Quinn's pick of feisty Vallas a pleasant surprise

Like just about everyone else, I expected Gov. Pat Quinn to choose an up-and-coming Illinois Democrat to be his running mate — an ethnic minority, a woman or both. The party needs to deepen its bench and reach out to emerging communities if it's going to maintain its hold on power.

And even though the job of lieutenant governor comes with no portfolio and has a pulpit too small to be called "bully," it has been a political notch not only for Quinn but also for Paul Simon (U.S. senator), Neil Hartigan (state attorney general) and George Ryan (governor).

So Quinn's selection of itinerant school superintendent Paul Vallas, announced Friday, was startling. Vallas, like Quinn, is a balding white guy in his 60s from a fading political era — he ran a close second to Rod Blagojevich for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002. And he's lurched from controversy to controversy as an education reformer since his days as Chicago Public Schools CEO (1995-2001) in a way to thrill opposition researchers.

In fact, just last week voters in Bridgeport, Conn., where Vallas is now superintendent of schools, gave him what amounted to a vote of no confidence when they elected a pro-union, anti-Vallas majority to the local board of education.

But Vallas is also widely admired for his brainy, blunt authenticity, qualities that may cause him to overshadow Quinn during the campaign and that have already prompted many to suggest wryly that the Democratic ticket is upside down.

I like the Vallas choice in part for that reason — Vallas is the only candidate for lieutenant governor who's clearly ready to take over the top job if necessary — and in part because he's one of the few public figures I've covered who doesn't shy from getting into shouting matches on the phone with, say, columnists with whose observations he's taken exception.

Indeed, I look forward to hearing from him soon.

Hesitating on the precipice of the future

After mulling it over for a moment, I decided to turn down the opportunity to subscribe to replacement heads for my electric toothbrush. But I have regrets.

The back story: I went to my local chain pharmacy outlet the other day and found that it didn't stock refills for my brand of toothbrush. So, back at home, I went to the online retailer Amazon.com and ordered four. At checkout, I saw an offer to have a similar order automatically mailed to me on a regular schedule.

Turns out that offer is part of Amazon's "Subscribe & Save" program that offers discounts and free shipping on certain nonperishable household items if the customer agrees to receive them at regular intervals.

The program isn't new, but it was new to me, so I balked. I imagined the downside — a broken device, a surfeit of useless brushes — and clicked "no."

But as I've learned more and had time to reflect, I've come to believe that people of tomorrow with dental hygiene needs will not be so skittish.

Subscription toothbrushes — along with subscription dishwasher and laundry soap, batteries, ground coffee, over-the-counter medication and all the other stuff you regularly run out of — is a great idea, as long as the price is competitive (it is) and cancellation is simple (it is).

Please Mr. Postman, look and see

If there's some toilet paper in your bag for me.

An enterprising New York Times reporter compared the price of a collection of "Subscribe & Save" goods to the price of a similar collection purchased at a Costco warehouse store in 2011. And though he found Costco 17-percent cheaper, he noted that Amazon's selection was greater on many products and that his calculation didn't include the value of the customer's time.

What will happen to chain pharmacies and other bricks-and-mortar stores in the age of online subscription shopping? My guess is they'll get in the game too.

Radio name-game follow up follow-up

In a recent column, I suggested "Joel Lisinski" as the air name for new country station WUSN-FM 99.5 disc jockey Joel Lisinski, but, as blogger Robert Feder reported last week, he's going with "Jax."

If you can't spare me the pieties, at least spare me the pieties about the pieties

The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard the latest church/state case, this one concerning a New York town that kicks off its monthly board meetings with prayers that are almost exclusively Christian.

I've come to accept that I'm in a helpless minority in my opposition even to rote, ceremonial injections of religion into government matters. It's tradition. It's a hat tip to our heritage.

But I'll never accept the argument that it's not intended to be subtly coercive, that one of its purposes is to imply that if you don't share the belief expressed in the prayer or the display or the motto on the money, you're an outsider, you don't fully belong.

You can have your public prayers — I'm betting the court will give the town the OK — but please stop lying about why you want them.

Comment on this column at chicagotribune.com/zorn

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