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Vallas tapped to be Quinn’s running mate

Updated: December 10, 2013 6:06AM

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn named former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas as his running mate Friday in a political stunner that mystified African-American politicians and angered union leaders who derided Vallas as the “wrong” choice for the job.

Vallas, a $1,200-a-day state consultant until last summer who ran the city’s schools from 1995 to 2001 and narrowly lost the 2002 Democratic primary for governor, was a little-known finalist on Quinn’s short list of running-mate possibilities.

That line up was stocked heavily with black officeholders such as state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, City Treasurer Stephanie Neely and state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, whose names had recently circulated widely in political circles.

In settling on Vallas earlier this week, the governor touted his long ties to him and Vallas’ school-reform resume that stretches from Chicago to New Orleans to Philadelphia to Bridgeport, Ct., and to Haiti over the past two decades.

“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 statement announcing the choice.

“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,” the governor said. “He will be a strong lieutenant governor for the common good.”

After losing the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary to eventual Gov. Rod Blagojevich by about 25,000 votes, Vallas dropped off Illinois’ political radar only to resurface and then fade as a potential 2006 candidate for governor and as a potential 2010 candidate for Cook County board president — as a Republican.

With voters who remember Vallas as a gubernatorial candidate, Quinn gets a running mate who ran strongly in Cook and the collar counties, defeating Blagojevich in every spot because he was far better known at the time because of his work as city schools CEO.

Holding the lieutenant governor’s $135,669-a-year post, which generally is considered a political backwater in state government, could help position Vallas, now 60, for a possible 2018 bid for governor if he and Quinn defeat their Republican opponents in next year’s election.

As city schools CEO, Vallas oversaw legislatively-imposed school-reform efforts that barred teachers strikes, set up local school councils, encouraged charter schools and increased the use of standardized testing — initiatives Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said contributed to the recent financial convulsions that forced 50 school closures, budget cuts and layoffs.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has supported Gov. Quinn in the past because of his commitment to grassroots organizing, publicly funded public education and collective bargaining,” she said. “For these reasons we are concerned about his choice of Paul Vallas as a running mate. His choice takes us in the wrong direction for public education.”

After his failed or aborted dalliances with politics, Vallas left Chicago in 2007 and began a succession of school-system turnarounds. Most notable was his hiring as superintendent of New Orleans’ Katrina-battered school system, where he encouraged charter schools — with their non-unionized teaching staffs — to flourish, and test scores rose.

“There’s a lot of history there, and it makes us want to understand from the governor what his thinking was,” Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said of Quinn’s selection of Vallas. “It’s a surprise to us, definitely. We’re still honestly trying to digest it.”

One GOP candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner, was quick to respond to Quinn’s choice, saying the pick demonstrates the governor’s own school-reform credentials are lacking.

“Picking Paul Vallas confirms that Pat Quinn is running scared. Quinn understands that Bruce Rauner has a proven record on school reform and is the only candidate who will shake up the status quo in Springfield,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said.

But the choice drew accolades from Vallas’ former boss at Chicago Public Schools, former school board president Gery Chico, who know serves as chairman of the State Board of Education.

“Paul Vallas is one of the most talented people I worked with in my years in government. He and Gov. Quinn make a very powerful team,” Chico said.

Under Chico, who is a Quinn appointee, the state board granted a state consulting contract to Vallas that he held until June 30.

In 2012, a company Vallas formed was awarded a $311,250 deal with the State Board of Education to help the agency “in various initiatives aimed at school districts with low-performing schools.” Under the contract, Vallas was to be paid $1,200 per day, state records show.

The firm, The Vallas Group, was not the lowest bidder for that consulting deal that ended June 30 but won it anyway because of higher technical scores than the company with the lowest bid, agency spokesman Matt Vanover told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Vanover said Vallas’ firm did “satisfactory” work and gave advice during the state’s takeover of North Chicago’s financially troubled school system. The agency ended its dealings with the firm, however, because of budgetary pressures and because another company was being brought online that did similar work, he said.

Besides the criticism Quinn’s choice got from labor unions, some black officeholders hoping Quinn would chose an African-American running mate expressed hostility at the pick.

“Am I angry with my governor right now? Yes. I want to know what happened with the short list. How did you go all the way over to Paul Vallas?” Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) told the Sun-Times, adding that the governor “just blew it.”

“Kwame Raoul, Will Burns, Stephanie Neely. What happened to those individuals on your short list that you would erase them off the list completely and go totally to another individual?” Austin asked.

After reviews like that, Quinn’s campaign appeared to engage in a bit of damage control by distributing a statement in support of Vallas Friday afternoon from the highest-ranking black officeholder in Illinois, Secretary of State Jesse White.

“Paul has a proven track record of not only protecting our kids and ensuring that they have the opportunities to succeed in life, but also protecting our tax dollars,” White said.

Before that statement was issued, Raoul, who was informed by Quinn of his decision Friday, tweeted that Vallas is a “quality guy” but later, like others, said he was taken aback by the governor’s move.

“I was surprised by the choice,” Raoul told the Chicago Sun-Times “I know Paul and have gotten to know him better, particularly because of his work in Haiti through [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne [Duncan], who’s a friend of mine. One of the things you can say about the pick is he’s someone who has the capacity to step in if it were ever needed. That said, it’s an odd choice because Paul has been, in recent years, active everywhere except for Illinois.

“I think the bigger question,” Raoul continued, “is there’s some bridge-building that needs to be done with labor, and the bigger question is what does this do toward that.”

For his part, Vallas said his focus will be on winning over “working families,” and he and the governor are expected to make their first joint public appearance as a ticket next week after Veteran’s Day on Monday.

“I am honored to join forces with the strongest reform governor in the country,” he said, praising Quinn for having “rescued the state of Illinois from the verge of fiscal and ethical disaster.”

“Together, we will fight every day for working families and deliver the reform and change that Illinois deserves,” he said.

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