Editor's note: Alderman Ameya Pawar officially announced that he is running for Illinois governor in January 2017. Below is an interview conducted in Summer 2016.
I interviewed Ameya Pawar in his 47th Ward office this summer. The 36-year-old alderman, elected in the most unlikely 2011 result—he ran against a machine-backed candidate and had his campaign office in a bowling alley—has promised to limit himself to two terms. He easily won reelection last year, but in 2019, he’ll be looking for another job.
He readily admits that he’s fundraising and that he’s interested in replacing Rahm Emanuel—should the mayor decide not to seek a third term. If Rahm does run again, Pawar, born in Evanston to immigrants from India, says he won’t challenge him. He credits Rahm, his constituent, for helping him on many of his legislative accomplishments.
In his five years in City Council, Pawar counts among his successes the towing bill of rights, directing $40 million in TIF funds to schools and libraries in his ward, the licensing debt collectors ordinance, anti wage theft ordinance, and more.
Here’s an edited and much condensed transcript of our conversation.
Why are you raising money when you’ve ruled out a third term as alderman?
Just because I’m not going to run for alderman, I won’t rule out a run for higher office. What I’m not going to do is spend the next three years scheming for a higher office, any higher office. I think the problem with that is that you’re rooting for someone else’s failure so you can take their job. I’ve never run a negative campaign. I find it odd that the principle campaigns are run on is to destroy the other person; to make yourself look better by making the other person look bad.
When people are being nasty, it almost feels like high school. In many ways, what I find in politics—a lot of people who are just older versions of their high school selves.
On the subject of Rahm’s job, is that why you’re raising money? In case you decide to make that move?
When I interviewed Tom Dart a few months ago, he said he might run, whether or not Rahm runs. What about you, would you run against Rahm?
I want Rahm to be successful. A lot of what I’ve been able to pass is with his support, because he has worked with me. Paid sick leave, for example. If Rahm runs again, no, I’m not going to run. If it’s an open seat, yeah, I probably would throw my hat in the ring.
If a run for mayor doesn’t work out, could you see yourself running for a seat in Congress?
I don’t want to go to D.C. now, and I don’t know that I’d ever want to go because it doesn’t seem that anything gets done [there]. Also, I’d never run against Congresswoman Schakowsky or Congressman Quigley because they’ve been mentors to me. Congressman Quigley invited me to the State of the Union speech in 2014. He was trying to make a point about immigration reform and the contributions immigrants and their children make to the country. I’m a first-generation American, and I'm the first Asian American elected to major office here in Illinois, so he was trying to make that point, and also he’s just a nice guy.
Your parents came to the U.S. legally?
Yes, they are citizens.
What do they do?
My dad is retired from being an engineer and right now is home with our [five-month-old] baby. My mother works for the state. [Pawar’s wife is COO at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.]
Say you were suddenly plopped into the mayor’s chair—for some reason Rahm dropped out or took a job in D.C. Name one issue that is not being pursued and that you know in your heart and head should be?
What I think is missing in Chicago, and in every urban area, is the link between your neighborhood [K-8] schools, be they charter or [not], and the neighborhood high schools. Every neighborhood outside of an urban area, you build a K-12 structure; everybody goes to school together and economic development follows, and property values go up.
[In the city,] when you have great K-8 schools, as we do in my ward, people do anything they can to get into the community. So they move into my neighborhood for Bell [Elementary] for four to five years. And then they leave for a suburban high school, and that is the reason why we don’t see any year-over-year growth in Chicago in population. Sometimes we call it the waiting room for the suburbs. Right now, you start off with 100 kids in kindergarten and then 60, 70, 80 left. You can see outflow grade by grade. All those people are going to Highland Park or Evanston or Park Ridge. If you don’t grow the city, then Houston is going to overtake us [in population].
You make neighborhood schools and high schools the starting point for economic development in the city. That means investing heavily in them. And if that means raising taxes to plow massive amounts of resources into neighborhood schools and high schools, we do that. That’s the right thing to do.
Would you send your daughter to the neighborhood elementary school and high school?
Yes, we’re not going to put her through the kindergarten-gifted program; not going to put her through that. We’ll spend money on camps and music lessons and read to her. CPS as it stands now, has been turned it into a caste system.
Sounds like you’re saying that by competing for a seat in a selective enrollment high school, you’d be damaging her psychologically.
Selective enrollment does more damage to kids than helps them. There are all those kids that are vying to get in who are made to feel like failures in the eighth grade because they tested in the 94th percentile. I think love of learning is more healthy than a test score. And I think that is probably a better predictor than a test. One of the things I hear more often than not is the amount of kids that are in therapy because they’re stressed out. You can see the impact on the city.
I was a terrible student [at Maine East High School in Park Ridge]. I barely graduated from high school; but I always knew I was going to go to college and graduate school. I never felt like because I graduated at the near bottom of my class that I was not going to go to college. [He went to Missouri Valley College and then to grad school at IIT and the University of Chicago.] I was a little bit bored and I was just constantly in trouble. Doing poorly in high school never made me believe that my life was over.
For my dad, 60 years ago, one test determined the course of his life in India. Thirty years ago, he took us out of the city [to Des Plaines] because one test determined whether we could get into the right high school so we could get into the right college. I don’t look at my high school experience as a failure. I think I was street smart and I made a lot of dumb mistakes, but I think that also helps me in politics.
One more issue you’d pursue that’s not happening now?
We have to start a massive public works program—as a way to hire people.
Like the Works Progress Administration?
Yeah. You can’t be worrying about failing when you move on a program like that. If we use infrastructure as jobs program, who cares if there’s some stuff that goes wrong, or things aren’t exactly efficient.
Where does the money come to pay for it?
We will definitely have to raise taxes. I don’t believe we’re overtaxed in Illinois, in the city. I think we’re under taxed. It’s not about penalizing the rich; it’s just about making sure that government takes care of people across the spectrum, and that means that you’re funding social services adequately. The narrative is that if you keep asking government to do more with less—the neoliberal view—eventually you do less with less. If you have to do less with less it creates situations where politicians do things like sell off the parking meters because they want to deliver a baseline of service that people expect without raising taxes.
We have to move away from this idea that raising taxes incrementally is the wrong thing to do. Government costs money and you get the government you pay for. That’s the problem with running government like a business. In business you get your efficiency by any means necessary and you cut costs. You can’t do that in government. Want better government? You’ve got to pay for it. We are going to have to raise income taxes.
On top of the big increases we’re seeing in property taxes?
I think that if Chicago had a vision for comprehensive K-12 education, people would be OK paying more property taxes. [People] certainly pay a lot more in suburbs. Ours are a bargain, much lower.
Say you become mayor and Bruce Rauner is reelected governor. [In an earlier conversation, Pawar called Rauner “Trump Lite.”] How would you work with him?
I don’t know how to answer that because I just think that Bruce Rauner is a bad person. People like him frustrate me because they operate so far above government; they don’t need anything, so they don’t understand why normal people do. They can look the other way when you’ve got issues around child care subsidies or homeless services, basic safety-net stuff. I just don’t think they understand because they never experienced it.
Are you opposed to charter schools?
No. I don’t think it’s an either/or. I just think we need to stop opening new schools.
You have good charters in your ward?
We have no charters. We actually pushed back. I think we have the right number of schools.
More short term, what do you want to accomplish between now and Thanksgiving?
I’m working with the American Indian Center. We want to designate Columbus Day as Indigenous People Day. I also want to create an Office of Economic Opportunity. I’d like to add an enforcement arm for some of the social justice policies; enforcement for minimum wage, paid sick leave. We need voices of social justice looking at impact of public policy on poor people.
You’re not a member of the Progressive Caucus, or of any caucus for that matter. That seems to irritate some of your colleagues.
That’s politics. Are you accepted by this group, or will they allow you to carry this label? I’ll hold my record up against anybody on passing progressive legislation—independent budget office or paid sick leave or preserving [single-room occupancy housing].
At the same time, people were like, “You’re not one of us.” It doesn’t bother me. I went through high school once. I don’t want to do that again.