Schooling Democrats

Former CPS chief Paul Vallas is eyeing a run for governor—maybe as a Republican.

Former Chicago schools chief Paul G. Vallas, who lost to Rod Blagojevich by just 25,000 votes in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, says he’s “open” to another try for the Executive Mansion in 2010.  If he runs, he says, he would emulate Barack Obama’s campaign strategy of raising funds through the Internet. Who wouldn’t? More surprisingly, though, he says he might also take a page out of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s playbook by switching parties and running as a Republican.

“Less important than which party you are running in is what you are running for,” Vallas, now the schools superintendent in New Orleans, told Chicago in an interview. “I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, but when I ran last time, it’s not like I had a lot of support from establishment Democrats. I had a huge number of Republican crossover votes from the suburbs.”

Vallas insists that he is committed to his New Orleans job through July 2009 and is far from officially declaring any political ambitions in Illinois. Still, he makes clear that he would like to return to the Chicago area—where his wife and two younger sons still live.

In that 2002 race, Blagojevich raised more campaign funds than Vallas by better than a 3-to-1 margin. Yet critics said Vallas failed to wage an effective statewide campaign, in part because he does not like to fly. (Vallas says he has overcome his “reluctance” to fly, although he adds, “I’m not going to win any frequent flying miles.")

Vallas hinted at his intentions during a recent appearance at the City Club. Thomas F. Roeser, a conservative Republican activist and pundit, says Vallas told him then that he might run as a Republican “if the Democrats don’t want him because of the voucher thing.” Vallas expressed support for school vouchers, a controversial proposal that critics say would subsidize private schools at the expense of public schools. Democratic-leaning teachers’ unions oppose voucher plans.

Vallas does not specifically endorse vouchers but says he has “become even stronger on expanding school choice.” Meanwhile, Vallas says, “Democrats control every statewide office that they dreamed about all the years Republicans were governor, and they still have not addressed issues of school funding, economic development, ethics.”

A crowded Democratic field might make a Republican candidacy look more attractive—as it did for Bloomberg, a Democrat twice elected mayor of New York as a Republican. Blagojevich has not said whether he will seek reelection in two years, and other potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates include attorney general Lisa Madigan, lieutenant governor Pat Quinn, state comptroller Dan Hynes, and state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

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