Paul Vallas, the tall, wonkish former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, is taking heavy fire from the eight other candidates in the Chicago mayoral race. The nonpartisan election is February 28, and Vallas, who has never held elective office, has risen to the top, or close to it, in recent polls. White in a majority-minority city and turning 70 years old this spring, he’s an unlikely top contender to unseat Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is fighting for a second term. Lightfoot made history as the city’s first Black female mayor—she is also its first openly gay mayor—but her first term was tumultuous as it’s been for many leaders of big cities these past four years. Her fate is telling about the perils facing American mayors grappling with a perilous pandemic, the aftermath of school closures, and high crime rates, which may not match their 1990s peaks but are still roiling the citizenry. The rise of Vallas, like that of Mayor Eric Adams in New York, suggests big city voters are open to Democrats who appear ready to fight the current wave of urban blight with new ideas and no-quarter for crime.
Public safety is issue number one, two, and three. Chicagoans are a hardy lot but unsettled, if not frightened, by the steep rise in murders, thefts, and carjackings in recent years. Motor vehicle thefts doubled last year, from 10,590 in 2021 to 21,425 in 2022. Safety concerns can’t be separated from economic concerns. A wave of smash-and-grab robberies in 2020 along Michigan Avenue and State Street stores downtown—the posh Magnificent Mile retail shopping area—and parts of the affluent Gold Coast and Near North Side in 2020 left stores damaged and customers and business owners shaken. The widespread lawlessness, replayed in graphic videos, came amid the rise of COVID-19—and after the murder of George Floyd and a police shooting on the South Side. It kept customers away. A number of popular stores along the Magnificent Mile have announced their departure, including Banana Republic, Macy’s, the Gap, Uniqlo, and Timberland.
This bodes ill for Lightfoot as she faces the city’s voters. In a recent poll, 61 percent of Chicagoans disapproved of Lightfoot’s performance. Yet she can’t be counted out. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote—and polls indicate no one will—there will be a runoff for mayor between the top two vote-getters on April 4. An early February poll by Northwestern University shows Lightfoot in third place with 14 percent, a terribly weak showing for an incumbent, yet only three points short of making the runoff.
Ahead of Lightfoot are Vallas, at 19 percent, making his second bid for mayor, and U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, at 17 percent, running as a progressive consensus-builder. But anyone who believes we need a fresh injection of innovative policy ideas to revitalize our cities will be intrigued by Vallas, who is running on a sheaf of multi-point plans. He has economic development ideas, including a new independent Community Development Authority (CDA) composed of local contractors to spur investment in the long-neglected South and West Sides. The goal is to lift these poorer areas toward a more thriving, self-sustaining, locally owned model that addresses the root causes of the violence, hopelessness, and urban decay they face. On crime, Vallas would add over 1,000 police officers to the force, bolster the city’s witness protection program, rebuild the detective ranks to 10 percent of overall staffing, and bring back hundreds of retired officers who could aid detectives with analysis and ensure that victims and witnesses are protected. On education, he would expand school choice, extend school hours to nights and weekends, and get more money from the central administration invested in the actual classrooms.
There is an argument to make that Lightfoot has managed the myriad crises as well or better than other big city mayors. She has taken on thankless tasks, such as shoring up the city’s underfunded pensions. And Lightfoot’s sometimes brusque style—probably judged more harshly because she’s female and Black—hasn’t always helped. One lawsuit the mayor faced last year claimed she used obscenities to defame a former park district attorney in a dispute over the previously removed Christopher Columbus statues in the city. Lightfoot called the lawsuit “wholly without merit.” She is also saddled with a progressive prosecutor who has been criticized for being slow to prosecute violent crimes, including a gang shootout that left one shooter dead and two suspects wounded in the Austin neighborhood in 2021. The five suspects in the shooting were freed without being charged, allegedly because they were considered “mutual combatants” in a gun battle they willingly fought.
Chicago has faced a 41-percent surge in violent crime in the past year, and it is up more than 30 percent overall since Lightfoot took office. The number of homicides, 695 in 2022, fell 14 percent from the prior year—but that’s up 39 percent since Lightfoot’s first year in office.
Chicago is far from the most dangerous city regarding the murder rate per 100,000 residents. The Windy City has 24 murders per 100,000 residents and, by that measure, ranks 10th on one list of dangerous U.S. cities, with the top three being St. Louis, Baltimore, and New Orleans. However, by the sheer number of people murdered last year, Chicago still tops that tragic list by a wide margin. To be fair, certain crimes spiked in many cities during the pandemic, such as nonresidential burglaries (up 11 percent) and motor vehicle thefts (up 21 percent). In contrast, others, like aggravated assaults and gun violence, actually declined in 2022. The national murder rate declined again last year, by 4 percent, in a survey of 27 cities that report homicide statistics. The national homicide rate is still up significantly (34 percent) from 2019, the year before the pandemic.
“The city is in crisis,” Vallas told me at a recent campaign event at a restaurant in the South Loop, a trendy, gentrified section of the city near Downtown Chicago, where supporters lined up to shake his hand and hear his ideas. In two interviews, Vallas ticked off the issues he blames Lightfoot for failing to address sufficiently. He cited the spike in violent crime since the Mayor won in 2019, insufficient investment in public schools and poor communities, and not doing enough to reverse “historic disinvestment” in the city’s most impoverished communities.
This campaign has evoked critical national battles over police reform and racial justice. How Chicago Democrats address these issues in the next two years may influence elections across the country in 2024. After all, Republicans love to bash Democrats for high crime in big blue cities, especially Chicago. They don’t want voters to notice that, according to the centrist Third Way think tank, red states have a higher murder rate than blue states.
And often, voters don’t notice. Stoking panic over crime last November helped Republicans win several upsets in New York City-area congressional races and protect a vulnerable Senate seat in Wisconsin. Schoolmarm fact-checking isn’t going to help Democrats flip the script. They need successful policies that markedly improve the lives of people who live, work, and play in our cities.
“It’s not just about Chicago,” former Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mayor Bill Finch, a Democrat, told me. “People around the country want to help big cities, the middle class, and public schools. Chicago is the most important city in the country for this. It looks like America. It’s not on either coast. You have to get back to real solutions,” argued Finch, who, as mayor, worked closely with Vallas when the latter ran Bridgeport’s schools in 2012-14. Finch has visited Chicago twice to support Vallas’ campaign, noting, “He’s a compassionate mechanic who can make cities better, and he cares about core values.”
On his tour of the city’s wards, where many undecided voters have come to hear what solutions the compassionate mechanic offers, Vallas has been blunt about the stakes in Chicago. Born in Chicago of Greek descent, Vallas rose to be Chicago’s revenue director, city budget director, and schools CEO under former Mayor Richard M. Daley in the 1990s, and he went on to lead school systems in Philadelphia and post-Katrina New Orleans, as well as Bridgeport, and even post-earthquake school systems in Haiti and Chile. But overall, his reputation for bringing analytical thinking and turnaround solutions to intractable problems has helped his rise in the polls.
Vallas may not be the most ideologically progressive candidate in the race, but when it comes to policy ideas, he likes to go big. When he ran for mayor of Chicago the last time in 2019 and lost, he proposed a Chicago Marshall Plan that would have tapped Trump-era “Opportunity Zone” tax breaks to encourage investment in the crime-torn South and West Sides. This time he is promoting a “second Burnham Plan,” taking the name from legendary Chicago urban planner Daniel Burnham, who famously said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
Vallas’s reincarnation of Burnham’s idea is a sweeping five-part economic development plan that would rely on his proposed Community Development Authority (CDA) to put planning decisions in the hands of community leaders and organizations, not City Hall. He would devote a third of the revenues of Chicago’s casino, sports betting, developer fees, and tax increment financing districts to the targeted neighborhoods. Additionally, he would create a Fair Share Investment Trust to hold and reinvest public and private money in longer-term investments, as well as reclaim and repurpose vacant and idle properties across the South and West Sides. This municipal investment fund would extend commercial and mortgage loans to projects approved by the CDA to help local businesses and family homeowners.
On public safety, Vallas has outlined a 10-point plan to beef up the Chicago Police Department by adding hundreds more officers and detectives, including using funds now going to contract security personnel on the CTA for putting more police officers on trains and platforms. He would dismiss current Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown and his leadership team. He would stop what he called a “demoralizing and delegitimizing ‘Friends and Family’ system of promotions” and instead base promotions in the department on objective performance criteria, experience, and competence rather than on such things as social connections.
Vallas also advocates a return to the community policing model to get cops out of squad cars and on the streets, steering more resources to individual police. “You need to limit these large citywide units that can lead to abuse, as we saw in Memphis,” he says. In addition, he would restore community-based social services and a community mental health center to each police district so cops can focus on crimes and social workers can help at-risk human beings.
If elected mayor, Vallas vows to prioritize school safety after attendance fell sharply and violence around schools spiked during the pandemic. An estimated 80 percent of CPS students are reading below grade level, and nearly 200 students have been lost to violence, 95 percent of whom should have been in school, he told me. His school reforms would include getting more funds into the districts and the classrooms, giving principals and the community more say in spending decisions, providing parents more school choices—including magnet and charter schools—and keeping schools open into the evening, weekends, and holidays to make up lost instructional time. (His leading opponents have been more critical of charter schools.) Lightfoot has also touted her post-pandemic efforts to keep students in classrooms longer to make up lost time and to help them with additional after-school programs. Garcia supporters have criticized unlimited charter school options because they feel that limits inclusion.
As Vallas has risen in polls thanks to his reputation as a creative manager and policy innovator, his rivals question whether his reputation is warranted. For example, Garcia and others argue that the city pension debt grew when he was budget director. (Vallas denies this.) Indeed, as CEO, Vallas took advantage of a change in state law to delay putting funds into the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ pension fund, using them instead to operate and invest in schools. But he argues a booming economy kept it growing at a healthy rate, while critics and opponents like Garcia see the current CPS pension problems as having stemmed from that decision.
Lightfoot has questioned whether Vallas could match her in fighting crime, noting that murders soared to about 950 in one year in Chicago in the 1990s, when Vallas was budget director under Daley. “This man has no plan to keep Chicago safe,” she charged, “and he’s embellishing all of the other parts of his so-called public safety bona fides.” At the same time, she is challenging Vallas’ loyalty to the Democratic Party, airing an ad with a 2009 clip of him saying, “I am more of a Republican than a Democrat now.”
Looking ahead to a potential runoff with Vallas, Garcia sharpens his rhetorical knives. The congressman representing southwest and northwest Chicago argues Vallas has moved from job to job and left things in “shambles” in some of them. “Vallas isn’t Mr. Fix-it,” Garcia told me. “He runs the clock out in these positions and then flees and leaves others holding the bag once he’s gone. And he’s been freed of accountability and responsibility as he absconds to another city to begin the same performance. He likes to call himself a turnaround executive, and after a few years, he’s gone from there and leaves people disgruntled.”
Garcia agrees with Vallas on the need to fire the police superintendent and put cops back on the beat in neighborhoods. But the stout progressive who endorsed Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and challenged incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 promotes himself as the real doer, with years of experience working with local, state, and federal officials, as well as a record of coalition-building. He touts support from 16 labor unions and his work with leaders in Washington, D.C., and Springfield to fund projects in Chicago. Garcia warns that Vallas “is an unknown factor in many respects. His history is pretty abysmal.”
Vallas calls his opponents’ criticism “hogwash,” noting he has left previous posts getting some rave reviews. He claims when he left as CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 2001 after six years, he left behind a $1 billion surplus, 70,000 more students enrolled, healthier schools, and 12 bond rating upgrades. That’s true, although Vallas did have help from that change in state law that freed up more flexibility on spending school revenues, including a choice not to contribute as much to fund teachers pensions as the dot-com bubble was keeping them funded at the time through investments. The teachers’ pension fund was fully funded when he left, but the underfunded portion rose in subsequent years.
Philadelphia magazine called Vallas “the most effective school reformer in a generation” when his tenure was ending in 2007. Still, he resigned after five years after it was revealed the district had overspent and faced big deficits. Test scores went up under his leadership, 33 new smaller high schools opened, early childhood education programs nearly doubled, more teachers were retained, and more students were taking Advanced Placement courses and the SAT—despite high dropout rates, school crime, and the red ink. While it wasn’t clear Vallas was responsible for the financial shortfall, it happened on his watch. After clashing with some members of the School Reform Commission, he moved on to New Orleans, where his brand of bold reform was desired following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
It’s very hard to have a record of executive management without some blemishes, but right now, that’s a much bigger political problem for the incumbent mayor than for Vallas. Lightfoot has acknowledged the public frustrations: “The work isn’t done. We’ve been through hell and back over the last four years.” But she is gamely trying to make the case that her critics ignore what has been accomplished under difficult circumstances. In one debate, reacting to Vallas’s police reform plans, she declared that “almost everything” Vallas said about crime in one answer—including claims of declining arrests, murder clearance rates, offering witnesses more protection, filling police vacancies, adding more detectives, and opening schools evenings and weekends – is “categorically untrue.” She noted that 956 police officers were hired in 2022, and more than 300 officers were promoted to detectives in the past two years. “You should know that if you want to be mayor of Chicago,” she told him.
A former federal prosecutor and law firm partner, Lightfoot is a no-nonsense chief executive with a progressive bent. She appointed the city’s first chief equity officer and laid out a strategic plan to help dismantle the structural racial disparities in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city with 2.7 million people. She argues in debate after debate that she has made steady progress in tough times and needs four more years to finish the job.
“Our initiative to invest in 10 historically neglected neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides that for years were starved is creating real economic development that will last a lifetime,” Lightfoot said in written answers to my questions. The mayor also touted the rebuilding of Chicago’s economy— “one of America’s most robust in the post-pandemic world”—and noted that more than 350 companies are relocating or expanding their footprint in Chicago. “We’ve shored up our city finances, and for the first time, are pre-paying our pension obligation thanks to an historic casino deal,” she added. The mayor’s statement added that her administration has invested record funding in the police department, beefed up recruiting and retention, and confiscated a record number of illegal guns.
“The mayor is smart and energetic, but the questions she faces are two things: She happens to be mayor at a time when public safety concerns have swelled, and she famously has a problem getting along with people,” said David Axelrod, the former chief strategist and senior advisor to President Barack Obama. Axelrod told me he didn’t see Garcia “conveying the hunger of a Vallas” in this race. “Vallas has assembled the most professional team he has ever had, and he has run for office before. He has been focused on public safety, and that’s the number one issue. He owns that issue right now,” added Axelrod, a CNN commentator and founding director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. “If Vallas were to win, that would be a message about the primacy of the public safety issue.”
But can Vallas win? Whatever you think of his record as an executive, his record as a candidate is abysmal. He flubbed Democratic races for governor in 2002 (losing the primary to Rod Blagojevich), for lieutenant governor in 2014 (running on the ill-fated ticket with Governor Pat Quinn), and for mayor of Chicago in 2019 (placing a weak ninth in a field of 14). Yet his performance to date suggests he has learned from his losses. He has stayed laser-focused on public safety and won endorsements from the Chicago Tribune and the Fraternal Order of Police, a group he helped advise when they negotiated their last contract.
However, even though he may be the frontrunner and could make the runoff, his prospects for the general election are less clear. In a February poll from WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times, and NBC5/Telemundo Chicago, Vallas beats Lightfoot in a runoff by 13 but loses to Garcia by 11. As it stands, he can beat an unpopular incumbent, but his technocratic appeal may be limited against a progressive organizer.
“Who do you want for mayor?” Edwin Eisendrath, a former Chicago alderman and entrepreneur, asked. “If you are really divided in this city, which we are, you want someone with a record for bringing people together. You need someone who has real political skills and the relationships we need to get the job done. And that favors Chuy (Garcia). I don’t think Vallas can beat Lightfoot, given that a lot of his money is Republican money,” added Eisendrath, former CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times. “We are still in a very frightening crime wave that has captured the attention of everyone, everywhere, in every neighborhood. We are a divided city—and have been for a long time–but divided and afraid is a new thing, and that is a reality.”
Garcia is the only Latino candidate in the race, and Vallas is the only white candidate. The other seven are African Americans, which could hurt Lightfoot if the Black community’s votes are split. She has trained her attacks lately on Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, teacher, and organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union who has labor support—including the CTU, which endorsed his candidacy. That may raise concerns in the Lightfoot campaign that Johnson could siphon away votes and edge her out of the runoff.
Interestingly, none of the nine candidates has advocated outright for defunding the police, observed Christopher Berry, a professor, and director of the Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “If there is a lesson here for the nation, it is that even here among the most progressive sector of the electorate, people are fed up with crime, and no one is saying ‘defund.’”