The anti-politics alderman
A year after taking office, 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar still refuses to declare a party line. But is that stopping him from achieving his goals?
YOU DON’T NOTICE 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar in the City Council chambers because he’s the only Indian-American. You don’t notice him because, at 31, he’s the youngest alderman on the council. You notice him because, in a room as sartorially conservative as a Jos. A. Bank mannequin, he’s wearing jeans, a black half-zip mock turtleneck and a gray tweed jacket with elbow patches.
For full council meetings, Pawar dresses in narrow lapel suits; today’s meeting, a January 18 hearing of the Special Events Committee, comprises just 10 aldermen. Still, the gallery is packed with demonstrators lining up to speak against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Parade and Public Assembly Ordinance, a new set of protest rules written for the G-8/NATO summit (later sans G-8). The committee will vote on the legislation this afternoon. One audience member’s sign calls it the sit down and shut up ordinance.
When Emanuel proposed the ordinance, Pawar was against it, too. But after meeting with Occupy Chicago, he asked the mayor’s office for three changes: nix the increase in fines for resisting arrest; eliminate the one marshal per 100 marchers requirement; and change the process for registering banners, so the city won’t demand to know what’s on a sign before it’s displayed. He got all three and is now prepared to vote with Emanuel. The ordinance passes, with only council rebels Nick Sposato (36th), Leslie Hairston (5th) and Bob Fioretti (2nd) voting no.
In nearly a year since taking office as the anti-politics candidate—the guy who campaigned against tax increment financing; the guy who campaigned out of a bowling alley—Pawar has turned out to be less independent than his image suggested during the aldermanic race. He has never voted against the mayor, who lives in his ward. (Pawar calls Emanuel “very progressive.”) He has proposed only one major ordinance (it aims to prohibit employers from redlining job applicants with bad credit, and will be voted on this week). He even backpedaled on his anti-TIF stance to grant Mariano’s Fresh Market $4.5 million to move into the ward, causing the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky to compare the alderman to a folding lawn chair. (Pawar admits he was “aggressive” with some things he said about the TIF program; after seeing the program from the inside, he views TIFs as an economic development tool.)
After Pawar’s election, the Reader topped the story of his victory with the headline young upstart busts machine. That, Pawar says, was the “caricature” that followed him into office. “There’s this perception that if you’re new and you come from the outside, you’re just going to throw rocks at the establishment,” Pawar says. “I’m not going to blast every proposal to get in the headlines. If I disagree with you, I’ll let you know. I told the mayor, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever vote for a casino in this city.’ ”
Bottom line: Despite the headlines, Pawar is not trying to be the next Leon Despres, a longtime 5th Ward alderman (1955–1975) who berated Old Man Daley until his microphone was cut off. What he’s trying to do is change the very nature of the aldermanic office, creating more transparency between himself and his constituents so he doesn’t become the de facto dictator of Lincoln Square.
Pawar once said, “I like everything about this job except the politics.” But with an Emanuel nominee assuming the role of Democratic ward committeeman this week—a role that inflates an alderman’s power and a role that Pawar says he could have easily been elected to had he been willing to declare a party line—the question arises: Can Pawar be an effective alderman without being a politician?
IN SUMMER 2009, Pawar, a 29-year-old who worked at Northwestern University’s Office of Emergency Management, decided to run against 47th Ward Ald. Gene Schulter. Schulter, an avatar of Ed Kelly’s Fighting 47th Ward machine, had an $800,000 campaign fund. He’d been elected to the City Council five years before Pawar was born.
A fellow volunteer at North Center’s Common Pantry food bank sent Pawar to Timber Lanes, an eight-lane bowling alley on Irving Park Road with a stained drop ceiling and a wooden sign dangling behind the bar: old bowlers never die…they just can’t lift their balls. Owner Bob Kuhn, one of the ward’s leading Schulter critics (“he was all about money”), allowed the impecunious young greenhorn to store signs and literature in a spare room, since his campaign couldn’t afford an office.
“He was very educated,” Kuhn says of Pawar, who has master’s degrees from the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago. “He wanted to be a candidate for the people.”
Throughout the election, Pawar was working full time, studying for another U. of C. master’s degree, and writing a book titled Emergency Management and Social Intelligence: A Comprehensive All Hazards Approach. (He’s still working on the degree and the book.)
In the campaign’s first year, Pawar raised just $13,000. His staff of twentysomething naïfs couldn’t figure out how to build “walk sheets” of regular voters from the city’s election data, so they knocked on 85 to 90 percent of doors in the ward, Pawar says.
“We said, ‘We’ll just run the campaign the way we talk about politics in college,’ ” Pawar says. “We were going to run a campaign based on our idealism, and so we didn’t look at Gene as the opponent.”
As it turned out, Schulter wasn’t. Five weeks before the election, the alderman dropped out to (unsuccessfully) pursue an appointment to the Cook County Board of Review, and endorsed an ally, Tom O’Donnell. O’Donnell was a stiff—at the few community forums he attended, he read off a sheet of paper—while Pawar promised a moratorium on the TIF program and vowed to take only $60,000 of an alderman’s six-figure salary in his first year. After winning endorsements from the Tribune and the Sun-Times, he raised $50,000. On Election Day, his campaign manager summoned him to Timber Lanes. When O’Donnell conceded, the TV cameras were in Pawar’s face. “I won?” he chirped.
“It was crazy,” Kuhn says. “We had many, many people in the room and we had regular league bowling that night, too.”
JUST HOURS AFTER the Special Events Committee meeting, in the pine-paneled basement of Bethany United Church of Christ in Ravenswood, Pawar convenes his Ward Council, a forum of 22 neighborhood groups called block clubs. The heads of these clubs, and anyone else who wants to come, meet every four to six weeks with Pawar to advise him on everything from filling potholes to spending menu money—the $1 million discretionary fund an alderman receives each year—on ward improvements.
This is what makes Pawar an anti-politician. Few aldermen have anything like this forum, which Pawar founded to replace precinct captains, the traditional go-between of an alderman and his constituents. When Mariano’s proposed the new grocery store, Pawar invited the company to the Ward Council to hear input from the community. He hopes to make the Council a permanent fixture in the 47th Ward, even after he’s out of office.
“The alderman’s office stressed to us from the beginning to remain apolitical,” says Adam Walsh, who represents Center 47, a block club of residents who live near Winchester and Berteau. “This is part of the platform the alderman ran on, to have a more transparent neighborhood organization. You can’t lead by fear.”
Some politicians see the Ward Council meetings as evidence of Pawar’s naïveté. The Ward Council gives residents an opportunity to organize politically and run against you, says one North Side committeeman. Others consider Pawar an innocent idealist because he refused to run for committeeman of his ward, an election that would have taken place Tuesday 20. The unpaid job provides a vote at endorsement sessions, where an alderman can prevent the party from fielding a rival candidate in the next election. But Pawar didn’t want to lead the ward’s Democratic party, because he didn’t want a party label at all.
“We knocked on all the doors, so it didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or a Republican,” he says. “My job is to hold a non-partisan office.” Instead, in the impending committeeman race against Schulter, Pawar backed Paul Rosenfeld, a member of his Grow 47 Committee, which works to keep families in the city by bringing neighborhood schools up to the level of magnet schools.
To prevent a fight in the mayor’s home ward, the New Chicago Committee, Emanuel’s political army, inserted a “peacemaker” candidate: Peter Coffey, DePaul University’s director of government affairs. Rosenfeld and Schulter dropped out rather than take on Emanuel.
(“The reason I became uninterested in the job was that I was concerned about tearing the ward apart politically,” Schulter says.)
Pawar didn’t run for alderman to amass wealth or power. He promises to serve only two terms as alderman. Because of his emergency management background, Pawar has a career outside politics.
If Pawar lasts two terms, and accomplishes everything he wants, one of his legacies, ironically, will be a continuation of Schulter’s. Schulter brought strollers to Lincoln Square, once a conservative, ethnic neighborhood and now a Stuff White People Like showcase of bookstores and bakeries; Pawar’s goal is to keep those children around to ride bicycles, then drive their first cars. Grow 47 is chaired by former Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, whose children attend Bell Elementary, one of the highest-testing grammar schools in the city. Pawar wants to make Lake View and Amundsen High Schools just as desirable, so moms and dads don’t freak out and move to Wilmette if their kids don’t test into Walter Payton College Prep.
“Parents live in constant stress that their child has to get the right test score to get into the right high school, to get into the right college,” he says. The conversation is, ‘Ameya, when you take my property taxes and add private school tuition if my kid doesn’t get in, it’s cheaper to live in the suburbs.’ We have to move beyond this idea that there are neighborhoods in this city that are waiting rooms for the suburbs.”
In February, partially due to Pawar’s efforts, Lake View was named a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) high school, where students will be able to earn associate’s degrees in high-tech fields. Pawar also granted at least $10 million in TIF funds to expand Coonley Elementary, which feeds into Lake View. But the alderman still has a long way to go to enact the change he wants.
Schulter was able to transform Lincoln Square because he devoted his life to politics. He spent most of his 36 years on the council rezoning the ward to preserve single-family homes and accumulated seniority to become a committee chairman. With Pawar pledging to serve only two terms and refusing to step up as a party leader, the critical question is: Can he accumulate enough power to remake the ward as he envisions it, to reshape education and to make his innovations, such as the Ward Council, permanent? For someone who dislikes politics, that would be quite a political feat.