Gov. Pat Quinn's selection of former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas to be his 2014 running mate took many people by surprise -- including Vallas himself.
Vallas said Tuesday he was initially taken aback that Quinn would choose to be lieutenant governor someone who has held as many high-profile and, at times, controversial positions. At the same time, Vallas said, the choice wasn't surprising because he believes the Chicago Democrat "wants to assemble the strongest team possible."
Vallas, who sought the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor in 2002 and ran schools in Philadelphia in New Orleans, also said he won't have any trouble taking a back seat to his new boss.
"I have no problem playing second fiddle or whatever instrument in the orchestra Pat wants me to play, because I believe in Pat," he said.
Tuesday's event was the first joint public appearance for Quinn and Vallas since the governor announced his pick last week. The selection drew praise but also criticism on several fronts. Some were disappointed Quinn didn't select one of the black leaders whose names had circulated as potential picks. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the choice "takes us in the wrong direction for public education in Chicago and Illinois," adding that when Vallas led Chicago schools he expanded charter schools and standardized testing.
And Vallas' critics in Bridgeport, Conn., where he's currently superintendent, noted voters there were so disillusioned with his reform efforts they recently elected a slate of candidates that stacked the school board with members who want Vallas gone.
Quinn fielded those questions Tuesday, calling Vallas "a man who takes on some of the toughest challenges in America" and saying those challenges -- as they have in Connecticut -- often ruffle feathers.
The governor also called Lewis a friend and said he and Vallas already have talked about how to improve schools and increase investment in early childhood education and college scholarships. And he said he has a diverse cabinet and works "with everyone across Illinois."
Quinn will face the winner of a March Republican primary between four candidates: state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner.
Vallas, 60, plans to resign his position in Connecticut but said Tuesday he will continue to operate a consulting business. That company had a contract with the Illinois State Board of Education until June, but it was terminated for budget reasons. Vallas said Tuesday he won't do business with the state while he's running for office.
Quinn also said he's confident Vallas' residency won't be an issue. The Illinois native has been registered to vote at his family's Palos Heights address since 2008, and Quinn noted Vallas also has paid taxes there.
Both men said their top priority would continue to be addressing Illinois' $100 billion pension shortfall, and Quinn said he's looking forward to "a contest of ideas."
"Whoever wins the Republican nomination, we'll see you at the starting line and we'll see you at the finish line," Quinn said.