NORTH CENTER — Three years ago, voters in the 47th Ward elected Ameya Pawar as their alderman, handing the then 30-year-old upstart an improbable victory over the Chicago Machine.
"I’m hoping they’ll grant me the honor of serving them one more time," Pawar said, kicking off his official campaign for re-election in 2015.
As he prepares to run for a second term — which he has stated repeatedly will be his limit — Pawar finds himself in a far different position than during his first outing as a candidate.
An unknown in 2011, he now has one of the most recognizable faces in the ward.
"That's not something you ever prepare for," Pawar said of being approached at the grocery store or when dining out. "It’s like being on some reality show. You never know how to deal with it until it happens. That took some learning."
DNAinfo Radio chats with Patty Wetli about Ald. Ameya Pawar:
The flip side to being an incumbent: Pawar now has a record to run on, and defend.
Though he delivered on such promises as establishing a zoning advisory committee and implementing participatory budgeting, the quote that always comes back to haunt him is his vow to "blow up TIF."
As in "destroy" Tax Increment Financing.
Pawar has, in fact, used TIF liberally, which, apart from $3 million in TIF dollars spent on the Ravenswood Mariano's/LA Fitness development, has gone toward public projects, most notably $16.5 million for an addition to Coonley Elementary.
"They hang onto the 'blow up part' but forget I said, 'Let’s use TIF for schools,' and that’s what we’ve done," he said. "That’s a totally different reform. Before I took office there was talk of using TIF money to eminent domain Lincoln Square. That was how TIF money was used."
If there have been missteps, none of them have been significant enough yet to spur a rival or derail the alderman's bid for a second term, according to Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, former alderman and 47th Ward resident.
"I don't know that he's angered any major groups. He has pretty good support in the community, certainly more than he had when he ran initially," said Simpson.
"He seems to have grown in the job," said Simpson, who compared Pawar to U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-5th) as a "bit of a policy wonk."
Though not as aggressive as Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Pawar "takes stands where he has to; he's not a pure rubber stamp," Simpson said.
As Pawar looks ahead to the coming campaign, the alderman recently sat down with DNAinfo Chicago to talk about his priorities for a second term, challenges facing the ward, and his future, which may include a run for mayor at some point.
Focus on Building K-12 System
Education, specifically building a self-contained K-12 neighborhood school system for families in the 47th Ward, "is going to be the focus for the next year and the second term," said Pawar.
During his first term, Pawar and Grow 47 — a community-led initiative aimed at promoting quality neighborhood schools — centered much of their energy and efforts on the ward's elementary schools.
Bell and Coonley are now scheduled to open additions for the 2014 school year, a "Friends of" group was started at McPherson Elementary to support the school in terms of fundraising and community perception, and funding has been secured for outdoor campuses at Audubon, McPherson and Ravenswood.
"I think we're in a really good place with our elementary schools," said Pawar. "The goal now is to tie in the neighborhood high schools. Without the nine-through-12 piece, this doesn't work."
Chicago's current model, which places a premium on admittance to selective-enrollment high schools, is chasing too many families to the suburbs, according to Pawar.
"There’s not this pressure-cooker environment in the suburbs. Kids don’t have to get straight A's and perfect test scores and never miss a day of school to get into the right high school so they can go to the right college," he said. "That’s totally crazy. It’s insane. I just think the system is fundamentally flawed."
It's time to reform education reform, he said.
Referring to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Pawar said Duncan thinks "that if you have schools compete against one another, you end up with better results."
"There’s no reason for schools to compete against one another," said Pawar. "You shouldn’t pit them against one another because, by the way, in free markets, some win and some lose. And you can’t afford to have some lose because these are kids."
His philosophy: "Make neighborhood schools your priority. Anything you do with economic development, make your neighborhood school the starting point. I promise you will get better results that way."
A viable K-12 system means people can move into a neighborhood as young singles, raise their children and ultimately retire in the same community, which creates stability as well as economic and demographic diversity, he said.
"Everyone stands to gain," said Pawar.
The biggest challenge, he said, will be getting parents to take a serious look at Lake View and Amundsen high schools, which the 47th Ward's elementary schools feed into. (With the ward remap, official in spring 2015, Amundsen moved to Ald. O'Connor's 40th Ward.)
"What I would ask parents is look at Lake View High School and look at the suburban schools where you may move to, and I promise you there isn’t that big of a delta between the two schools," Pawar said.
Progressive Caucus and Rahm
"The excitement around someone young and new is great, but that’s just celebrity, and that only lasts for so long," he said. "When you have no record, they’re just going to say how great you are. And you’re never going to live up to any of those expectations."
His team of advisers — pals from high school and grad school — urged him to take some of that celebrity and convert it into substance. Pawar pushed for an independent budget office and an anti-wage theft ordinance, among others.
Legislating also meant cutting deals and making compromises. Contrary to what many of his supporters may have expected, Pawar opted not to join forces with City Council's Progressive Caucus, in large part because of his legislative leanings.
"You need 26 votes to pass something. We know the mayor can get his 26 votes all the time. But if it's an aldermanic-led initiative, you need to get 26 votes and you need to keep them," he said. "And so that means you have to have a good relationship with your colleagues and kind of cultivate them. And that means you can’t always be an absolutist."
Pawar said that he doesn't automatically dismiss Mayor Rahm Emanuel's ideas as "coming from a bad place."
"I see it as, 'What’s the right thing to do here?' And I’m fine with whatever comes of that," he said.
Day-to-Day vs. Big Picture
While Pawar expresseed passion about citywide issues, such as the independent budget office, his constituents are more often concerned with local problems, like the potholes outside their homes.
His office relies on about 60 volunteers — including many retirees — who answer phones in his ward office, relay 311 requests, and generally serve as the alderman's eyes and ears in the community. Staff routinely drives around the ward to prioritize projects like street repair, cross-referencing hot spots with an overlay map of planned city and utility work. There's no point in replacing a sidewalk if ComEd is about to tear up a block.
"We asked the Water Department to do as many water mains as possible because we also know there’s a lot of potholes. If you have a lot of water mains, that means the Water Department has to cover half the cost of resurfacing," Pawar explained.
Pawar credits his chief of staff, Jim Poole — one of four paid staffers — with having a "frightening" amount of knowledge about every nook and cranny of the ward, calling him "the guy behind the guy."
Managing development, both residential and commercial, in the ward's increasingly popular neighborhoods is also a challenge.
Where zoning changes are involved, Pawar has used his aldermanic privilege to turn away proposals from chain retailers in order to protect the community's small businesses.
"What we don't want to see are the types of chains that come in and price everybody else out," he said.
"There becomes a sort of natural tension between rents going up and businesses being able to survive, which is why again we go back to saying, support small business," Pawar said. "We all have to shop local; that’s key here, and I think people here in this community do an amazing job."
On the residential side, developments within the boundaries of Bell and Coonley schools are nonstarters if the proposal calls for anything above a two-bedroom unit — larger units being more likely to attract families.
"That isn’t great planning policy, but I don’t have another choice — I'm not going to stress the schools," he said.
Sights on Higher Office?
As the City Council's first Asian-American alderman — Pawar's parents emigrated from India in 1972 — Pawar represents not only the 47th Ward but also the Asian-American community.
Language access "is a huge issue," he said.
"Polish, Russian, Hindi, Urdu — the city needs to make sure that it can provide services in those languages, can take calls in those languages," he said.
His involvement in immigration reform earned him an invitation to this year's State of the Union Address as a guest of U.S. Rep. Quigley.
"He took me to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s pre-speech party, which was really cool. You walk in and every political person you’ve ever seen on TV is in that room. It was quite a sight," said Pawar. "I kind of just hung out in the corner and was just people-watching."
Does he have his sights set on Washington?
"No. I don’t think so," Pawar responded.
What about mayor of Chicago?
"Uhhh." Pause. "Maybe. Yeah, maybe."
Pawar said he likes being alderman because "You get to kind of be a city manager for part of the day and kind of look at how things run and make sure the nuts and bolts are working, and then you get to go and work on big-picture stuff."
"I think that it’s probably on a much bigger scale when you’re mayor," he said. "Being a chief executive you have the ability to influence sweeping legislation, major legislation and major reform. To me that's really interesting."
Pawar was quick to add that a mayoral run "wouldn't be anytime soon."
Simpson said he isn't sure Pawar has the cache to be viewed as a viable mayoral candidate.
"I don't see him that way, yet," Simpson said. "He would have to champion some issue that captures the public imagination, and he would have to get better at raising money."
Emanuel socked away $15 million in his campaign war chest for his successful mayoral run, Simpson noted, adding that "you have to have a political army."
Simpson said candidates need to "have to have a racial base usually." Pawar's position as a minority might help with Asian-Americans, but they represent less than 5 percent of the city's population, Simpson said.
Still, the next mayoral election in 2019 "is a long way off," Simpson said.