Ameya Pawar’s First Year: The Rookie Alderman on Rahm, Schools, and More
A year into his rookie year as 47th Ward alderman, Ameya Pawar sat down with me in his office on North Lincoln Avenue on a recent Monday evening. The 31-year-old had been up all night writing a paper for a graduate class—he’s pursuing his third Master’s degree—in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Despite the all-nighter, an energetic Pawar listed for me all of his accomplishments and plans as alderman, a job that few expected him to win. All the big names, including Rahm Emanuel, Dan Hynes, Mike Quigley, and Forrest Claypool—and most of the big donors—were behind Tom O’Donnell, Sheriff Tom Dart’s legislative affairs director and Alderman Gene Schulter’s handpicked successor. But Pawar, the first Indian-American (and the first Asian-American) in the City Council, pulled off the win, learning the surprising news as he headed to his parents’ house in Des Plaines. He reversed course and later made his victory speech from Timber Lanes Bowling Alley on Irving Park Road, which had served as his campaign headquarters under the auspices of its owner, Bob Kuhn.
These days, Pawar, a true novice—never so much as student body president—has made peace with the mayor, who is his constituent. Pawar, in fact, was the only elected official whose name appeared in Rahm’s April Fool’s “EMANUEL FOIAs SELF” spoof: “Emanuel hopes to receive emails, phone records, … autographed photos of Ald. Ameya Pawar, and other documents.”
Pawar had previously lived in a garden apartment; he now rents in Ravenswood, and his roommate is his 29-year-old sister. Here’s an edited version of our interview, which continued with a telephone conversation earlier this week.
CF: Tell me about election night.
AP: I was exhausted. It was seven days a week for almost two years. I got up at 3 a.m. Charna Epstein, my chief of staff, and I were driving around putting up signs. The polls closed, I got into the car [with Epstein and campaign manager Sam Yanover] to head to the suburbs, and then we got reports. By the time we got just a little bit out of the city, we just diverted to Evanston. We went to the Hotel Orrington, and by the time we got there it was pretty clear that we were going to win. We turned the TV on in that little hotel bar. I told my parents to go to the bowling alley.
CF: Had you run any polls that would have tipped you off to a win?
AP: Nothing, we didn’t have any money. Before we started the election, we had $2,000. In that last four weeks, we raised probably $50,000 or $60,000. Polls cost anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000, and we did not have that kind of money. So we just went after all the voters, door to door. We didn’t just target Democrats or Republicans; we went after everybody.
CF: What’s been most surprising since your election in February 2011?
AP: I heard from so many of my future colleagues who offered to sit down and have lunch and actually show me the ropes. That morning after the election, I heard from Aldermen Burke, Mell, O’Connor, and Burnett.
CF: What’s your relationship with Mayor Emanuel like?
AP: I work very closely with his staff. The mayor and I are just getting to know each other. I voted for him.
CF: Do you have a second job?
AP: I do consulting for Northwestern University—just a couple of hours a week—and I have an academic book [on emergency management] that I’m supposed to be finishing [At the time of his election he worked as a program assistant in Northwestern’s Office of Emergency Management.]. The job as alderman is seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day. I had a community meeting last night [a Sunday].
CF: When you go to your University of Chicago class, does the professor treat you differently?
AP: No, not at all. The faculty at that school consults directly with the President [of the U.S]. I don’t think they’re impressed by the fact that I’m an alderman.
CF: What do you think of the mayor’s $7 billion public/private infrastructure partnership financing plan?
AP: A lot. I talked about it during the campaign. I don’t think major cities can rely any longer on general obligation debt. I think this is a great thing for the city of Chicago. We’ve got 100-year water mains throughout the city—some are wooden. The program allows us to think about light rail on Western Avenue. This is kind of like Moneyball—we’d be an early adopter and get the benefits of being an early adopter.
CF: The mayor hasn’t mentioned it lately, but he has threatened to cut the City Council in half to 25. What do you think of that idea?
AP: If we did that, we’d be changing the Council from a service-based operation to a legislative body. We get hundreds and hundreds of calls and emails and faxes, people Facebook-ing and Twitter-ing. I have five staffers, and 80 to 90 percent of their time is interacting with constituents.
CF: Are you disappointed that the G-8 is not coming to Chicago?
AP: It would have been good for the city. For a city that’s losing conventions, for a city that is a global city, we should be doing everything we possibly can do to draw foreign leaders. Of course I was disappointed. Even though NATO is coming, some of the excitement is gone.
CF: How do you view Occupy Chicago these days? Should the mayor have allowed protesters to remain in Grant Park?
AP: When they initially started talking about income inequality, that resonated with a lot of people. When you start talking about income inequality, you need to talk about U.S. foreign policy. They were off to a really great start with that conversation and then it got lost. If [protesters] are not hurting anyone, it would have been great to just let them camp out. I wouldn’t have had a problem with them staying there in Grank Park.
CF: What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?
AP: The biggest issue is the schools, which is part of what attracts people to the suburbs, why families leave. You might get a good city elementary school, but then comes the pressure-cooker environment in eighth grade. For plenty of kids at 13, to hit them with success or failure, I think, is really harsh. My dad grew up in India and grew up very poor. One test determined the course of your life in India, and in many cases today, it’s still like that. People today feel the same way about that eighth-grade test. How can one test determine whether you fail or achieve? That’s insane. India was a developing nation at that point, and here we are, the most developed nation in the world, and we have the same thing. If you get one “B,” that’s enough for you to not get in.
CF: Especially in high school, why does it matter if the school is in the neighborhood?
AP: I was able to walk to grade school and to high school. Here, you have kids that are taking two buses and train rides across the city each way. There are so many stories about families in this ward—three kids in high school, all different schools. That’s not a way to build a community. We have to get more people to understand that it doesn’t matter if you have kids or not. Look at some of the healthiest suburbs. Go to Wilmette and look at New Trier. It helps property values, helps the tax base, helps economic development. Parents have to get involved and be boosters for the schools, and they have to run for local school council. Once the community believes the school is good, it’s good; once the community believes the school is good, the test scores go up.
CF: What about businesses in the ward? Business owners might send their own kids to suburban schools?
AP: I’m asking big property owners, “Look if you’re going to maintain rental demand—because your taxes are going to go up, I’ll promise you that—why don’t you help me help the neighborhood school?” [For more information on Pawar’s schools plan, click here.]
CF: You endorsed incumbent Toni Berrios for the House seat in the 39th District over her opponent, Will Guzzardi, a young, progressive outsider in his first run for office who came within 111 votes of defeating the daughter of Assessor Joe Berrios. [Guzzardi has not yet conceded the election.] I would have thought you’d have seen something of yourself in Guzzardi, whose campaign was built around knocking on doors. So why Berrios?
AP: I have a relationship and rapport with Toni Berrios, developed during her efforts to pass the Illinois Dream Act. As a first-generation American [Pawar’s parents came to the U.S. from India in 1972], passing that bill was really important to me.
CF: How long do you want to stay in this job, and what do you want to do after you leave it?
AP: Two terms—that was part of my campaign platform. I think I’d like to teach at some point. I wouldn’t mind being a city manager somewhere. The management side of it is really fascinating.
CF: So you’d consider the mayor’s job a good fit?
AP: Or a city manager’s job, more likely in the suburbs than in Chicago.
CF: Would you like to go to Washington?
AP: If there are people who would consider me for an office, of course, I’d love to explore that.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune