Former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas, a lifelong Democrat, has spent the last six years running school districts in New Orleans and Philadelphia.
Now he wants to be a Republican running Cook County.
Vallas said Wednesday that he is switching parties - he last ran in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor against Rod Blagojevich - and opening an exploratory committee, a prelude to campaigning for the top county spot.
"I view this as an opportunity to go in and reinvent county government," said Vallas, who captured nearly 50 percent of suburban Democrats' votes in the 2002 primary for governor. "And I think if you are going to challenge the status quo as an independent and reform candidate in Cook County, you have to use the Republican ballot to do it."
The announcement comes after sit-downs Monday with a list of top Republicans. Vallas is finding the doors to the struggling party wide open.
Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna says the party should be open to Democrats who share his ideals of reform and fiscal responsibility.
"Our party is not going to have a litmus test in building a ticket," McKenna said.
Cook County GOP Chairman Lee Roupas called Vallas' move "a huge step for our party." And House Republican Leader Tom Cross called it "fantastic."
Even Republican Tony Peraica, who challenged incumbent Todd Stroger in 2006 and has been floating the idea of a second run, left the door open to possibly stepping aside for Vallas.
"I would seriously take a look at that," Peraica said.
Peraica said Vallas called him and the two are planning on meeting soon to discuss the race. Peraica said he wants assurances Vallas, who has been open about his dislike of fundraising, can raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for a serious run.
But even if Peraica steps aside, Vallas will have an uphill climb. A Republican hasn't won the post since 1966.
Plus, he could face another reform candidate in the general election if Cook County commissioners Forrest Claypool and Mike Quigley or Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart beat out Stroger.
Claypool warned Democratic leaders not to back Stroger if they want to beat Vallas in a general. election.
"If the Democratic Party is serious about keeping this office they better appoint a reformer," he said.
But the Republican primary is by no means cleared for Vallas. Aside from Peraica, state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, is also thinking of throwing in a bid.
The intraparty contest will come as Vallas is sure to face challenges about his own Republican credentials.
"He certainly would have to answer questions about why he chose to leave the Democrat Party and join the Republican Party," said Murphy, who adds he is still "very seriously considering" a run of his own.
Vallas said he has never viewed himself as a partisan politician. And top Republicans point to his record of fiscal responsibility as a state and city budget manager as well as his preference for school choice.
At the same time, Vallas has a long resume to run on and is apparently well liked in suburban Cook County.
Vallas won 48 percent of the vote in the suburbs lining Chicago when he ran against Blagojevich, who garnered 29 percent, and Roland Burris, who had 24 percent, in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor.
Vallas has fashioned an image as a reformer willing to buck powerful political forces when he feels he is right.
He rose to prominence under Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, running his budget and revenue departments before settling in as head of the Chicago Public Schools.
While there, he made strides in introducing charter schools and increasing accountability and test scores, but he eventually fell out of favor with Daley.
Having lost the primary by 20,000 votes to Blagojevich, Vallas signed on in Philadelphia to run the school system there and he is now heading up recovery efforts at the school system in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.
Meanwhile, incumbent Todd Stroger is seen as vulnerable by many potential challengers because of his widely unpopular sales tax hike last year. He faces corruption and mismanagement allegations that have become synonymous with Cook County government over the years.
Stroger said Wednesday he was unfazed by allegations from Vallas that the county is mismanaged and he took a shot at him for working in far-off New Orleans.
"If they only thing you know about county government is what you read in the papers from New Orleans... that is the impression you'd get," Stroger said.
Vallas has commuted to his job in New Orleans, establishing residency in south suburban Palos Heights, where his wife and two teenage sons live.
Vallas said he is committed to working in New Orleans until he sets up a leadership team to take his reforms to the next level. He expects to start phasing out of New Orleans at some point early next year.
"I have to got to complete my work down here," he said.
The GOP primary is currently set for February of 2010.