So far, Ameya Pawar appears to be bucking the political system in the way he appoints staff, deals with ward construction projects and runs his ward office. Some say the freshman alderman is the new face of changing politics in Chicago.
He was the dark horse candidate in the 47th ward’s last election, and now 31-year-old Ald. Ameya Pawar is the first Asian American elected to the City Council, and currently the youngest.
He won nearly 51 percent of the vote in an upset, beating retiring Ald. Eugene Schulter’s hand-picked successor Tom O’Donnell; making Pawar alderman in a ward he’s only lived in for four years.
“We didn’t look at it like winning or losing. We thought we would build a good constituency around good public policy,” Pawar said. “If I won, great, and if I lost, if I got 500 votes or 1,000 votes, then that’s 1,000 people that care about a city in a certain way, that talks about operating as one city.”
Pawar says with about a third new faces in the City Council and a new mayor after more than two decades, Chicagoans were looking for change – but that’s not all.
“I think what people want is a voice and they want a role in how their tax dollars are spent,” said Pawar. “We have a lot of painful decisions to make, that I’m going to have to make over the next year. I think people want to have a say.”
Pawar, who grew up in Rogers Park, studied Public Administration at IIT and has Masters Degrees from the University of Chicago in Threat and Response Management and Social Service Administration. He spent nearly three years at his first job at Northwestern University’s Office of Emergency Management as a Program Assistant.
Pawar says his interest in politics peaked during the 2004 election season.
“I knew I wanted to get involved some way, whether it was in public policy or in the political realm, or some sort of combination,” he said. “I just didn’t know what, but I just continued to stay engaged in the political process.”
But it was on a trip back from overseas that Pawar came to the realization that he was going to run for alderman of the 47th ward.
“I was on the plane ride back from India, just finished a program with the U.S. Department of State in Jaipur, and I was watching over the summer what was happening with the budget situation and drawing down some of the parking meter money,” he said. “So, on the plane ride back, I thought what I can do is at least throw my hat in the ring and at least talk about passing a responsible budget, structuring service sustainability and equity.”
Part of that plan includes putting his money where his mouth is. Pawar recently announced that he would return nearly half of his aldermanic salary in the wake of the city’s budget crisis. Since it’s mandated by ordinance, he’s decided to take the pay cut in furlough days, thereby returning the remaining salary to the city’s general fund.
“Ameya gets it that being a politician is really about being a public servant first and foremost,” said colleague and 46th ward Ald. James Cappleman. “He understands that. He’s also someone who understands with working systems. So, if you’re willing to create real change, you work with and change real systems.”
Efficiency is part of that change. Even before taking office, Pawar developed an iPhone app called Chicago Works. It’s designed to streamline how Chicagoans report problems, make service requests and provide feedback to their aldermen. One of the features of the app includes a way to use GPS to report potholes.
At a recent open house at the ward office, Pawar was surrounded by constituents looking to hear his ideas and get familiar with their new political representative. In an effort to stimulate interest in locally created art, Pawar’s ward office doubles as a gallery where artists can display their work.
“If people come in for a parking permit and they like a piece of artwork, they can contact the artist,” he said. “All the artists are from the 47th ward and they can buy the work. Again, it’s not my space, it’s not my office. I’m just the current occupant, but this is their space and they’re paying for it, so they should be able to enjoy it.”
It seems fitting that his ward office is located inside what used to be an old jazz record store.
Ald. Pawar is still evaluating the feasibility of permitting the sidewalk outside the office as an outdoor café. His goal, he says, is to create an inviting environment for his constituents to bolster community involvement.
“We want to develop a ward council, basically replicating the ward council at the local level so that people would have a voice and a say in a way to inform my decisions,” he said.
Pawar is undoubtedly an idealist.
The Chicago Reader‘s recently published “Best of Chicago” issue included Ben Joravsky’s profile of Pawar under the headline: “Best Aldermen Whose Dreams Haven’t Yet Been Crushed.”
Joravsky points out some of Pawar’s lofty campaign proposals, such as his desire to eradicate Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which diverts hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes from the schools, parks and the county.
“It’s a broken system. What we need to understand is how good schools contribute to the overall well being of the community,” said Pawar. “We can see this in the 47th ward. But I see parents leaving. I see them moving for the suburbs when their kids get to high school. Let’s turn that incentivization model on its head and let’s incentivize schools to keep people in the city.”
And politically, Pawar finds himself in an interesting place. He represents Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s own ward – but he was not backed by him in the election.
“I think the only disappointment really was when the mayor backed Tom O’Donnell,” said Pawar. “Only because if you look at what the mayor was talking about during the campaign, in terms of open 311, TIF reform, getting more engagement from the community, we were saying sort of the same things, so that was a little disappointing.”
Though he was disappointed, Pawar says he’s moved forward and has had several meetings with Mayor Emanuel since taking office. He says he knows it’s not personal – just politics. And now, he says he’s focused on not only generating innovative ideas, but also putting them to work.