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Local journalists miss Paul Vallas. When he was running the Chicago Public Schools and, later, campaigning for governor, he could be counted on for two things reporters love: returning phone calls and talking. A lot.
Vallas is now running the New Orleans schools but was back in town this week—and in top form yesterday, when he stood before reporters and announced his support for Democratic Senate candidate David Hoffman.
Looking trim, tan, and assured, Vallas said lots of great things about Hoffman, calling him "the type of individual we need in elective office," praising his "great integrity" and "record of accomplishment," and predicting that he would be "an exceptional United States Senator."
That was what was scripted. But Vallas was never one for sticking to the script, and after the cameras—and Hoffman—had left, he elaborated for a couple of us who’d stuck around. And elaborated and elaborated and elaborated.
Vallas told us that what he really liked about Hoffman was how as city inspector general he’d stood up to the Daley administration—something Vallas himself knew a little about, having been ousted as schools chief in 2001 after he started showing too much independence from the mayor.
"He refused to be bullied," Vallas said. "He refused to be intimidated. When he felt himself being put in the box, which some previous IGs experienced, he used his contacts with the federal agencies like the FBI and the US attorney’s office. That took real balls. And it’s not like he was thinking, 'Well, I’m going to challenge the status quo and them I’m going to run for the Senate.' I really think he took the risks without thinking about what the consequences would be, because that’s how he is."
I’m not sure voters want to hear that their senator is the type who’ll take risks without considering the fallout—the Senate has been known to vote on things like going to war, spending billions of taxpayer dollars on bank bailouts, and extending health care to the uninsured. But Vallas wasn't done.
Another reporter asked him what he thought of Hoffman’s support for President Obama's decision to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. "I’m impressed with the man," Vallas said. "That doesn’t mean I agree with him on the Guantanamo issue."
What about Hoffman’s criticism of federal security officials for failing to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day terrorist attacker, off a U.S.-bound plane? "I think his answer, while somewhat long-winded like mine tend to be, was right on target," Vallas said. "I don’t agree with him on everything, but I think there’s something to be said for supporting someone who has a track record of success."
Vallas then admitted that there were some other things about Hoffman he wasn't taken with, such as his promises to create jobs, which all of the senate campaigns have identified as a top priority.
"Look—this guy’s running for the Senate,” Vallas said. “When they’re all talking about how they’re all going to bring jobs and all these things—they’re not going to do any of those things. I mean, what they’re going to have to do is support the administration when what they’re pushing is good for the public and oppose it when they screw up. You want someone who has that kind of independence. I think he has the potential to do that. And I always reserve the right to withdraw my support from any candidate who deviates from that."
That doesn't mean Vallas isn't committed to Hoffman—he said he's backing him in both the Democratic primary and, should he win it, the general election, even though Vallas tends to lean Republican on economic issues and foreign policy, and earlier this year thought about running as the GOP's candidate for Cook County board president.
In fact, Vallas admitted that he's a fan of the likely Republican Senate nominee.
"I think Mark Kirk is an excellent candidate," he said. "I think the Democrats will try to paint him as a right-winger and he’s got to be careful not to do that. But I think he’s an excellent candidate."
Vallas explained some more: “I’m supporting David because I really like his independence, though I believe on fiscal issues it’s most likely that Kirk is probably closer to me.”
Vallas also said that while Hoffman was "clearly" the best Democrat in the race, he wasn't interested in knocking front-runner Alexi Giannoulias, who like Vallas is Greek.
"I’m not supporting the Greek candidate, but I’m not going to badmouth the Greek candidate. My mother said to me, 'If you’re going to support Hoffman, all right, but don’t say anything negative about Giannoulias.' And I always listen to my mother. That was the home compromise. She was not happy with this endorsement. She said, 'I’ve got to go to church on Sunday—what am I going to tell the ladies?'"