This is the second in a series of stories in which Barthwell, a pop culture writer and Second City instructor, embeds with top candidates in what promises to be the most wide-open mayoral race in this city’s modern history.
Fortunately for me, when I set out to join Paul Vallas’s campaign last week, the staffers’ phones were still all connected, and no one had quit in a rage — unlike the last time I embedded with a Chicago mayoral hopeful. But there were still fireworks: With the federal indictment of Ed Burke the prior week, the candidates were working hard to distance themselves from the notorious alderman. Was every day in this race marked by drama?
When I arrived at the campaign headquarters, Vallas was seated at a big conference table, chatting on the phone. He was surrounded by papers and folders and a book titled The Beginning of the End of Racism in America. Oh, so we’re doing this.
To be a politician, I imagine you must get comfortable with delivering a quippy distillation of your message. This is not Paul Vallas. He speaks with footnotes. He would mention something to me, walk halfway across his spacious campaign office, then turn around because he misquoted Picasso or wanted to tell me about his favorite Ancient Greek historian. I kept joking to the photographer from Chicago magazine that by the end of the two days, my notebook would be filled with just quotes shared by Vallas.
One of my favorite Vallas anecdotes is that he captured a frame of Robert Duvall in Apocolypse Now and added the caption, “I love the smell of public policy in the morning! Smells like victory!” That’s a policy wonk, friends.
In the Paul Vallas campaign headquarters, there is a whole lot of business around the care and feeding of Paul Vallas. His staff would poke their head into the conference room that served as Vallas’s office and check in on his basic needs. His director of communications, Tressa Pankovits, or his sister, Marianne Kountoures, would offer him oatmeal or let him know that the Instant Pot chili was ready. More than one sandwich was dropped on the table in front of him. Vallas would often shout, “I’ve been fed!” before leaving the office.
There is also a lot of attention paid to making sure everyone knows the Paul Vallas story. In between events, Vallas and I would wander around the campaign office. Any moment where I wasn’t scribbling down a quote from Herodotus, someone would initiate a monologue about Vallas. Can I get you a cup of soup? Have you heard that Paul is on the board of Sean Penn’s charity and has made 50 trips to Haiti?
After a while, the urge by his staff to remind me of Vallas’s virtues stopped feeling like a campaign staff excited about their candidate and more about their level of anxiety having a writer in their midst. My adult backpack and formal clogs were clearly intimidating. Vallas’s sister would stop herself mid-sentence because there was a “reporter in the room.” The press team would linger in the doorway of the conference room where I set up to casually ask what the angle of my piece was or if they could see a draft when I was done. At one point, someone said they were worried I was going to tweet out a key piece of policy. Little did they know my Twitter is a Great British Baking Show fan account. Another staffer was frantically texting to see if her young daughters could stop by because it would be a good photo op. I needed literally every person to chill for five seconds. The man had decided to walk around the city carrying a push broom. We’ll get a good shot.
So where was Valls headed with that broom? To a press conference he had called at City Hall. In the wake of the Burke news, other candidates and aldermen were releasing statements and holding press conferences, and the last thing anyone wants is to be left behind. Just think about how much pressure we all feel to do a #TenYearsLater meme on Facebook.
It's unclear exactly whose idea the broom was but, man, did it delight Vallas. Just picture it: A mayoral candidate walking into City Hall, carrying a broom and greeting security guards and alderman by shouting, “Sweep up City Hall!” It’s the kind of thing that would be cut from a Capra film for being too on the nose.
We headed upstairs to a hallway outside the aldermanic office, where a press conference thrown by a group of progressive aldermen was already going on. Nearby, Willie Wilson, another mayoral candidate, was holding a press conference of his own. At one point, an alderman walked by and shouted at Wilson, “Read rule 36! This is insulting!” To which Wilson shouted back, “We can meet outside if you want!” The whole thing had the vibe of a WWE backstage segment.
Vallas held the broom tight and paced back and forth, waiting for his press conference to start. He would stop pacing only to come over to me and deliver a footnote or a bit of snark about what was unfolding around him. He told me that he had a terrible stutter and stammer when he was growing up and got stage fright until he was 30. He briefly whispered with staffers about where to set the broom in case he wanted to put it down. There’s no real good answer to that question.
Finally, it was Vallas’s time on the microphone. He used it to assert that during his stint in Chicago city government, as CEO of Chicago Public Schools and as city budget director, he was never endorsed by Burke for any position. He then pivoted to paint himself as an outsider candidate, as someone who implanted reforms that made officials like Burke upset. He mentioned an initiative he put in place while budget director that allowed for more construction companies to bid on city projects, which increased the number of minority contractors. He was independent, he asserted, of the pay-for-play culture that pervades local government. He then lifted the broom and implored everyone to “vote the bums out.” After taking a question from a Sun-Times reporter, Vallas thanked the crowd and walked off. His staff re-assured him that he was appropriately passionate.
Back at the office, the first question from his communications team was, “Did they take you seriously?” Did they take him seriously? The man wielded a broom.
Soon, a young guy walked in off the street because he wanted to help with the campaign. After interviewing with some of the volunteer coordinators, he got to meet the candidate. He told Vallas a story about how his mother met the candidate at an event years ago when she was pregnant with the guy’s younger sister, and when Vallas hugged the woman, her water broke. Vallas then proceeded to retell the story to any staffer who passed by. In a moment of downtime, Vallas asked where I grew up and if I was married. When I told him that my boyfriend works at a record store, the film buff in Vallas lit up. “I love High Fidelity!” he exclaimed. Somewhere in Chicago, I felt every record store employee’s eyes roll. In an even more awkward moment, one of his staffers asked where I went to college, and when I told her, she asked if I went on scholarship.
Vallas is interested in the opinions of everyone around him. He asked me how I thought the press conference went and how I felt about the other candidates. It’s his interest in people and their problems that makes Vallas engaging as a candidate. Over the two days I spent with him, he would field calls on his cell phone from people looking for help of one kind or another. One woman who runs a vocational training program was having trouble getting it accredited. He stayed on the phone with her for 20 minutes, listening to her, calming her down, and taking down her information. He told her that he’d personally find a solution. Broom! Problem swept!
The first afternoon I spent with him was devoted to traveling to 111th and Pulaski to visit Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Y’all, this school is my new obsession. It was one of the first high schools Vallas built when he was in charge of CPS. It sits on 70 acres, and I had no idea it existed. The school has a working farm, beehives, a fishery, a burgeoning aquaponics program … and alpacas!
The magnet school is Vallas’ pride and joy, and he was delighted to hear that half of the students are from the surrounding neighborhood. He said he fought for that when it was built. In every classroom we visited, Vallas would ask the teacher if they graduated from CPS and, if so, when. Half of the time, he would joke that the teacher was in kindergarten when he was building their school. Students in a biotechnology class got to hear how Vallas was going to grow pensions for teachers.
Strolling through the hallways, Vallas explained that he was obsessed with making sure the schools he built were flooded with natural light. He called them his schools of “no shadows.” Vallas knows the importance of the school as a center for the community. Once before a snow storm, CPS was under pressure to close schools, but Vallas fought to keep the buildings open and staffed because students in underserved areas needed access to heat, libraries, and meal services.
The afternoon was a delight. Vallas fed a cow some hay and tossed an apple to a pot-bellied pig! We ended our tour at the student-run farm stand, which was closed for the season. The principal who joined us didn’t bother to turn the store’s lights on because he figured we would take just a quick peek in. But Vallas took the opportunity to quiz the students who were with us about what fields they wanted to pursue, which was fine. Then he started to lecture them about his plan to use the tax from potential recreational cannabis sales to pay for social services in marginalized neighborhoods. Here we were, standing in the dark in an off-season farm stand while a mayoral candidate talked to two high school seniors about cannabis tax revenues. The man’s need to footnote really led us down a weird path.
On the way out, the school staff handed Vallas a loaf of zucchini bread and a dozen eggs, as if he were running for mayor in 1859, and my first day was done.
The next day, Vallas was planning to release his pension policy via a “Paulicy” video. You need to say it out loud because, dear God, this is a delightful public-policy pun. But Vallas got to the office a little late because he was listening to constituents in Englewood. He bristles against people who question how much time he spends on the South and West Sides, especially when they assert that those residents aren’t his “constituency.” Soon, it was time to head to a Rotary Club luncheon. We were running a few minutes behind, so after Vallas, one of his staffers, Chicago’s photographer, and I piled into the car, the driver started to pull off while my foot was still on the curb. I understand I’m supposed to be unobtrusive while shadowing the campaign, but in this moment, NOTICE ME! Let me keep my feet attached to my body!
At the Rotary Club meeting, Ed Burke was still a topic of conversation. A state senator that Vallas was talking to suggested that the phrase “pay to play” seemed a little harsh. “Quid pro quo” was more appropriate, he declared. The second you take any phrase into Latin, it sounds sketchier. That’s just a fact.
It was time for Vallas’ speech, and my note-taking hands could barely keep up. He moved from the Burke scandal to his criticism of “machine candidates” to his five-year plan to inject a billion dollars into city-employee pension plans. “I never met a budget I couldn’t balance,” he said. That’s both a public policy brag and something you’d find in a Quickbooks-themed Etsy shop. As Vallas explained his policies, he would repeat every few minutes that there were more detailed explanations online. It was a little hard to believe that there could be anything more detailed than a Vallas speech. Off the top of his head, he cited the number of economically depressed financial zones in the country and in Chicago that are eligible for federal programs. This man was up there on stage doing math.
The final section of his speech was about empathy. He has visited 440 schools and 500 churches in his career. He created a crisis fund while at CPS to help parents and schools pay for funerals of students who were killed in underserved neighborhoods. Those are the areas that need investment, he said, not Lincoln Yards.
One of the questions from the audience was about the “killing fields” on the South and West Sides. Before you ask about the person who asked the question, yes, they were. Vallas laid out his plan to reinvest in neighborhoods plagued with violence, and it’s not a brief plan. It involves re-establishing ROTC programs, creating job-training initiatives for adults in abandoned schools, creating more comprehensive and sensitive police training in collaboration with the communities served. Every proposal is a 16-point plan for Paul Vallas. But you can’t argue with the command he has over the financial demands and the agencies required to make them happen.
Back in the car, the driver informed us that Burke came out of the same building where the luncheon was being held. One of the staffers joked that maybe the driver mistook the Union Club for the federal courthouse.
After some time at the campaign headquarters, where an op-ed from Susanna Mendoza in Crain’s Chicago Business sparked a little chatter, it was time to head to Bridgeport for an interview at Lumpen Radio, an independent low-power station headquartered in an art gallery. The host was apparently doing Jeff Tweedy cosplay. While Vallas waited for the interview, he filled out endorsement questionnaires. Some were fun questions, like what he would take to a desert island (a notebook, pen, and a Swiss Army knife). This was also where I learned his favorite historians, both Ancient Greek and contemporary (Thucydides, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Stilwell).
There were several questions Vallas wouldn’t answer because he said they were misleading or he lacked the space for nuance. Imagine Marissa Tomei on the stand in My Cousin Vinny talking about marijuana legalization.
The inside of the station’s booth was hot and bright and smelled a little like weed. Vallas took out a notebook and a pen to occupy his hands. The first question on air was about the sports teams he follows. He’s a Bulls and Sox fan. He told a story about why he can’t be a Bears fan anymore. One of the security guards at a school where he worked was a former Bear who could barely walk. Vallas was stunned that the team wasn’t doing more to help the former player and so Vallas aided him in getting a promotion. When the former player died, the team had to be pressed into picking up some of the funeral costs, Vallas said, and that’s when he swore off Bears fandom.
The most concise answer he gave was for why he was running for mayor. He’s from a house full of public servants, he said: six military veterans, four cops, some firefighters, and three teachers. He loves public service, and he understands the needs of city.
Asked how he was coping with the pressures of the campaign, Vallas talked about how he went to New Orleans to help after Katrina and Haiti after the hurricane there. This is a walk in the park by comparison. The hosts let him lay out his policies and speak uninterrupted for long stretches at a time, and when Vallas blurted “bullshit” at one point, the host had to scramble to bleep him. After the show ended, the host led us out, telling Vallas about the other candidates he’s planning to have on, and Vallas said, “Please don’t let them say I caused a pension crisis.” Then he launched into a five-minute explanation about how he didn’t.
I rode with Vallas to a forum on housing, but I had to leave before it began. Vallas was a little bummed that I wouldn’t see him in action with other candidates. But he did finally find that quote attributed to Picasso: “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give the gift away,” his energetic staffers finishing the quote with him, in unison. It was a testament to Vallas’s commitment to service but also his commitment to that quote.
Before I left, he wanted me to know that he’s a problem solver and that he doesn’t believe in tinkering around while we’re taking on water. The metaphor was a little muddled, but I understood what he was saying.
I also learned that if he could be any animal, he would be a bird — a robin or whatever eats mosquitos. Even in a strange animal hypothetical, he’s still solving people’s problems. Oh, and he told me one other thing: He said he would be buried with that broom in a glass cast in place of a headstone.