Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas is running for mayor, he announced Wednesday.
The longtime Chicagoan has been well-known in government circles since the 1990s, when Mayor Richard M. Daley selected him as budget director and then schools chief. Vallas later ran schools in Philadelphia and New Orleans. In 2019, he ran for mayor but finished a distant ninth and has since emerged as a frequent critic of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s public safety policies.
“I’m running because the city is in crisis. The crisis is worsening,” Vallas told the Tribune in an interview. “I believe I have the skills and the experience as well as the courage to provide the leadership the city desperately needs.”
The city experienced major crime spikes in 2020 and 2021, with last year being the most violent in decades. Vallas, 68, points to the city losing large numbers of police officers and the school system’s shrinking student population as key issues facing the city. Vallas said he would fire police superintendent David Brown and his top deputy, Eric Carter, and promote a new top cop “from within” to improve morale.
“Our police department is being degraded. We’re offering fewer educational choices. Yet we continue to have this cycle of raising taxes and fees,” said Vallas, who endorsed Lightfoot in the 2019 runoff election against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “I think the mayor has proven to be incapable of dealing with these crises. I submit to you that under her tenure things have gotten significantly worse.”
With his entry into the race, Vallas joins Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner, Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, and businessman Willie Wilson as declared candidates seeking to unseat Lightfoot, who is expected to announce her re-election campaign soon.
In 2002, Vallas ran against Rod Blagojevich in the Democratic primary for governor but narrowly lost. Vallas was far less successful during his 2019 foray into electoral politics, when he finished near the bottom of the pack despite presenting voters with a relatively strong political brand, an intricate understanding of City Hall’s inner workings and a penchant to engage on specific issues that could expose other challengers’ lesser grasp of the job’s details.
The current field for the 2023 race does leave Vallas with a potential running lane. In 2019, former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy, attorney Jerry Joyce, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, ex-alderman Bob Fioretti, one-time Richard M. Daley chief of staff Gery Chico and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza all competed to varying degrees for the same base of support Vallas sought: city workers and public safety employees along the city’s bungalow belts on the Northwest and Southwest Sides.
But even with fewer candidates in the race at this point, Vallas may struggle to convince voters and donors that this year’s campaign will be different than his previous endeavors. But, Vallas told the Tribune, he’s confident he will be able to raise money, draw support, and get his message out.
“The bottom line for me is, every election has its own dynamic,” Vallas said. “Every election has its own unique circumstances.”
Vallas will also face questions about the school system, which will transition in the coming years to an elected school board following a successful campaign by the Chicago Teachers Union to change state law.
When Vallas served as CPS CEO, student testing became more prevalent and schools with low scores were put on probation under the threat of closing. More selective-enrollment high schools were built, and magnet and charter schools opened in greater numbers on his watch, with students often moving out of traditional neighborhood schools.
Vallas has defended his reforms as leading to better results for Chicago students, but the teachers union has grown much more powerful and been outspoken in the years since he led the district.
Vallas has continued to advocate for school choice and, in the last two years, his criticism has also turned to schools’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has spoken at rallies where parents were protesting COVID-19-related school closures, and he has largely blamed CTU for delays in the resumption of in-person classes in CPS.
“There is no reason why we could not have opened our schools,” Vallas said at a rally in Arlington Heights in September 2020. ”This is simply the hostage taking of our young people.”