Returning to Our Roots: An Interview with Ald. Ameya Pawar

 /  Jan. 20, 2019, 4:42 p.m.

ameya pawar

Ameya Pawar is the outgoing alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward and the first Asian-American on Chicago City Council. He first won office in 2011 and was re-elected in 2015, to the second term of his self-imposed two-term limit. Pawar ran for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Illinois for the 2018 election, but suspended his campaign in October of 2017 after it ran out of funding. Pawar is running for the office of treasurer of Chicago to succeed outgoing incumbent Kurt Summers. Pawar sat down with the Gate to discuss his political career and issues in Chicago politics. 

The Gate: In your successful campaign for alderman of the 47th Ward of Chicago, you wanted to unseat a well known incumbent. Why did you choose to run for the office of alderman, and why at that time in particular?

Ameya Pawar: I never made a decision about unseating a specific person, and I didn’t move to the 47th Ward because I wanted to run against my predecessor. I just lived there. It’s a community that I love. I ran for local office because of my work and research around disaster and poverty. One of the things I found was that there is this narrative embedded in public policy that some people deserve more than others, and that is experienced most acutely at the local level. So I thought: what is the best way to build more resilient communities? I thought local government is the solution. We have a saying in disaster management, “All response is local.” I think all public policy starts locally and you can effect the greatest amount of change at the local level.

Gate: What has surprised you the most about being an alderman? 

AP: I think the politics is not that different from any other job. It’s relational and it’s understanding how to build coalitions and how to bring people along. Sometime you have to cut deals to do that. I think we’ve gone away from this idea that politics is no different than most jobs except for the fact that these jobs play out in the paper and the media. One of the things I think that I’ve learned is how to take on big issues, figure out where the interest groups are, where the advocates are, where the opposition is, and work really hard to carve out a path that gets something done.

Gate: How has your identity as a first-generation South Asian-American impacted your worldview and the policy positions you hold? 

AP: I was the first Asian-American, Indian-American elected to the Chicago City Council. I was incredibly proud, but I also recognized early on that I was standing on the shoulders of people who made that possible. I also represent a community that is almost 90 percent white and that doesn’t have a large South Asian, Indian-American base. I recognize that I have a job of figuring out how to represent a broad Asian-American community while at the same time representing my community. Those things don’t have to be at odds with one another. I think I have been able to show that this isn’t an either-or, that I don’t have to simply run on identity politics, that I can do both. More and more people are showing and proving that as they run for office.

Gate: You represent upper-middle-class white Chicagoans. The policies you advocate for, however, are to improve the lives of struggling citizens, mostly on the South and West Sides of the city. Do you ever feel cognitive dissonance between the constituency you represent and the ones you are advocating for? 

AP: My focus and academic work has always been around social and economic justice. That’s how I’ve spent the majority of my time in City Council from the legislative perspective. I tend to think that one of the things I said on my campaign for governor and during my first campaign for alderman is, “We rise and fall together with our neighbors.” Attacking income inequality is the issue that I’ve worked on. To be perfectly honest, income inequality touches the upper-middle class as it does the working poor, in different ways. I think many people in my community feel just as concerned, like they’re hanging on because of students loans, the cost of childcare, and the cost of housing. They’re hanging on in many ways that people up and down the spectrum are. What I've been always trying to do is figure out how to build a coalition of people from the working poor through the middle and upper-middle class because if you build that coalition, we can tackle income inequality in one big swoop.

Gate: Let’s say I give you a map of the City of Chicago. You have to point to one spot on this map that represents the future of the city. Where would you point?

AP: The future of our city is its neighborhoods outside of the central business district (CBD). I don’t say that because I’m against the CBD. I think if we start making dramatic investments in our neighborhoods around public transit, public schools, and public infrastructure, we would stem the outflow of working people and also continue to grow the city. 

Gate: What is one of the most undervalued issues in Chicago politics and policy?

AP: The question I think we need to be answering is what are we doing to prepare for the influx of wealthy folks over the next quarter century because of our proximity to water and making sure that poor people and the middle class can stay in the city. That's why we need to start thinking about making large investments in mass transit in the neighborhoods, whether that means expanding rail or bus rapid transit. It means dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing, but also making sure that we are being honest about how the confluence of student loans, the cost of childcare, and the cost of housing is driving birth rates or how it is making it really difficult for young people to make decisions about starting a family.

Gate: If you were given absolute authority to enact one policy change in Chicago what would it be? 

AP: I would launch a Chicago public bank. One of the things that we need to do is mobilize our dollars in the market so that we can start shaping a political economy that is focused on working people.

Gate: Now, I’ll throw topics at you and you can decide if they are overrated or underrated. You can expand on answers if you’d like.

First, the White Sox.

AP: Overrated.

Gate: An express train to O'Hare airport.

AP: Overrated.

Gate: Lincoln Park.

AP: Underrated.

Gate: Harold Washington. 

AP: Underrated.

Gate: The Cubs.

AP: The Ricketts are overrated.

Gate: Hyde Park.

AP: Underrated.

Gate: FDR.

AP: The New Deal should be what Democrats, up and down the ticket, should be running on. His ability to innovate and just say we need to go big on putting people back to work and supporting working families. Some policies are going to work and some aren’t is the kind of largess we need today because that is how we make a dramatic dent into reducing income inequality. I think he is underutilized in our political rhetoric. If the Democratic Party said we are going to create the 21st Century New Deal we wouldn't lose an election. It’s not just a slogan. People understand what it means when you are cutting a new deal between government and people. I think we need to do a better job of embracing what’s worked in the past instead of trying to use polls and message testing to figure out where we need to go. How about we just return to our roots.

Gate: Bus Rapid Transit.

AP: Underrated.

Gate: Tax Increment Financing.

AP: I think it is overrated and underrated. It’s underrated in the sense that over the last forty years states stopped passing capital bills. In Illinois we’ve just had a couple of capital bills in the past two decades and the federal government stopped providing urban areas with direct federal aid. It is overrated, because you’re capturing taxes based on geography, the places that are already doing well, that have tax-increment finance districts, are the places that are going to do better. It creates inequity. 

Gate: Transit Oriented Development.

AP: Underrated.

Gate: Finally, you have recently announced your campaign for treasurer of Chicago. You had previously made comments about running for mayor of Chicago should Rahm Emanuel choose to not seek re-election, which he has announced he would not. Why do you want to be Chicago’s next treasurer, and why did you not decide to run for mayor instead?

AP: I am always interested in positions that can help change the narrative among deserving and undeserving. When I ran for alderman people said, “Ameya, you’re not supposed to be a legislator. You’re supposed to be picking up garbage and making sure the streets get plowed.” And yeah, that is the job, but it’s also more than that. It is also to make sure that we’re working on city-wide policy that is driven from the Council and we did that. We showed people that the alderman’s job is more than just being a feudal lord. 

I think as treasurer we can build on the current work of Kurt Summers and leverage our public assets and public dollars to mobilizing values. Everyone's always talking about the Koch brothers and how big banks take their money and shape a political economy. They use their money to influence the powerful and use their wealth to influence public policy. What I’m saying is while they may be billionaires and using their dollars to influence what happens in government, we’re billionaires too if we are united in leveraging our public assets and our public dollars. And then what we invest in, who we invest in, where we invest our dollars is also a reflection of who we are as a people. Let’s shape a political economy that focuses on being a good steward of the environment and let’s invest in companies that treat their employees fairly. Let’s use our public dollars to influence the American economic system. I think we can do that. 

One of the jobs I think is to organize other treasurers from Great Lakes cities and create a strategy across the Midwest. Imagine what we could do to make the world a better place and still return for our taxpayers without costing them money. I think the treasurer is an incredibly powerful position and economic justice is something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve worked on it in the City Council and I think that this is a really good fit.

Zubair Merchant


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