Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Vallas re-run would be a mistake

Al Hofeld. Al Salvi. And on a national scale, H. Ross Perot.

All three men have one thing in common. They ran for a large-scale political office and came so close to winning that they thought they had found their future – only to learn that their near-victory was just a fluke.

COULD WE SOMEDAY be adding the name of Paul Vallas to that list?

It’s a possibility, since Vallas seems to have dreams of becoming Illinois governor, even though he lost the Democratic primary for that office in 2002.

Vallas, for those with short memories, is the former Chicago Public Schools chief who – after losing the primary to now-Gov. Rod Blagojevich – left the Second City to become head of the school system in Philadelphia, and now is trying to rebuild a school system in New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

But Vallas made some high-profile appearances in Chicago on Monday, where he did all the “wink, winking” and “nudge, nudging” possible to let people here know he’d like to move back to the Chicago area once his contract in New Orleans expires (he has one more year to go in Louisiana).

HE SPOKE TO a City Club of Chicago luncheon, then appeared at an evening program at Northwestern University’s school of continuing studies where he talked about the problems that confront public education – not just in New Orleans, but in Chicago and just about everywhere else in the country.

It allowed him to appear to be a more authoritative figure in his field of specialty than Blagojevich ever appears to be as governor of Illinois. It stirs up the thoughts of those people who voted for Vallas in ’02 that he could run in ’10 and could provide a sense of re-writing history so that the Blagojevich years “never happened.”

What stirs up those people is the fact that Vallas actually got more votes than Blagojevich in Chicago proper. It was only because of a large vote margin in the rural parts of Illinois that Blagojevich was able to win the primary, and even then by only a 21,000 vote margin statewide (which is the size of about half a ward in Chicago, or a small suburb).

Now of course, Vallas is being diplomatic at this point. After all, it is still two more years until the next gubernatorial primary. But he says his reading of the news clippings coming out of Chicago makes him see political people who are “frustrated and angered” with Blagojevich.

“I COULD HAVE made a difference, I would have gotten along with the Legislature a lot better,” Vallas told the gathering at the City Club.

Maybe he would have. Of course, Vallas would have run into the initial opposition that Blagojevich got – he is the first Democrat in 26 years to serve as Illinois governor, and rural Republicans had come to see the Executive Mansion in Springfield as their political domain.

But he might have been able to build up a stronger Chicago support in the Legislature, which would mean that the Statehouse Scene would really have become an “urban vs. rural” brawl.

But what is more important is to realize that we will never know what Vallas would have accomplished in a term or two as governor. He didn’t win the primary.

FOR THAT MATTER, he didn’t even win the vote majority in Chicago. The large African-American population in the city gave its support to Roland Burris’ gubernatorial primary, resulting in him winning the city as a whole. It was the white ethnic parts of Chicago that wanted Vallas (who is of Greek descent) over Blagojevich (a Serbian-American).

Those feelings would not automatically transfer through an eight-year time period. Too much time has passed, and Vallas is just another failed candidate.

Names such as Madigan (as in Lisa), Hynes and Jackson (as in Jesse Jr.) are the more credible considerations for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010 – provided, that is, that Blagojevich were to change his mind and decide not to seek a third term of running Illinois government from his home office in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago.

My gut feeling says a Vallas ’10 campaign would turn to be a let-down, as he would never capture the sentiment that nearly saw him win the Democratic primary in ’02. The sooner he realizes that he had his chance, it didn’t happen, and he needs to move on with his life, the better off we Illinoisans all will be.

THAT’S WHY I bring up the names of Hofeld, Salvi and Perot. I suppose one could also throw Al Gore’s name into the mix, but thus far he has had the sense not to talk about running yet another campaign for president in this year’s elections.

Hofeld was the Chicago attorney with no prior electoral experience who ran for U.S. Senate in 1992 against incumbent Alan Dixon. He lost, but took enough support away from Dixon that Carol Moseley-Braun won that primary, and went on to win a six-year term in the Senate.

He took that notion of stealing support away from Dixon as evidence that he was qualified for political office and he got the Democratic nomination for Illinois attorney general – where he got beaten so badly by Republican Jim Ryan that he ended his dreams of winning electoral office.

Salvi got the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1996 and was at the top of the ticket for Illinois Republican voters. Unfortunately for him, opponent Richard Durbin successfully tagged him as some sort of right wing nut, and his presence on the ballot helped Illinois Republicans recover from the devastating losses of 1994 – when the GOP took control of the Legislature and all six state constitutional offices.

SALVI TRIED AGAIN in 1998, and wound up losing the Illinois secretary of state race to Jesse White. He has kept his own political ambitions in check, although his wife made a bid for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives.

Then, there’s Perot, whose campaign for president in 1992 caught the imagination of people who didn’t want George Bush the elder but whose conservative beliefs would keep them from ever casting ballots for a Democrat.

He didn’t win any electoral votes, but took 19 percent of the vote overall – a tremendous figure for a third-party campaign. His follow-up bid for president in 1996 didn’t even come close to that level – and political people haven’t heard much from H. Ross since then.

THERE IS ONE thing Salvi, Hofeld and Perot had in common – they all had significant personal wealth. They were able to pump significant amounts of cash into their own campaigns so as to ensure they could run competitively against opponents who were preferred by the party establishment.

That is one characteristic Vallas does not share. He had to struggle to pay off the debt from his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, and while he is earning a nice salary from his professional positions with various school boards, he is somebody who has to work for a living.

He doesn’t have the kind of money to pay for a credible campaign without outside donations. That could be the factor that spares us from adding to the list of political failures the name of “Vallas.”


EDITOR’S NOTES: Paul Vallas wants (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/news.pl?id=29198) to come back home.

How good a job is Paul Vallas doing in Louisiana? The New Orleans-based Times Picayune (http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/base/news-4/1209360005313340.xml&coll=1) offers its perspective.

Al Hofeld’s campaign activities these days are limited (http://fundrace.huffingtonpost.com/neighbors.php?type=name&lname=Hofeld&fname=Al) to writing out checks for political donations.

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