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Vallas is no second banana

But he'll have to play one for Quinn's campaign — and his own future

John Kass

November 10, 2013

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Can Paul Vallas possibly play second banana?

Though I know Vallas well, even I can't answer that one. And I doubt Gov. Pat Quinn knows either. When I interview both men this week, I'll ask them.

Whether Vallas can rein in his personality is a question, yes.

But for Quinn, Vallas might already be the answer to his re-election.

Quinn shocked the political establishment last week when he named Vallas as his running mate for lieutenant governor.

"Gov. Quinn has put together a very strong ticket," said Gery Chico, a Vallas ally who was Chicago school board president when Vallas was the Chicago schools CEO. "Paul is one of the most talented people I've ever worked with. He's got an intimate knowledge of state government and state finance and education. He brings strength."

Yes, but he also brings risk. Vallas is not your average second banana. He's not a second banana, period. The mercurial Vallas should have been elected governor over Rod Blagojevich in 2002. If Vallas had won, his lieutenant governor would have been Pat Quinn.

But back then, the regular Chicago Democrats sliced Vallas up. And Vallas left town for school reform jobs in Philadelphia, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Haiti and most recently Connecticut.

Blagojevich left town, too, eventually, for the federal penitentiary in Englewood, Colo.

The safe choice for Quinn last week, according to the common wisdom, would have been an African-American Democrat as his running mate. There were good candidates available. City Treasurer Stephanie Neely and state Sen. Kwame "The Kwamenator" Raoul come to mind.

Both are qualified. Each should eventually win higher office. I can see either one as mayor of Chicago someday, although with the city's bond debt approaching $20 billion, I don't know who'd want the job.

No one would have been surprised if Raoul or Neely or a like candidate had been put on Quinn's ticket. And the Republican candidates would have yawned.

But Quinn didn't make the safe choice. Instead, he chose Vallas, the nationally known school reformer, budget hawk and former Chicago schools chief. And the Republicans didn't yawn.

Instead, both businessman Bruce Rauner and state Sen. Kirk Dillard issued statements trying to knock Vallas. Opposing candidates hardly ever notice some obscure running mate in another party, at least publicly.

The eagles don't hunt flies.

But for Dillard and Rauner to react this way tells me something. It tells me Vallas bothers them. And with good reason.

Independent suburbanites most likely will make the difference in the gubernatorial election, particularly suburban women. Vallas, who did well in the suburbs in his losing 2002 Democratic campaign for governor, is publicly identified with two issues important to suburban women: fiscal responsibility and education.

Vallas plays well in the suburbs. He's known. He's already defined himself. And that demographic of fiscally conservative suburban social moderates is the one that Rauner is trying to reach.

What surprises me is that Rauner didn't get Vallas on his side. Vallas had soured on the Democrats after the 2002 campaign, and even considered running as a Republican for the Cook County Board. The two of them — with their knowledge of budgets and finance — would have been formidable.

Remember that in 2002, Vallas had already fallen out with then-Mayor Richard Daley. Daley had isolated him. And Daley's brother William toyed with the idea of running for governor, and big-money types paused for a bit, not knowing whether the Boss' brother was serious.

Bill Daley wasn't that serious. He bailed, just like he did a few weeks ago. Blagojevich had an organization and cash. And so the regular Democrats for Blagojevich chopped Vallas up.

Out on the Northwest Side, then-state Sen. Jimmy DeLeo, D-How You Doin?, and his boys were working overtime for Blagojevich. The Coalition for Better Government — a collection of tough guys in leather jackets and gold chains — worked hard for Blago.

And on the South Side, Roland Burris, the lone African-American candidate, began taking votes from Vallas. It could have been a coincidence, if there are such things in the mathematics of Illinois politics.

By the time the Democratic primary was over, Blagojevich had 36 percent of the vote, Vallas had 34 percent and Burris 29 percent. Burris had done what was expected of him, and Blago was the king.

Voters don't remember such things. But politicians don't forget. And Vallas hasn't forgotten.

Looking forward, the short-term strategic objective for Quinn is to win re-election, and Vallas should help him there.

I'd suspect the long-term objective for Vallas is to adapt to this new role, bide his time, and be prepared to eventually run again for the top spot, presumably against Boss Madigan's daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the next time around.

But that's just my own speculation about an uncertain and unpredictable future. And if Vallas wants a future, he'll have to fight that urge to step forward and answer the questions with Quinn around.

"Yes, Paul has a big personality," said a source close to Quinn. "We all know that. But Gov. Quinn has a big personality too. They both have their hearts out there. No question there are going to be bumps in the road along the way. But the bottom line is that they get results, and they're a great team."

Well, they're a great lineup for now. Whether they're a great team won't be determined until later in the campaign, after they've held joint news conferences and shared microphones.

It's a long time until March.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass