Friday, April 13, 2007

For Vallas, A Tough Political Homecoming

In a fair and just world, Paul Vallas' expected return to Chicago would be cheered by the city's political and business elite. Then again, who said the world is always fair and just?
Vallas, who successfully ran the Chicago Public School System from 1995 to 2001, is apparently ready to leave his job as CEO of the School District of Philadelphia and come back to Sweet Home Chicago. According to press accounts, quoting his family, Vallas isn't sure what he's going to do upon his arrival. He could open a consulting firm, head a non-profit or maybe---just maybe--take another stab at running for public office. (Vallas was beaten by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary.)
Vallas has his supporters and a strong track record, but its going to be a tough homecoming if he wants to get back into public life. That's because it's doubtful the city's powerbrokers will be welcoming him back with open arms, especially if they take their cue (which they usually do) from his former employer, Mayor Richard M. Daley.
The two have had a long but uneasy relationship, partly because of their different styles--Vallas talks a mile a minute and Daley tends to grunt his conversations--but also because Vallas got ample credit and favorable press for Chicago school reform, forcing Daley--who sees himself as an "Education Mayor"-- to share the spotlight.
It would be a real shame if Vallas is frozen out of the city and state's public life because of political pettiness or fear. This is a man with much to offer.
Consider that during his tenure as Chicago Public Schools CEO, he presided over rising test scores, expanded summer school and the growth of charter schools (a device favored by business executives but hated by the teachers'union.)
What's more, he was one of the most engaged CEOs I've ever seen. He knew the Chicago Public School system inside out. He proved to be a formidable foe of its red tape. And he had a real feel for what was going on at the individual school level and for determining which reform measures clicked or failed.
A strong personality, Vallas did not always bend to the pressures of local school councils, which in theory are suppose to act in the best interest of their communities but can also become vehicles for rash and detrimental decisions.
Detractors like to point out that Vallas was a Whirling Dervish, installing new school-related programs that didn't always pan out. And he doesn't suffer fools lightly, which bruised feelings and alienated staff and school board members.
That all may be true. But you know what? I never once heard anyone initmate that Vallas didn't have the best interests of the school kids in mind. Or that he wasn't passionately committed to finding solutions. Or that he was ineffective.
I'll take that type of fire-in-the-belly leader, compared to the cynical political hacks that dominate this town.
Will Chicago's powerbrokers welcome Vallas back in a meaniful way? Unfortunately, I don't think so.
I suspect he'll land a good private-sector position or be part of a venture that will enable him to provide for his young family, which is and should be his top priority.
As for a political appointment or elected position? It's doubtful. Too many influential people won't move aside, or make way, for him. And since Vallas is not a wealthy person, he's not about to run for office again and rack up a huge debt (The Sun-Times reports he's just paid off a $537,000 gubernatorial campaign obligation in January). Nor does he come back to a town busting with benefactors, who want to bankroll a Vallas campaign for anything.
Upon his return, Vallas will get headlines, the ocassional TV interview and have his name mentioned when the political speculation runs high.
But in the unfair and unjust world of local and state politics, there's no room for someone like Paul Vallas.

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