Alderman Ameya Pawar on Trump, Racism, and His Run for Governor

Ameya Pawar is a Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois, challenging incumbent Republican governor Bruce Rauner. Pawar currently serves as alderman of Chicago’s Forty-Seventh Ward, a position he has held since the 2011 municipal elections, and is the three-time recipient of the Chicago Reader’s “Best Alderman” Award. He is also an alumnus of the University of Chicago, where he earned two of his three advanced degrees. He spoke with the Gate’s Ridgley Knapp about effective government and his gubernatorial platform.

Gate: The gubernatorial election is in November 2018 and the primary is probably not for another year and a half. Why did you choose to announce your candidacy so early?

Alderman Ameya Pawar: There is almost nothing on Governor Rauner’s turnaround agenda that I agree with, because for the most part it’s driving down wages and cutting benefits. But Democrats must acknowledge that it is a bold agenda for his constituency and is a bold vision that he is articulating. To fight back, to fight for working people, is to propose a preventive counterbalance. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t like him, he’s a bad person, he’s harmful to the state.” People who are hurt by the loss of MAP grants, social service agencies, people who have been impacted by the lack of state budget—they know that. The question is, as Democrats, what our vision is going forward. It’s not about him anymore, it’s about our vision to help people around the state. That is what we should be talking about, and that’s why I jumped into the race early.

I understand that people will say that I’m a longshot because I can’t self-fund, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy around Illinois right now. It’s time to stake out a progressive stance, it’s time to stake out this vision and start selling it. It may be at the end of the day that I don’t win. I’m in it to win it, but I also recognize more importantly that if we’re to defeat Governor Rauner, vision is going to do it, not smear tactics.

Gate: Was your decision to jump in so early, then, partially due to Rauner’s ability to self-fund his campaign, as well as your need to increase name recognition?

Pawar: Of course. Winning an election is about name recognition and having a vision that aligns with what the people want. It’s having vision that creates name recognition. You can do that in other ways, by plastering your name all over, and that’s fine. It’s my job to go out and talk to people one on one. Go meet with groups of people, get around the state. Run a grassroots campaign. That’s the way it used to be done. It wasn’t that long ago when candidates running statewide used to go to coffee shops around the state in small diners, in people’s homes, share their vision. It’s only recently we’ve gotten to a place where everything has to be done on TV.

Gate: Why is a Chicago alderman the best person to represent and lead the entire state of Illinois? How do you plan on appealing to non-city voters?

Pawar: This isn’t about Chicago versus the rest of the state, or what office I currently hold. I live in Chicago. I live in the Forty-Seventh Ward, and I represent the Forty-Seventh Ward. I’m also an Illinoisan, and I understand that the success of downstate Illinois, of central and rural Illinois, translates into success for Chicago, and vice versa. We’re in this together. We have a governor who’s been spending the last few years pitting one part of the state against the other, one school against the next, all because he believes that if he can penalize one part of the state against the other, he can somehow destroy unions and drive down wages. I’m a Chicagoan, but I’m also an Illinoisan, and the interconnectedness between all of us is what I’m interested in. The fact is that if you help downstate Illinois rebuild infrastructure, that translates into economic development in Chicago. We’re one state. It’s about time we started acting like it.

Gate: Trump recently tweeted, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on” he will “send in the Feds.” Do you have a response?

Pawar: If he wants to send in federal dollars to create jobs, decrease poverty, for universal childcare, for affordable housing, let’s talk! Quite frankly, the reason why we’ve seen a surge in violence is that we’ve defunded social services and mental health services from the state. So let’s not forget that happens when you chip away at the social safety net, in this case start gutting it. Look at another thing, Professor Heckman’s work at the University of Chicago. For every dollar you spend in early childhood education, you save eight dollars elsewhere, primarily from the criminal justice system. Don’t think you’re not going to see crime or negative things happening in places when you gut social services. That is another thing I’d tell the president: if you’re truly interested in helping big and small cities deal with crime, look at the root causes.

Gate: The president is said to be on the verge of a funding cut to “sanctuary cities.” What is your view on this change to the long-standing federal funding of Chicago?

Pawar: It’s important to recognize that what President Trump and Governor Rauner are doing is a common tactic used by leaders throughout history to pit people against one another. Pit people against one another by class, by race, so nothing at the top changes. That’s how income inequality is self-perpetuating. We have a system where more wealth and resources go to the top because we’re always fighting at the bottom. I say all of this because President Trump is clearly trying to divide cities by saying, “Well, I’d like to help you rebuild your cities, but only if you help me get rid of all these people I don’t like because of my own xenophobia or Islamophobia.” We have to fight, we have to unite, we have to resist. I’m not going to get into a debate with a demagogue and split ourselves even more off at the bottom.

Gate: Another major issue both in the new presidential administration and at the state level is the the looming specter of voter fraud. Trump has called for a massive investigation of voter fraud on Twitter, and Rauner recently vetoed a bill that would have created automatic voter registration in Illinois, claiming that it would “open the door to voter fraud.” Do you think voter fraud is an issue, and would you, as governor, support an automatic voter registration system?

Pawar: I support automatic voter registration, like former President Obama. We are the only civilized country, [the only] modern democracy, that’s trying to make it harder for people to vote. Automatic voter registration paired with this narrative that there is a lot of people voting fraudulently is a longstanding tactic by a few people in the Republican Party over the last forty years to suppress minority votes. To suppress the votes of people who look like me. When you look around the country at election time, at poor communities, white, black, and brown communities, you see that people stand in line because they are proud to exercise their civic duty. People take time off of work to go vote, to stand in line. Do we really believe that that many people around the country, who look like me, take a day off of work, stand in line, just to commit fraud? That’s such a ludicrous argument, and we should just call it for what it is. It’s racist. It’s a racist position to be against automatic voter registration.

Gate: As an alderman, you have a record of bringing accountability to elected officials. How would you work to bring this level of accountability to the governor’s mansion?

Pawar: Accountability is important, but the narrative around government has to change, too. Public service isn’t a pejorative. Public service, to paraphrase Barney Frank, is just the things that we do together, for one another to take care of one another. If we continue to demonize public institutions and continue the narrative that erodes public confidence in public service, we’re going to keep getting people running for office who hate government, like Bruce Rauner. There was a time in this country, starting with the New Deal and continuing through the Great Society, where government was seen as a force for good. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t bad things associated with government. We enforced Jim Crow. There were also times where we were able to use the New Deal to help the middle class thrive. We were able to create Medicaid as a result of the Great Society. Government is an instrument for good, because government is people. When we’re talking about accountability, you want to elect people who believe in the power of government to help all people. If we start there, that’s the ultimate level of accountability. It’s holding ourselves accountable. We should hold ourselves accountable to the narrative we perpetuate around government. All of the ethics things, they’re important, and we’ll continue working on those issues, but if we want good government, we have to recognize that the answer to bad government is not less government. It’s good government. That means you have to elect people who believe in good government, and people who believe in the power of government to help people.

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