What's Next for Ameya Pawar, the Mayor's Alderman

In early 2011, Ald. Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward was running his first campaign for office out of a bowling alley in the North Center neighborhood. A little more than five years later, Pawar has moved into a more traditional office space and is contemplating his next move as the end of his self-imposed two-term limit nears.

Pawar’s rise to the aldermanic office in the 47th ward, which includes the Ravenswood home of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his family, was, by many accounts, unlikely. In 2011, he ran against three other candidates, including Tom O’Donnell, who was the hand-picked successor of the 35-year veteran alderman Eugene Schulter. To further polish his candidacy, O’Donnell also received Emanuel’s endorsement. 

At the start of his campaign, Pawar was a relatively unknown first-timer who worked as a business consultant at Northwestern University and studied the impacts of disasters on communities and poverty. He had also earned three master’s degrees, including one in social service administration at the University of Chicago. At the time of the election, he was only 30 years old.

Pawar spent his campaign going door to door, introducing himself and delivering his platform to voters. His core team consisted of friends from graduate school, including Charna Epstein who served as his chief of staff and eventually became his wife. He excelled in the local debates leading up to the election and managed to win with just over 50 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff election. 

Four years later, Pawar not only easily won re-election, but he won with almost 83 percent of the vote, the highest margin of victory in any contested aldermanic race in the general election. With that kind of popularity, it’s hard to believe Pawar will simply give up on politics at the end of this term. Although another race for alderman is out of the question for him, he is considering the possibility of a run for a higher office.

Pawar has been asked more than once if he would run for mayor in 2019, and his answer is always about the same: yes, but with an “only if” caveat.

“I think if the mayor chooses to pursue other opportunities and not run for re-election, then I am going to run. Pretty sure,” Pawar said from his Lincoln Avenue office in early October. “I think there are lots of other things I have to consider, including I have a 7-month-old right now, but I think if you were to ask me today I would say ‘yes.’”

Pawar does not want to run against Emanuel, who lives in his ward. The alderman said he has a “good working relationship” with the mayor and was hesitant to criticize him when asked what he thinks Emanuel could have done better in the last five years, saying only that the mayor could have done a better job of showing his constituents who he really is instead of hiding behind press releases.

“It’s not my style to root for someone else to fail so I can get their job,” Pawar said. “I think that is what I find problematic in politics.”

Emanuel has indicated he would like to run for re-election but has yet to fully commit. Last month, the mayor told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he has “every intention of running again,” but his official decision will be made “when the time is right,” he said.

The mayor appears to be testing the waters to determine whether a third term is feasible. Just this month, Emanuel successfully negotiated a contract with the Chicago Teachers Union to avoid what could have been the second teachers’ strike of his tenure. He also presented a 2017 budget plan devoid of major tax hikes and with the promise of adding nearly 1,000 new police officers in the next two years. Emanuel’s decision to run for a third term will likely be determined by whether his recent moves serve to regain the public’s trust after the damaging release of the Laquan McDonald video last year. As a result, Pawar’s decision also rests on these factors.

If Pawar were to run successfully for mayor in 2019, he would be the youngest mayor in Chicago in more than 100 years. (Carter Harrison Jr., Chicago’s 37th mayor, was first elected at the age of 37 in 1897. Pawar would be 38 if he were elected in 2019.) Pawar would also be the city’s first Asian-American mayor. His parents moved from India to Chicago in the 1970s, and Pawar was born in Evanston. The family lived in Rogers Park until Pawar entered the first grade, and then they moved to the suburbs to take advantage of the schools.

Although Pawar is aligned with Emanuel in some respects, including mutual support for certain progressive policies, he differs significantly from Emanuel in other ways. Emanuel came from the White House to the mayoral office. Pawar’s experience in office stretches only as far back as 2011.

Much of Pawar’s time as alderman has focused on social issues and education. He said one of his proudest accomplishments so far was the passage of the paid sick leave ordinance in June, which mandates that all Chicago employees receive up to five days of paid sick leave a year. Pawar served as the co-chair for the panel that developed the guidelines for the rule, which will go into effect in July 2017. 

He also championed an ordinance passed in 2014 that preserves single-room-occupancy hotels, which benefit residents who might otherwise be homeless. The ordinance prevents developers from turning them into apartments that make more money and subsequently displace the people who live there. 

“I know there are lots of people who move in the neighborhoods where SROs exist and then say, ‘I don’t want that in my neighborhood anymore,’ and I think it’s good to stand up to those folks and say it’s not your choice all the time,” Pawar said. “They’re human beings. One, it’s not illegal to be homeless, and, two, everyone needs a place to lay their head at night.”

Pawar’s other major focus is Chicago’s school system. He believes the foundation of future growth in Chicago is its neighborhood schools and says the city — and parents — need to put less emphasis on the selective enrollment system, which he describes as “totally broken.” Instead, he believes the city should invest heavily in neighborhood high schools. But in order to do this, Pawar says two things must happen: the city would need to raise taxes to support neighborhood schools and parents would need to change the way they think about Chicago Public Schools, so they are more willing to send their children there instead of moving to the suburbs.

In 2019, Emanuel’s $588 million property tax hike will be in its fourth and final phase, and the last thing many residents will want to hear is another call for higher taxes. While Pawar made no mention of wanting to raise property taxes even further, he said he would like to see a graduated income tax as the conduit for funding neighborhood schools. In order to achieve this, however, the next mayor would need to look past City Council and head to Springfield for a change in state law, which Pawar admits is a “long-term conversation.”

“We need to convince the entire state to change the constitution,” Pawar said. “That political movement has to start somewhere, and I think if the mayor doesn’t run, then I think it has to be a central part of the next mayor’s platform. We need to advocate for a graduated income tax in this state so we can fund education more equitably (and) stop relying on property taxes.”

Pawar knows that his stance on raising taxes, even to support schools, may not be popular, and he recognizes that it may mean he can’t — or shouldn’t — run for mayor someday. However, he has yet to back down from that position.

“What I would tell people if I was running for mayor is, no, I can’t promise you that everything is always going to stay level because there’s a good chance we’re probably going to have to raise taxes, not just to cover pension obligations but to pay for schools and services we all enjoy,” Pawar said. “The question becomes then which taxes do we raise and how do we apply them fairly to people who can afford to pay the most.”

If Emanuel decides to run for re-election in 2019, Pawar will still be in need of another job, as he promised to stay for only two terms as alderman. Asked whether he’d ever be interested in a run for another office outside of City Hall, however, he said no. President Barack Obama inspired Pawar to get into politics back in 2004, he said, but he has no plans to follow in his footsteps in the Illinois or U.S. Senate.

Whatever comes next for Pawar, whether it’s a mayoral run or not, he says he will be ready to leave his 47th Ward office in new hands. Knowing that someone else will take over after just two terms serves as motivation to get more done in a shorter time, he said.

“But it’s also understanding that change is good,” Pawar said. “I think someone should come in and bring a fresh set of eyes and ideas to this office. I expect that whoever comes after me will say, well, he did X, Y and Z wrong, and I’m going to reform what Pawar did. That’s ok. I think having someone new every so often is good.”

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