When he was Chicago Public Schools CEO, Paul Vallas developed a reputation as a control freak who thought he was the smartest guy in the room while he sometimes upstaged his boss, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
On Tuesday, the new Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful heaped praise on running mate Gov. Pat Quinn while pledging to "subordinate" himself and be a team player.
"Second fiddle, third fiddle, second banana, fifth banana, green bananas, it doesn't make any difference to me," Vallas said as Quinn looked on with a broad smile during a news conference at a Loop hotel. "I have no problem playing second fiddle or whatever instrument in the orchestra Pat wants me to play because I believe in Pat and I have confidence in him."
Despite the display of fealty during their public debut, Democrats and political analysts alike are wondering how long two politicians with not-insubstantial egos can coexist long enough to survive not only a yearlong campaign but their shared time in office should they win.
"It's certainly a high-risk, high-reward situation," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "I assume they'll be on message during the campaign in the interest of getting elected, but once you start governing and dealing with specific policies, Vallas certainly has the reputation and experience as someone who is used to making decisions and getting things done. The question is how that will fit with Quinn, who is known for a very tight inner circle and keeping counsel with himself."
Vallas, who lost the 2002 Democratic governor primary to Rod Blagojevich, is running for an office that has served as a political punch line in Illinois for decades, with one occupant quitting because he was bored, another briefly mulling a departure for a talk radio gig and a third hopeful resigning shortly after the primary election after unflattering revelations about his past.
The office has few prescribed duties in the Illinois Constitution, and neither Quinn nor Vallas shed much light Tuesday on what Vallas would be doing. Both politicians were quick to note their personal history, saying they've been friends for more than 30 years and are both fond of taking on difficult tasks.
"We'll have lots of missions together that will make our state better," Quinn said. "I see Paul as a partner, a teammate, somebody to work together with the rest of our team."
Vallas said he supported the governor's stance that the Chicago school board should be elected instead of appointed, but he was cut off when asked if Quinn's 2011 income tax increase should be extended as portions are set to expire beginning in 2015. Quinn took the microphone and said the focus first should be on reforming the state's highly indebted public employee pension system and that there will be time to talk about the tax issue during the campaign.
Regarding pensions, Vallas said he had some ideas but needed to discuss them further with the governor before making them known. Quinn has pushed unsuccessfully for pension reform for the past two years, though it's possible lawmakers could return to Springfield next month should agreement be reached.
After leaving CPS, Vallas headed public schools in Philadelphia, New Orleans and, most recently, Bridgeport, Conn. A Connecticut judge has ruled that Vallas did not hold the proper qualifications to be superintendent of the state's largest school system. Quinn did not announce his running mate choice until Friday, a few days after the pro-Vallas school board faction in Connecticut lost an election, meaning Vallas soon could have been dumped from his job there.
Vallas said he plans to continue to operate his lucrative education consulting firm while running for office but said he would not take on additional work from Illinois. The Illinois State Board of Education, which is overseen by Vallas friend Gery Chico, hired Vallas' firm last year to help increase scores at several low-performing schools. The contract was worth $307,000 and ended over the summer when budget cuts prevented the agreement from being renewed for another year, according to state education officials.
Last year, Vallas' firm partnered with another education consulting group to win a two-year contract worth up to $18 million to help improve Indianapolis public schools.
While Vallas has been hailed for his work, he's also faced plenty of criticism, including from a Chicago Teachers Union that argues his policies have led to firings of minority and veteran teachers, a wide expansion of standardized testing and more charter schools.
Indeed, Vallas said he was concerned that his history in public service might be a liability, acknowledging the "many controversial positions" he's held over the years. Vallas said ultimately his job isn't to help Quinn win votes at the ballot box, but govern once in office.
Vallas was a surprise pick for lieutenant governor after Quinn previously had courted several African-American candidates whose selection could have solidified his support among black voters. On Tuesday, the governor dismissed the notion that selecting Vallas could hurt his chances in that key voting bloc, saying he has a diverse Cabinet that should appeal to voters across the state.
Vallas fills the vacancy on the ticket left by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who has decided to run for comptroller. A new state law requires candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run as a team in the primary election.
Though Vallas brings pluses and minuses, some Democrats say Quinn made the right choice.
"When most people go to vote for governor, they don't vote because of the lieutenant governor candidate," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "But having said that, I don't know how he could have chosen someone who has made a bigger mark. This is a person who is a proven administrator who will hit the ground running."
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