taking the oath of office, Governor Pat Quinn has rescued the state of Illinois from the verge of fiscal and ethical disaster following decades of bipartisan corruption. This governor has been getting big things done since he got here. Unlike his predecessors, Governor Quinn tackled the hard issues and has made the right decisions to get Illinois back on track.”
The fact that Vallas is battling for his job in Bridgeport, Conn., is likely a factor. An activist, along with parents of students, sued to have him removed because they say he did not meet the certification requirements for the job. A judge ordered Vallas to step down in June, but the case is pending before the state’s supreme court.
Quinn’s choice of Vallas is certainly causing a lot of waves among political observers today. “If you made a list of 100 people that he might pick, he would not have been on most people’s list of 100,” Redfield said.
“It shakes things up. Adds a little drama” to what has been an uneventful governor’s race so far, Mooney says.
But Redfield noted that most people outside of Chicago probably have no idea who Vallas is and care little about lieutenant governor candidates in general. Mooney said that lieutenant governor candidates are unlikely to sway voters one way or the other when they are considering their pick for governor.