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Analysis: Paul Vallas must learn to let Pat Quinn lead in new political dance

Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas

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Updated: December 10, 2013 6:08AM



If the political marriage between Gov. Pat Quinn and Paul Vallas is going to work, it will require Vallas to be what he has never been: disciplined, focused and, above all, content playing second-fiddle.

During six years at the helm of the Chicago Public Schools, Vallas was a wildly-popular headline machine who frequently alienated then-Mayor Richard M. Daley by violating the cardinal rule of Chicago politics: commanding a spotlight normally reserved for the mayor.

Now, a governor with his own reputation as a wild-card has forged a political marriage with his mirror image.

“This could be the best move Pat Quinn ever made or it could be a frickin’ disaster,” one political observer said.

“It depends on the governor’s ability to keep him contained. Paul has to learn how to be two things he’s never been: disciplined and content being second-banana.”

Another Democrat, who worked closely with Vallas during his CPS days, questioned how the partnership between “two peas in a pod” is going to work.

“Paul Vallas was very brilliant. He had a great vision. But he was all over the map. There was a lack of focus. And that’s one of the biggest beefs people have about the governor. He lacks focus and lacks the ability to delegate. He’s a one-man show taking on way too much,” the official said.

“They both have a history of governing by the seat of their pants. Both are kind of loners. They march to their own drum and have been accused of not playing well with others. It’ll be interesting to see how they play together.”

Vallas is the painfully shy, bullied nerd who triumphed over a lifetime of insecurities and stuttering to become the man Daley once called “quite simply the best chief executive in the history of Chicago Public Schools.”

“He couldn’t even say, `Mom.’ He never answered the phone. He had to fight to get the words out,” Vallas’ mother, Mary, once told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Every day, we put a button in his mouth with a string attached so he wouldn’t swallow it. I would give him a sentence and he would repeat it over and over. That’s how he learned to enunciate.”

The problem continued through graduate school at Western Illinois University. It didn’t stop until Vallas got a teaching certificate and spent ten weeks student-teaching at an Indian reservation in Montana.

“I had to teach five classes by myself. So, I’d either stop stuttering and stammering or I couldn’t teach,” Vallas once said.

After successful stints as City Hall revenue and budget director, Vallas was paired with mayoral chief-of-staff Gery Chico and dispatched to the Board of Education to direct Daley’s risky 1995 school takeover.

That began a whirlwind, six-year reign that drew national acclaim.

Vallas and Chico made Chicago the first U.S. model for ending social promotion, maintained labor peace in a school system with a sorry history of teacher strikes and embarked on a $2.6 billion school construction program.

They found funds to hold back poor-performing students, dispatched expert help to struggling schools and financed reforms from mandatory summer school, new after-school and expanded early-childhood programs to reduced class size, metal detectors in all schools and five-year high school program.

Through it all, Vallas was a tireless, ubiquitous control freak. He worked around-the-clock and demanded the same of a staff that got used to being on “Vallas time.” He compulsively controlled every story about the schools and punished critics.

“His leadership style was very troubling....I’ve never encountered anyone with so little tolerance for criticism or even input or suggestions from people closely involved in the schools,” Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education told the Sun-Times in 2002.

When a newspaper story about local school councils contained a critical quote from Woestehoff, Vallas called her on the carpet, then stripped her organization of its contracts to train LSC members at 90 schools.

“I was blackballed. It was done to hurt our organization and the LSC’s that we support in retaliation for our disagreement with some of Paul Vallas’ policies. When that happens with Paul Vallas, he slams the door,” Woestehoff said.

When Daley fired Vallas in 2001, it was not only because he was itching for progress on student reading.

The mayor was fed up with Vallas’ patented defensiveness. He firmly believed Vallas was engaged in a smoke-and-mirrors game and that he had grown more concerned about perpetuating his savior image than he was about improving student performance.

Relinquishing the school CEO’s job and the extraordinary platform that it provided wasn’t easy for Vallas, who was afforded hero’s status and hounded for autographs in the schools he visited.

He hung on for months, even though it was clear the mayor desperately wanted to make a change. That forced Daley to pull the plug and play the heavy.

After nearly defeating Rod Blagojevich in a 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary where Vallas was hamstrung by his fear of flying, Vallas has bounced from city to city.

He spent time running public schools in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Ct. where there was a recent battle about whether Vallas had the credentials to meet the statutory requirements for the job.

Sources said Vallas alienated teachers unions by privatizing some New Orleans schools and forging partnerships with Connecticut Republicans in a desperate attempt to hang onto his job there.

Now, he’s back in Illinois running for a lieutenant governor’s job that is so powerless, some of its former occupants quit in utter frustration.

“It’s kind of surprising that he has come back to take a position that people generally try to get out of as quickly as possible. The position doesn’t have a lot of visibility or real responsibility. Maybe he sees this as a stepping stone to run for governor again,” one observer said.

Vallas could not be reached for comment. A source close to the governor’s new running-mate argued that Vallas has changed in the decade away from Chicago.

“This is a different Paul. He was horrified to get in an airplane because of an incident that happened when he was in the reserves. But when the earthquake hit Haiti, he couldn’t drive to Haiti. So, he’s flown there over 70 times. He’s willing to do something for the greater good. That shows how much he’s changed,” the Vallas confidante said.

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman



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