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Kadner: Vallas no ordinary second banana

 
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Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas

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Updated: December 14, 2013 6:28AM



Asked if he could handle playing second fiddle to Gov. Pat Quinn, Paul Vallas on Tuesday gave the following answer —“Second fiddle, third fiddle, second banana, fifth banana, three bananas, doesn’t make any difference to me. ... I have no problem playing second fiddle or whatever instrument in the orchestra Pat wants me to play.”

Disasters seem to attract Vallas, and maybe that’s why he’s willing to return to Illinois, even if it means being a banana.

He rebuilt the school system in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and traveled to Haiti and Chile to reconstruct schools in the aftermath of earthquakes.

He was the first chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools after the Legislature granted former Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the corruption-plagued and inept school board in 1995.

Now Vallas, 60, is returning as Quinn’s running mate for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket in 2014. He shrugs off analogies between the natural disasters that lured him to far-off places and the state’s looming economic catastrophe.

A graduate of Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Vallas grew up in Chicago’s Roseland community before moving with his parents as a teenager to Palos Heights. He attended Moraine Valley Community College and received a bachelor’s degree in history and master’s in political science from Western Illinois University.

His wife, Sharon, is the daughter of former Palos Heights Mayor Dean Koldenhoven, a winner of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

In 2000, when citizens opposed plans to open a mosque in Palos Heights, Koldenhoven spoke out against religious intolerance in his city. As a result, he lost his bid for re-election.

Since 2007, the Vallases have owned a house in Palos Heights, although some people question whether Vallas actually lives in Illinois — having spent years in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Haiti, Chile and most recent Connecticut, where he’s superintendent of the Bridgeport schools.

“He most certainly is a resident of Illinois,” said Burton Odelson, an Evergreen Park election attorney who filed an unsuccessful residency challenge against Rahm Emanuel when he ran for Chicago mayor two years ago.

“The difference between Paul and Rahm is that Paul still owns his home in Palos Heights, at 125th and Nashville, and sleeps there when he’s not in Philadelphia, Haiti, New Orleans or wherever,” said Odelson, who quickly added that he’s an attorney for Quinn’s campaign for re-election.

“He (Vallas) pays property taxes on the house. Income taxes in Illinois. Has always maintained his voter registration and driver’s license here,” Odelson said. “Rahm couldn’t even get into his house because he was renting it out. He didn’t have a key. He paid taxes in Washington, D.C.

“Paul’s wife and two sons live in Palos Heights (the Vallases have three sons). But the fact is none of that really matters any more because the (Illinois) Supreme Court decision basically said home is where the heart is. All the residency requirements that used to exist, and there were a laundry list of them, no longer exist because of that decision (in the Emanuel case).”

Odelson said he wouldn’t be surprised if someone challenged Vallas’ residency in court, but “they’re not going to win.”

When I called Koldenhoven on Monday and asked if he knew how to reach Vallas, he said he would have to call me back. A few minutes later he did, telling me he was holding a ladder for Sharon, who was cleaning leaves out of the gutters on his house.

In January, I wrote a column about Vallas’ son, also named Paul, who had just returned from the war in Afghanistan.

A Navy corpsman assigned to a combat platoon with the 5th Marine Corps Regiment, the 24-year-old candidly discussed the problems he had readjusting upon his return home. I found him to be an extraordinary young man, which ought to say something about his parents.

As for his father, Vallas earned a reputation early on as a numbers cruncher, a budget guy in state government and later in the Daley administration. He was a surprise choice to run the Chicago Public Schools because he wasn’t an educator but a bureaucrat.

That endeared Vallas early on to critics of public education but eventually generated animosity between him and the teachers’ union and parent activists.

That’s a pattern that seems to have played out in many of the places where Vallas has been.

In Bridgeport, he was criticized for failing to complete a state-mandated school leadership program, and a state judge ruled that he was therefore not qualified to be a superintendent. A newly elected school board, replacing a state-appointed panel, has indicated it wants to select its schools chief to replace Vallas.

Vallas said he’s anxious to work for Quinn because “he’s a man of integrity and a lifelong public servant.”

“He attracts high-quality people around him in government and always has,” Vallas told me. “That’s a very important indicator of quality of leadership and I respect that.”

Echoing a theme repeated by Quinn for more than two years, Vallas said the state’s top priority should be pension reform.

Vallas is the sort of guy who can bring structure and organization to bureaucracies in chaos, and there have been times that the Quinn administration has seemed to lack focus.

Vallas, like Quinn, has survived decades of public service in Illinois without being tainted by political corruption, and that’s no small feat.

He’s a Southland guy who worked as a reformer within the Chicago political machine and later gained a world perspective by laboring with folks in some of the poorest places on the planet.

He may be playing second fiddle now, but he could lead the orchestra.



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