"My home city, the city where I was born and raised, is facing extraordinary challenges. And I think it needs a problem solver:" An Interview With Paul Vallas
Many Chicagoans remember Paul Vallas for his time as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, from 1995-2001, and most people in the rest of the state remember him for his primary campaign against future governor Rod Blagojevich in 2002, which he very nearly won. After being away from city and state politics from 2002 through 2014, Vallas was on the ticket with Governor Pat Quinn that narrowly lost its campaign to Republican Bruce Rauner. Now, after planting his feet back in his hometown, Paul Vallas is running for mayor of Chicago. Here, in his own words, are his reasons for running, how he would address gentrifying neighborhoods, and a glimpse of his ethics plan for City Hall.
Why are you running for mayor?
Because the city that I love and the city that I grew up in is in deep trouble. Chicago has experienced probably the most significant decrease in its population among all the major cities. We've got a murder rate that exceeds L.A. and New York combined, the city itself has lost 17 percent of its residential property values since the 2008 Recession, in contrast to the growth in residential wealth nationwide of about 8 percent.
We've got economic development and investment going on in about 20 percent of the city. It's pretty much within a three mile radius of downtown. The rest of the city is either stagnant or going to significant economic decline. In fact, there are communities in Chicago that have been in a depression state for decades. The black employment in Chicago 16.5 percent; white unemployment is under five. This is a city [where] we've got lead in our water. We've lost 100,000 students from our schools and our community colleges, just in the last 10 years alone.
So the city's in deep trouble and I have always been an individual who has taken on major public service challenges. I straightened out the city's finances in the '90s, I averted the Chicago Public School crisis from 1995 to 2001, closed the $1 billion deficit and turned it into a billion dollars in cash balances. [I had] 70,000 more kids in school than [there are] today. After leaving Chicago I went to Philadelphia to financially bail out and revitalize those schools. After Katrina devastated New Orleans, I went to New Orleans to rebuild the schools. I did major relief work in Haiti and Chile after their respective earthquakes. So this is something that I've always done. I've always been the type of public servant who has responded to great challenges. And now my home city, the city where I was born and raised, is facing extraordinary challenges. And I think the city needs a problem solver.
So my combination of ideas and financial prowess, and my knowledge and familiarity with the community and its needs, and in my demonstrated capacity to do the things that are needed to benefit all Chicagoans, I think makes me the the prime candidate or the most prepared candidate to be mayor.
Chicago lost 156 residents every day in 2017 according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg. What will you do to reverse the trend of people leaving and make Chicago competitive with other large cities?
My approach is to going to develop a long term plan, normally a five year financial plan, that will bring financial stability to the city and will re-prioritize the allocation and expenditure of city resources so that the budget plan becomes a blueprint for growth.
And what does that mean? That means developing a long term financial plan that will provide the investments in public safety that will help restore and revive the police department and ensure that it has the infrastructure, not only the numbers, but the infrastructure, needed to be effective and to be accountable. On the economic development side that means taking full advantage of all the federal, state, and local incentives and resources that are available that can provide robust support for economic development initiatives that benefit the most neglected communities.
Specifically I'm talking about opportunity zones [and] taking full advantage of the federal opportunity zones program. That means earmarking a portion of Tax Increment Financing revenues into an equity investment fund so that we can match private investment with public investment and capital investment in the poorest communities, because these companies are capital-starved. That means taking the $20 billion that the city controls in revenues — it's not only the city budget, it's schools, it's CHA, the CTA, the park district, the airports — taking that $20 billion budget and adopting a "Buy Chicago, Sell Chicago, Hire Chicago" plan so that you're using the purchasing, the contracting, and the hiring powers available to the city to hire Chicagoans [and] to help provide economic opportunities for people in the poor communities.
The residents of some neighborhoods are worried about the effects of gentrification. Mayor Emanuel recently pushed through an affordable housing plan for Pilsen and Little Village to slow the rate of change in those areas. Do you support that plan, and what is your own plan to address neighborhood gentrification?
First of all, the mayor's plan doesn't go far enough. Not only has the city's response to gentrification been anemic at best, the city has done very little to promote affordable housing. And when these [aldermen] try to put out something in an election year they're doing very little new affordable housing but you have to spend a hell of a lot of money.
We need to do three things to expand affordable housing and to address the issue of transportation. First of all, the key is to create more supply than demand. If you remove the obstacles to the conversion of un-improved space, garden units, and allow landlords to add more units to their homes — or for that matter [allow] homeowners to add more units — if you allow people to do that you can create 150,000 additional affordable housing units literally overnight without an expenditure of taxpayers dollars. And let me point out that in Maldonado's ward alone if you converted the un-improved space to garden units, you could create 2,600 new units literally overnight. So there's no substitute for removing the obstacles to expanding the affordable housing market.
And if you take the 40,000-50,000 residential buildings that are not occupied and you turn those over to community-based organizations or community-based not-for-profits or local developers, and you give them ownership of the buildings with the city retaining an equity share, then you provide them some with some developer fee grant money to renovate those buildings and get those buildings back online, that's tens of thousands of other units that will be available and that will be affordable.
So you know, so I'm talking about real proposals that will dramatically expand the available housing stock and the affordable housing stack in virtually every community.
But ultimately, if you're going to address the issue of gentrification, besides expanding the pool of affordable homes to create more competition, you need to cap property taxes. In my financial plan, which fully funds the pensions and structurally balances the budget, it accomplishes those things while imposing a permanent property tax cap. No one's property taxes would rise by 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. So if you were in Pilsen or a Little Village or if you are on the North Side and suddenly a big development begins to drive up the value of your property by 20 percent, 30 percent, or 40 percent, your property tax would never rise more than one or two percent. That will ultimately contain, if not end gentrification, or at least extend the period that would allow the community to address it.
The Chicago Teachers Union yesterday released a list of demands in preparation for its next contract, which includes a 5 percent raise, and is projected to cost more than the union’s previous $8.9 billion contract that was ratified in 2016. If you are elected, how will you negotiate a new union contract?
I'll do what I did in 1995 with Chicago Public Schools and 1998 when I negotiated the second contract, in 2003 when I negotiated the new collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Teacher's Union or for that matter in 2012 when I negotiated a three year contract with the teachers union in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
I will lay out what the available revenue is as part of a long term financial plan, what the available revenue is over the next five years, and what my education priorities are. Those education priorities being: doing funding and supporting the essential practices and programs that contribute to education improvement and expand high quality educational services and offerings. And I will negotiate a contract around those parameters.
In the wake of Ald. Ed Burke’s indictment on extortion charges, what are the details of your ethics plan for City Hall?
I know having worked for Dawn Clark Netsch for 12 years in the legislature — and there was no one ever more ethical than Dawn Clark Netsch — some of these epic reforms have so many loopholes you can drive a Mack truck through it.
I believe that family members of elected officials should not be able to get contracts. We need to make sure that the laws regarding nepotism and contractual nepotism, let alone hiring nepotism, are very, very strong. I don't think alderman and elected officials should be able to earn second incomes. We pay our aldermen really well, our elected officials are adequately paid and compensated, especially with the benefits that go with it. I think that should be serious, substantive restrictions on the earning of outside income.
But most importantly, I believe that needs to be term limits. I believe there needs to term limits for the mayor and the City Council. And while term limits in the city council will certainly be an uphill climb, one thing that the the next mayor can do besides just advocating and pushing for term limits for his office, is to in effect term-limit the chairmanships of City Council committees. If you have rotating chairmanships that will also go a long way.
Term limits and rotating chairmanships I think will go a long way towards [getting at] the root causes of pay-to-play, and one of the root causes is longevity. You move into these positions of responsibility and you move into these positions of power, and over time you become comfortable with the power you wield and with the benefits and perks that you're able to obtain by virtue of your position. So there's no substitute for term limits for the mayor or for the City Council, and there's no substitute for term limits for City Council committee chairs.