Paul Vallas earned the nickname “Dr. Yes” during his days as city revenue director, budget director and Chicago Public Schools CEO under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“He said ‘yes’ to anything anybody ever asked for,” then found a way to pay for it, a former colleague said.
Now, Dr. Yes is poised to ask Chicago voters to say “yes” to his candidacy for mayor in a campaign against embattled incumbent Rahm Emanuel that’s just over one year away.
Vallas’ first hurdle — now that he has established residency by buying a home in Lincoln Park — is to gather the 12,500 signatures needed to get on the ballot with enough cushion to survive an expected petition challenge.
He also must raise at least $5 million to get his message out — and introduce himself to a generation of voters unfamiliar with his widely acclaimed tenure as schools CEO.
Victor Reyes is a former Daley political operative who ran the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization at the center of the city hiring scandal.
Reyes said Vallas’ principal path to victory is to “re-connect with the black community” enough to hold Emanuel under 50 percent of the African-American vote.
“The combination that got the mayor elected every time has been some Latino vote, white vote, but over 50 percent of the black vote,” Reyes said.
“Vallas will get his fair share of Southwest Side and Northwest Side bungalow belt [voters] who are not happy with Rahm for the $1 billion in taxes,” he said. “But the bottom line is keeping Rahm down in the black community.”
Reyes pointed to a poll of 400 likely Democratic voters conducted Jan. 22-28 in five predominantly Hispanic wards on Chicago’s South and Southwest Sides: the 12th, 13th, 14th, 23rd and 25th.
It shows Emanuel’s running battle against President Donald Trump over immigration and Trump’s threat to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities has barely moved the needle for the mayor.
“DACA and immigration reform are powerful issues. But the poll shows Rahm is not getting any bump off of it” with 67 percent of those surveyed rating his performance as mayor fair or poor, Reyes said of the poll, conducted in connection with a county race.
Rev. James Meeks, pastor of the massive Salem Baptist Church, said it’s tough to gauge Vallas’ chances of holding Emanuel under 50 percent of the black vote.
“He was once very popular. That’s true. But I’m not 100 percent sure that he enjoys that same popularity because he’s been gone. Once you’re out of the spotlight, you’re out of the spotlight,” said Meeks, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.
To rekindle the star power among African-Americans that nearly made Daley afraid to fire his schools CEO, Meeks said Vallas “would have to start meeting some needs in the black community.”
“You have to get in the community. You have to be active. You have to be doing something in that community to show them that you’re there,” said Meeks, who says he will decide whom to support when he sees who’s running.
A prominent African-American politician, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating Emanuel, argued that Vallas has “instant credibility” in the black community because of his “track record and his passion and dedication for kids. Everybody remembers everything that he did.”
“Four years ago, the African-American community had no confidence that Chuy [Garcia] could run this city. So there was no alternative [to Emanuel]. Now, there’s an alternative. If there’s a runoff, it won’t be close,” the alderman said. “All [Vallas] has to do is get around. Meet with people he’s known for years. Get the word out that he’s back. He doesn’t have to do much to get name recognition. He just has to get his message out on what he’s gonna do different.”
Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of SEIU Local 1, said there is “no way in God’s green earth” that the union that is among those that purchased the Chicago Sun-Times would ever back Vallas.
“This is a guy who helped create the pension crisis in our state, privatized thousands of janitors’ jobs when he was at CPS, privatized schools all over the country,” Morrison said.
“Bruce Rauner can put all the money he wants into Paul Vallas’ campaign. He ain’t gonna elect a union-busting, anti-worker Republican in a Democratic city.”
Vallas countered, “I haven’t talked to Bruce Rauner about funding my campaign.”
In 2011, Meeks flirted with running for mayor before endorsing former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun over Emanuel.
At the time, Meeks argued that Emanuel, former President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff, had “never done anything” for African-Americans.
Four years later, Meeks endorsed Emanuel, arguing that the incumbent mayor had taken an unfair political “beating” among black voters for closing a record 50 public schools.
Fighting for his political life in Chicago’s first mayoral runoff, Emanuel managed to get just over 64 percent of the white vote, 57.3 percent of the black vote and 39 percent among Hispanics.
But only after spending $24 million — four times more than Garcia, a relative political unknown.
Duplicating that performance will be a difficult task, considering the furor in the black community caused by Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Emanuel waited until after he was safely re-elected to release the video that showed white police officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots at the black teenager while McDonald was walking away from police with a knife in his hand. The mayor released the video only after a judge ordered the city to do so.
Some political observers still believe there’s a slim chance that Emanuel opts to retire from politics, rather than risk the chance of a humiliating defeat.
They note that Emanuel has not yet revved up his legendary fundraising machine. He has less than $2.1 million in the bank.
They expect him to do constant polling and keep a close eye on the McDonald murder trial. If Van Dyke is acquitted, racial tensions are inflamed and Emanuel’s poll numbers plummet, all bets are off.
“He does not want to be embarrassed. He does not want to go out a loser. It all depends on what the polls are saying,” Reyes said.
“Guys like Rahm — just like Rich [Daley] — have to decide, `Does he want to go through this s— and get his ass kicked? Maybe he pulls it off. Maybe he doesn’t. At the end of the day, Rahm may say, `I don’t want to put myself, my family, the city through this.’ … Everything in the polls that I’ve seen has the electorate pissed about everything. I would not want to be running defending the status quo.”
Vallas refused to discuss his political strategy or outline his path to victory. His brother and chief strategist, Dean Vallas, could not be reached.
Emanuel has already signaled his line of attack. He plans to portray Vallas as the “architect of kicking the can down the road” and creating the pension disaster Emanuel inherited.
“It took the city of Chicago seven long, hard years to fix what he broke and was the architect of breaking,” Emanuel said last week. “It’s not gonna be back to the future. . . . We’re not gonna have Ground Hog Day again here in Chicago. It’s not gonna happen.”