Alderman Ameya Pawar is running for governor with a focus on criminal justice, a New Deal-type infrastructure plan, and progressive taxation. But he’s facing some tough opponents in his own party.
Chicago politics is famously dirty. But that didn’t stop Ameya Pawar from jumping in anyway.
In 2011, 30-year-old Pawar was a political rookie, working as a program assistant in the Office of Emergency Management at Northwestern. He’d grown tired of politics as usual, he said at the time. So he set up an office in a bowling alley, rallied together a group of friends, and ran a door-to-door campaign for the 47th Ward Alderman’s seat. He won. And then in 2015, he won again. With 83 percent of the vote, Pawar was reelected with the highest margin in the city.
For a young politician on the rise, the next logical step might have been the state legislature or perhaps the mayor’s office. Instead, in January, Pawar announced his run for governor, in a state in the throes of a fiscal crisis. “I jumped into the race because I'm sick and tired of these wealthy politicians pitting us against one another for scraps, over these fault lines of race, class, and geography,” he tells CityLab.
It’s an ambitious move. No alderman has made it to the governor’s mansion yet. To face off against Republican incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner in the 2018 general election, he has to defeat formidable rivals in his own party. Running against him are J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy—political figures with big names and even bigger pocketbooks. The third candidate is State Senator Daniel Biss, a favorite of some of the influential progressives in the city.
In an era when more and more progressives are entering politics, Pawar’s trajectory—and this next step in his career—might hold important lessons. Can this young alderman defeat rich, establishment candidates in a state where where money has always gone a long way? Can he woo downstate Illinois voters that supported Trump without losing his progressive base? And if he succeeds in becoming Illinois’ first Indian-American governor, can he actually fix the languishing state and the revive the city he lives in?
There’s no crystal ball to answer those questions, but it’s clear that just as in his previous races, the odds against his win stacked up high. CityLab caught up with Pawar to learn what he thinks about his prospects, and what issues and strategies he intends to focus on going forward.
Why do you think you’re in a unique position to speak to the rural-urban divide in Illinois?
I've been watching across the country over the last couple of years and people like Donald Trump and then Bruce Rauner—these very wealthy people—go around to majority white, poor communities and tell them that the reason why they don't get investment is because of “those people.” “Those people” means urban communities, minority communities, and refugees. These communities become “the other.”
That divide-and-rule tactic, where you pit people against one another based on where they live, based on what they do for a living, and race and class? That’s a tactic that's been used for millennia and there's no better example than what the British did in India [during colonial rule].
The British were few and wealthy and the Indians were many and divided by the British—based on where they lived, what they did for a living, caste, and religion. They ruled over a country for centuries by using these sort of social and economic divides.
My dad is 75 years old. He was born in India under British rule, he grew up in the aftermath in a very poor house. He lived off a ration. He didn't have access to electricity. He certainly didn't have the access to clean water, which is why he had typhoid as a little boy. He only grew up to be five-foot-two. And I grew up in Illinois, in this country, and I'm six feet tall because I had food to eat and medical care. So what I tell people is: “Look, I’ve seen what happens when you allow a demagogue to tell us we should be enemies.”
You’ve been going to various parts of the state. What are you hearing?
We're going to every single county. We're going to places that are bright red on the map, places that went 60-40 Trump. I was in Ottawa, Illinois, [recently]. Donald Trump has got 60 percent of the vote there. Unless you live in a few enclaves outside of the city of Chicago, every single community that we visit is saying the same thing: The billionaires are all getting ahead and the rest of us are suffering and falling behind. And the only way to solve that problem is to look at what most people want: They want a solid school system for their families. People want childcare options, so that having a child doesn't put someone out of work, having a child doesn't condemn you to poverty. Every family wants a solid job and they want to be able to get into the middle class and move towards the American Dream. And every family—black, white, and brown—doesn't want to end up in jail.
The whole nation was shocked by the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting, and the mayor has been criticized for how he handled it. Now, three of the Chicago cops have been charged, among other things, with falsifying details of the encounter. What are your plans to ensure better police accountability?
Well, one part of what we want to do is rebuild trust between police and communities. That means that we need greater diversity in our police force. And when there are deaths resulting from police shooting, a special prosecutor should be appointed. In many instances, we create reparations to address torture, like we did in the case of John Burge. There are communities where we need to make amends and we need to actually apologize for police brutality of the past so that we can start rebuilding those relationships going forward.
Look, everyone wants to have a good relationship with the police department, but they also want to make sure that they’re not targeted by the police department simply because they’re a person of color. And that means we need to double down on training for police departments. We need to make sure the police department of has social workers on staff. We need to invest in social services and mental health services because, frankly, the police departments are ending up responding to the failures of government in other areas.
In Chicago, I'm more than disappointed that Mayor Emanuel is moving away from a federal oversight. The Chicago Police Department needs federal oversight so that we can make sure that the policies and procedures that need to change, actually do. We need to make sure we don't end up with another case with one Laquan McDonald or another John Burge, and that can only be achieved through a federal monitor.
We're talking about a federal judge appointing a monitor, and if the city does not follow through with the [Department of Justice] recommendations, the monitor can judge. We're removing politics in order to make some changes.
Let's talk about immigrants. A lot of the advocacy community is talking about the need to expand the meaning of “sanctuary city” to include ways to dismantle the deportation pipeline. What would you do?
I think we need to be careful about what kind of information we share with the Department of Homeland Security, because we have to protect our communities. Homeland Security is a serious issue, but information about people's immigration status shouldn’t be used against them to deport people. I don't believe any human being is illegal and never have. And I think if someone commits a crime and they're undocumented, well then, they should be punished for their crime not be separated from their family through deportation. As a state, we need to make sure that we're removing any policy or any language in our laws which funds the pipeline to deportation, because it's wrong and it's immoral.
The California legislature just approved a budget action which includes provisions forbidding municipalities from entering into new contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain suspected undocumented immigrants in local jails. Is that something that you foresee happening in Illinois, should you become governor?
Absolutely. As state governments, as cities, we shouldn't be in the business of breaking up families and deporting people. I will fully support any public policy that make sure that cities are not engaging or entering into agreements with ICE.
What’s your track record on affordable housing?
I was one of the lead sponsors of the ordinance in Chicago to preserve Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units. This is the type of affordable housing that is going away and we need to make sure that people have a place to lay their head at night. I also worked on the affordable requirements ordinance in the city of Chicago, which requires developers who get a zoning change to build larger buildings to require affordable housing onsite or to pay a fees.
In my ward, we will have built probably 300-plus units of affordable housing by the time I leave office, and a large chunk of that is low-income public housing in an area that is doing very well. There is backlash. People worry about what this means for their property values. The easiest way to respond to that is to say, “Look, if we're lucky, we all get grow old one day. If we're lucky enough to get there, we hope that there is some support system in place. And that's why we built this.” And so, we try to push back with rational conversation and try to untangle these sorts misperceptions about affordable housing.
Describe the infrastructure and public works plan that’s at the heart of your campaign. How might it might play out?
There needs to be a bridge between the jobs that are changing today to the jobs of tomorrow—in advanced manufacturing, clean technology and green energy. That's where a massive a public works program comes into play. We have massive disinvestment in our infrastructure—roads, bridges, schools, libraries, water and sewer systems. So now we have an opportunity to invest in the folks who might lose their jobs to automation. That's what we did through the original New Deal. That's what we're proposing today.
I'll give you specific example. In central Illinois, there's the Sangamon River—a major supply of drinking water for communities like Decatur and Bloomington. But if you're pregnant, you can't drink that water. So how do you grow the community if you can't drink the water? How do you make those communities tourist destinations?
We've been talking to water infrastructure professionals and they said if you built three water treatment plant and spend about three quarters of a billion dollar building them along the same river, you could create jobs for six to eight years. And now, you have the opportunity to grow the economy in those communities because now you've treated the water. They have the opportunity to drive tourism and that has a multiplier effect.
A lot of the things you’ve mentioned require money, and Illinois is broke. You plan to move away from austerity and toward a more progressive taxation to create new revenue. How do you intend to get support for this?
Illinois is one of the few states in the entire country that doesn’t have progressive taxation. We are broke on paper—but Illinois is home to a $7 billion economy. It’s the fifth largest economy in the country. And we spend dead last on education. How is that a strategy for growth? How do you get people to move here and stay here over the long term?
The reason why you want progressive taxation is that if you want to lift all boats—meaning invest in education equitably—you have to have a revenue stream that doesn't rely on that community's relative wealth. And so, if we continue relying on property taxes, then wealthy communities will continue spending what they need, and everyone else basically fights over scraps. And this is where we are today.
The only surest strategy for growth and is through progressive taxation—that creates stability. Over the long term, it reduces the tax burden on everybody. If we can grow them there is not upward pressure to constantly raise revenue. But if you have a shrinking tax base, well, then that's how we end up where we are today.
One of the other candidates, Daniel Biss, is running on a similar platform as you are, and has got some influential progressive backers in the city. There’s some critique in progressive circles that you didn’t work closely enough with the progressive caucus in the city council and have sided with Mayor Emanuel too much. Do you think these are fair critiques?
Look, I've never had any endorsements from anybody. I've never been endorsed in my first race or my second race, which I won with the biggest margin in the city.
I voted against the mayor on the parking meter deal. I voted against the Lucas Museum. I voted against digital billboards. I voted against speed cameras. I voted against charter school expansion. I fought the mayor on school closings. I can keep going. My question would be: what did I vote for that people didn’t like? Let’s have that conversation. I passed over a dozen pieces of legislation six years in my six years in office. So, what I can say is: find a better record.
But I do know that my shortcoming is that, often times, I work alone. So if the critique is that I haven't worked closely enough with the [progressive caucus] group. OK. That’s fair criticism—I'll take it.
What do you think your chances are at this point?
I think we're in a good place. I'm confident. My belief is that we're going to continue putting the spotlight on Bruce Rauner and his failings as a governor. We're going to continue talking about how he's dividing the state’s communities against each other. We're going to stay out of the scrum with these guys who’re focused on trying to create a narrative about themselves as the most progressive, the most populist, the biggest outsiders. I am who I am. I am comfortable in my own skin. I am a real record of getting things done. And I also own the mistakes that I made and that is what I would talk to voters about.